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ASNA overcomes shop-floor challenges
In a TED Talk, Geordie Rose, co-creator of the D-WAVE quantum computer, said, “Humans use tools to do things. If you give humans a new kind of tool, they can do things they couldn’t otherwise do—imagine the possibilities.”[ad:29747]
Rose was, of course, speaking of quantum computers, but that sentiment is just as relevant in manufacturing. When Alignment Services of North America (ASNA) began using laser trackers and 3D modeling software, the company and its customers began to discover how much more they could do with a 3D survey compared to precision optics.
“I’ve been with ASNA since April of 2014,” says Bill Dodd, ASNA tech and veteran 3D scanning technician. “We serve the paper industry and have offices in New Hampshire and Mississippi. Most of our work revolves around part replacement, new installation alignment, and catastrophic failure. If failure is due to an alignment issue, we need to correct it as soon as possible and get these guys back up and running because it can be thousands upon thousands of dollars lost while that machine is down. Up until recently, we did all this optically with a theodolite, scales, and precision levels. This was the industry standard for a long time.”
A theodolite is a precision optical instrument, in use since the 16th century, that measures angles in horizontal and vertical planes. During the second half of the 20th century, advances in optics technology and manufacturing quality made the theodolite the de facto tool of choice for aligning large machine rolls, gears, and motors—until the emergence of 3D laser tracker technology during the past few decades.
“One transit [theodolite] must be set up on a reference line, then you have to collimate to a second transit to read the part, whether roll, machine, or surface,” explains Dodd. “The third instrument is your precision level to measure the levelness of the part. Too often, there are line-of-sight issues because the transit must be parallel to the part. It becomes a challenge when you can’t physically get to the spot where you need to be, or the lighting is too poor to see. Spatial restrictions can mean multiple instrument moves to get all the necessary measurements.”
New tools are needed for the technicians tasked with alignment and survey duties to overcome the inherent limitations of optics.
“Our company’s co-owner, Chuck Williams, is very in touch with the customers, and he could see what the market was doing [with laser tracker technology],” says Dodd. “Chuck is very methodical when it comes to researching something, and he doesn’t buy something on a whim. Trackers were an investment that he looked at as, ‘Is it justifiable, will it pay for itself, and does it make sense for ASNA to invest in this technology?’ ASNA did invest, and we’ve seen how much customers like it. We know how accurate, reliable, and effective they are.”
One tracker that ASNA chose is the Vantage Laser Tracker from FARO Technologies, the world’s most trusted source for 3D measurement and imaging solutions. With 160 m (525 ft) of spherical working volume, the FARO Vantage has reinvented high-accuracy, large-volume measurement. The Vantage provides tremendous value in a complete laser-tracking solution that offers portability, accuracy, and great shop-floor durability.
“With the Vantage, we can survey multiple parts without moving the instrument,” says Dodd. “Not only does it provide the normal data, such as the squareness and levelness of the part, but we can also compare multiple parts to each other to see if there is a trend developing. Especially with new construction, these heavyweight machines tend to actually sink into the ground. So, one trend we see is the machine leaning over to one side. Another trend is a developing misalignment between parts like motors, gears, bearings, and rolls. Because we can capture measurements from multiple parts at once with the Vantage, we can determine if there’s misalignment between parts, wear of a particular part, or if the whole darn thing is leaning over.”
Entire roller systems sinking into the earth is definitely bad, but misaligned parts are no small thing, either; misalignment is going to cause premature wear and possibly catastrophic failure. No matter what industry you are in, machine failure due to misalignment and resulting wear is going to be expensive at the very least. At worst, employees could be injured or even killed.
“Another thing that reveals trends is the capability to track measurement over time,” says Dodd. “We can set up an equipment nest, or in survey terms, a monument where we affix a tracker mount to a fixed structure that doesn’t move, and come back periodically to compare current data to past data and see where trends are developing.
“This is where the Vantage and BuildIT software come in and make everything so much easier,” Dodd continues. “We’ve gone from using three instruments to just using the Vantage. We’re getting information faster, and we’re getting 3D information. With the Tracker and BuildIT, things have become so much easier, better, and more efficient.”
To maximize the capability of its FARO Tracker, ASNA chose BuildIT 3D metrology software.
“We invited all the leading software providers to demo their programs, and we went through each one extensively,” recalls Dodd. “They were all really good programs, but BuildIT seemed like the best fit for our primary use.”
BuildIT Desktop is a CAD-to-part inspection software that enables quick and easy dimensional verification of manufactured parts and assemblies for tool building, assembly, alignment, process automation, reverse engineering, and quality control. BuildIT’s advanced analysis and reporting capabilities combine measurement data to produce detailed graphical and textual reports that are used to quickly identify manufacturing and production trends. With both numerical and graphical feedback of real-time deviations, BuildIT allows users to position parts with micrometer accuracy for high-precision assembly and alignment applications.
“With the FARO Vantage, we’re able to take a 3D measurement of an entire segment of a machine, and the BuildIT software then allows us to relate everything we do to whatever point of reference or part the customer wants us to,” explains Dodd. “They may want to know where everything is, in terms of height, length, and elevation, relative to roller A. We’re able to do that much more efficiently and in a timely manner now. It almost seems like the FARO Tracker and BuildIT software were tailor-made for our industry.
“Our customers can look at the computer screens and see the data as we are gathering them,” says Dodd. “This ends up being more than just the tracker and the software—it translates to the customer trusting us more. We’re providing way more information than they anticipated. We’ll kind of see their eyebrows raise and a little light bulb go on above their heads. With the graphics of the BuildIT program, they’re able to see the data in such a way that they are able to understand what’s going on with their machines. We’re able to provide so much more critical information in less time, and our customer has the information right away. With optics, you have to collect your data, compose your data, apply some math to the data, and draw it all out by hand before it’s ever useful for the customer. Now BuildIT does it right there for you.”
Customers can see visually what is being explained verbally. FARO, coupled with BuildIT, make data timely and configurable so that customers and ASNA are co-creating new questions about their machines as systems, and new ways to use the technology to provide answers.
“You may have a customer that wants to know a measurement from point A to point B, and what’s the status of a certain part,” says Dodd. “Then distance from point C back to point A—after we are done with our scan. With so much information immediately available, we are able to do that. With the click of the mouse and a few key strokes, we can see reference points as relative to each other rather than to gravity; no need to recalibrate or set up in a different spot.
“The more we use it the more our customers see the benefit,” notes Dodd. “They are beginning to ask questions that we would not have been able to answer before. With BuildIT, it’s just the click of a mouse to change reference points or even provide diagonal measurements. We’re no longer bound by horizontal and vertical limitations. Not only can we show parts’ relation to each other, we can even provide data on parts themselves. We can tell not only if a roll is squared and level, but if it also has a flat spot. We couldn’t do that before. And it can all be done either right away as relevant information dictates, or later as new questions come up. Once the scan or survey is done, all the information is there.”
The flexibility of the BuildIT software is a bonus for all interested parties.
“Where reporting is concerned, we’re dealing with various kinds of people: frontline supervisors who are mainly interested in whether things are level and square, skewed, or maybe just broken,” says Dodd. “Then there’s the engineers, who really want the 3D data. With BuildIT we can export those data files in various formats; an IGS file, a STEP file, or a TSV file for Excel if they want to chart the data for themselves. In fact, we can even provide screen shots. We can leave all that information with the customer right away. On top of that, BuildIT offers a free downloadable viewer for companies to look at the survey data we provide.”
With this level of 3D survey technology comes a need for training and support in order to realize its full potential.
“I interacted with FARO a lot back when I worked in the shipbuilding industry,” explains Dodd. “FARO techs came out to us more than once and provided extensive training. They were also very accessible; we could always get in contact with someone for questions and advice.
“BuildIT is just exceptional with customer support, too,” he adds. “When you call some vendors, it’s automated, or you feel like you can’t get to talk to anybody. BuildIT is just the opposite. We’re on a first-name basis, and they actually call on us to see if we’re happy. Any suggestions we give them to make the software more effective, they’re keen to hear them. They can’t implement all of our suggestions, but sometimes they can and do. BuildIT sent their tech to us and gave us courses on using the software. The program itself is great, and their support is even better.”
“The more we use this and the more we expose the usage with customers, the more we’re experiencing an increased demand for it,” says Dodd. “People are looking to reinvest in their businesses. Currently, we’re looking at expanding and maybe opening an office out West to meet that demand. Even though we’re a smaller company, we’ve always prided ourselves on delivering highly accurate surveys and customer satisfaction. I know it sounds like a commercial, but we thrive on customer satisfaction, and we’re not going to leave a machine or a mill or anyplace unless they’re happy. The Vantage tracker and BuildIt software helps us be more effective in doing that. We are not only retaining customers, but gaining new ones specifically because of this technology. Our customer base is growing because of our tracker and software.”