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Belinda Jones

Innovation

Producing World-Class CMMs in a Smart Factory

Reaping the benefits of manufacturing intelligence

Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2023 - 13:03

The worldwide pandemic presented unique challenges for every manufacturer in the United States. Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division was no exception. While its factory operations team has always pursued continuous improvement, the disruptions and slowdown related to the pandemic offered a transformative opportunity. The company’s operations team executed a major implementation of a Smart Factory Manager (SFM) platform and Parts Manager system to significantly enhance operational communication, granularity, and decision making in its operations. 

The company’s 58,000 sq ft manufacturing complex in Quonset Business Park (North Kingstown, RI) supports the production, assembly, calibration, and testing operations for extremely precise, multi-axis, tactile, and noncontact automated coordinate measurement machines (CMMs). The facility also serves as the main manufacturing center for fabricating critical machined components. These finely machined structures—machine ways and air bearings—serve as the principal axes of the measurement systems and are supplied to Hexagon factories worldwide. 

In the manufacturing industry, it’s common to see CMMs in every type of facility, from mom-and-pop shops to tier one aerospace factories. The CMM is used to precisely inspect and measure the 3D geometry and surface features of a physical part through contact and noncontact probing techniques. Hexagon happens to be an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that produces these high-accuracy CMMs. This factory produces all of the X-beams across the CMMs as well as the Z-Ram components for in-house use and export to China. All air bearings for use in the United States and global operations are produced at this facility. The factory workforce machines critical precision parts, fabricates and assembles complex mechanical and electrical components, and conducts rigid inspection and calibration of finished CMMs—all in one facility.  

Empowering workers through actionable data 

At the end of 2020, the Quonset Point factory implemented a brand-new, internally developed Manufacturing Execution System (MES), called Smart Factory Manager (SFM). After an extensive search of the market for similar products, the company decided to develop and implement a system of its own that leverages data intelligence to radically improve overall performance. Real-time data inform people and processes. SFM aids in executing and automating order entry, scheduling, resourcing, planning, and prioritizing customer shipments across multiple departments (COS, purchasing, materials planning, production, engineering, quality, and logistics) on one platform.  

Beyond data collection, the platform provides analysis, communication, and focused KPIs based on real-time information. Four months into the implementation, the factory had a 5-percent increase in on-time delivery while production levels ramped up 38 percent. Even more significantly, using the Smart Factory Manager reduced downtime by almost half during the first two months. The operations team’s enhanced ability, not only to see the issues but also predict when and where the issues would occur, enabled it to respond with resources and actions to effect change. 

Achievements don’t come without challenges when producing one of the planet’s most precise machines. These ranged from local and global supply-chain sources to a multigenerational workforce, training challenges, and staying on top of the company’s own technology. Maintaining quality, capacity, and redundancy in an ever-changing workforce, integrating rapid advancements in technology, and conducting tactical employee training build the foundation for success. 

Overcoming challenges is key to a world-class plant  

Like other manufacturers in the U.S., Hexagon experienced the retirement of a significant number of baby boomers with more than 30 years of experience. Recently, one quarter of its factory workforce had less than one year of experience; one half had less than three years of experience with the company. Overall, the head count had not changed significantly. But employee experience level had changed drastically. Other challenges, like changing product demand and integrating new technologies, are thorny issues for any production/assembly facility, even those with a very experienced workforce.

Case in point: the Quonset Point facility increased assembly production of CMMs by 38 percent within a 12-month period. It also increased production in machined parts by 54 percent within six months in reaction to rapidly changing demand. In order to maintain efficiency and quality, the QP factory implemented more products from its portfolio, including an automated statistical process control program, the Smart Factory Manager MES system, and interactive CNC probing within its machine tools. 

The three P’s: People, parts, and processes  

Over his many years in manufacturing, Steve Ilmrud, Hexagon’s VP of operations, has developed a management philosophy that he refers to as the Three P’s: people, parts, and processes. These factors play into the factory’s ability to assemble and ship the highest quality CMMs for on-time delivery. But that schedule can have dramatic swings, based on customer demand, with an uptick in the economy.  

People 

At Quonset Point, there are five generations of workforce with experience ranging from three months to 30 years. Experts with 35–40 years of expertise from the senior-level ranks have predictably retired during the last few years. More than any time in history, this labor diversity is even more pronounced in a manufacturing environment that’s complex but needs to provide flexibility so employees can grow with the company. That generational divide comes with the varying goals and aspirations of each employee. Retaining employees and keeping them on a career path that’s tied to the company is important. 

To stay on pace with assembling electromechanical equipment, the company had to proactively provide workforce cross-training. This approach means training employees on many small work tasks for many different parts, creating a much higher level of flexibility to meet assembly needs. The training enables the company to effectively move resources around when needed. It not only keeps work fresh for the employees, but also offers learning challenges. For example, machine-shop workers wanted to learn assembly-shop work, so they were trained and apprenticed by their peers. In general, the factory workforce can act as a team to address labor issues when they arise. This ownership keeps employees engaged and their days flexible.  

Implementing the Smart Factory Manager (SFM) platform delivered important employee touchpoints for better communications. Operators are enthusiastic and proactive. They don’t want to deal with breakdowns and downtime. Today, all employees on the factory floor use SFM Tablets, which provide work schedules that are synchronized with priorities, plus skill and availability of individuals down to the minute. With enhanced information accessibility, employees can look up inventory, quality issues, work instructions, and progress with a few touches of the tablet. The goal and execution has increased dissemination of information and allows targeted feedback from employees.  

Parts 

At the Quonset Point facility, the production team assembles global CMMs, two sizes of shop-floor (SF) CMMs, and the Optiv Vision System for North American customers. All of these products fall in the ultraprecise category for measurement applications. The global CMM alone has 56 different build configurations and is composed of 500–1,000 parts. Hundreds of these machines are produced in a single year. The two shop-floor CMMs have 10 variations each, and the Optiv vision system offers five different configurations. To get them assembled and out the door, exacting standards must be executed in process quality control and process verification. All products are certified to national and international standards ISO 10360 and B89 ASME. Beyond those standards, each customer can also have their own specifications to ensure the product is capable of performing to their individual requirements. 

With so many product lines and machine configurations, there can be supply chain strain. The situation is compounded with shifting business climates due to tariffs and other sourcing headaches. However, Hexagon is able to consistently maintain primary and secondary sources for continuity in the U.S. and abroad. Material planning is a key piece of the assembly puzzle, since the company wants to keep a minimal amount of materials and parts on hand, but enough to manage the lead time for customers. Working with supply chain partners to deliver just-in-time service enables Hexagon to manage inventory and ensure delivery dates to its customers. The company also maintains an extensive consigned inventory in collaboration with its supply chain.  

Processes 

Ilmrud says being open to changing processes to achieve better throughput has been key. Standardizing work and work instructions has created light at the end of the tunnel. The approach is to take the assembly process and break it down into simple steps that employees can quickly learn with in-house training sessions and mentorship. With smaller tasks, the team has operators with expertise on various assembly job functions, as opposed to a single person.  

Every manufacturer’s Achilles heel is implementing and upgrading technology while the team is focused on getting product out the door. In addition to the Smart Factory Manager and Parts Manager systems, the Hexagon facility is a technology test bed for its own groundbreaking product portfolio for continuous improvement. The team is focused on the digital thread using design and engineering software for simulation and analysis, production (CAM) software products, and quality software for inspection. The digital thread ultimately collects and coordinates data throughout the entire CMM design, manufacturing, and assembly process, and tracks product performance all the way to the customer site.

Staying resilient 

A key indicator of operational success is a manufacturer’s proactive response to a strong economy and the associated uptick in the flow of orders. But long-term success is realized by the manufacturer’s ability to invest in the long game—even when faced with a pandemic and supply chain roadblocks.

Ilmrud says, “We have always performed the basics very, very well. Our procedures are granularly defined, and we have built solid processes. Our factory team is building a highly complex product in a streamlined, standardized manner, which allows us to be flexible to customer and market demands. We have achieved all of this and more by embracing internal and external technologies to find more productivity and raise our data-driven operation to a whole new level.”

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About The Author

Belinda Jones’s picture

Belinda Jones

Belinda Jones is the founder and owner of HiTech Marketing LLC, in Westbrook, Connecticut. For more than a decade, Jones has written articles and commentaries about manufacturing, engineering, quality assurance, CAD/CAM/CAE applications, and other high-tech topics. She has extensive experience in marketing communications, technical sales, and applications engineering. Before joining the computer industry, she was a broadcast copywriter for four years. Jones holds degrees in fine arts and mechanical engineering, and studied cultural arts in Europe.