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But I Don’t Want to Run a Software Company

30. April 2018 10:49

By: Randall S. Becker. Factory Automation Consultant. CBD of Central Ontario.

At IWF Atlanta 2016, we saw a virtual cornucopia of sparkling new hardware on the floor that made us all tremble with glee and panic at the same time. An increasing requirement to use these fantastic productivity assists is full-on automation. Sure, you could always do it by hand, and keep your factory small and rustic, but to really grow, you probably have already decided that automation is the thing. Even existing products, like edge banders, which are notoriously hands-on, are getting technology face lifts. That’s right, when you wear out your awesome five-year-old bander that did so much for you, you may find that the new one has a sparkling new screen on it, with network connectivity, automatic this, barcode that, and oh my goodness how are you going to use it, and don’t touch the screen with glue and solvent on those hands.

The advice in 2016 was, “Go hire your teenage kids because they know all about computers”. I’ve been a teenage kid, really. I swear. And back then, yes, I was a wunderkind, who could program up a storm on almost anything. But I am not normal or representative, then or now. Understanding how to use a smart phone or laptop is a lot different than running a CNC or bander. Here’s why, and what you might want to consider:

Running a CNC is more than hitting the green start button. The production side of your company, the factory, the part of your organization where the dust collection is so important, is about running the machines consistently and following the regular processes. That hasn’t changed much although the tools of the trade have become really complicated compared to even ten years ago. There’s a good chance you can teach existing staff how to use the automation. The number of steps required to run one of those machines is not that large, and it mostly comes down to lubrication and cleanliness. It is the development side of the shop that has really evolved to confound you – you may not be calling it that, yet.

The development side is where you are becoming a software company. The role of your designer/cutlister/CNC coder – you know, the kid you were supposed to hire – must understand how to get from an idea to a set of instructions that a big machine, which can do real damage, can understand. As a low-tech owner/craft-master, you could understand the tooling and techniques required to get from the idea in your idea to a set of instructions for people in the back. That kid should do the same thing, except there are no people in the back to talk to, there’s a laser, or router, or bander glue feed, or inventory robots. I don’t envy them – well, I do really because for me it’s a lot of fun -but they need to understand and embrace your entire business and understand the nuances of each tool. They are not using a computer, they are telling a computer how to control very expensive and potentially destructive tools.

The secret sauce is to be able to follow a development to production process that includes quality control and testing of components that are being sent to the factory. I’m pretty sure that I never heard most of those words when I was a kid. Software development processes are very similar to coming up with a new design for a table. You must make sure your designs are going to work before you send it into production and repeated exactly thousands of times – you don’t want to have to replace them all if a joint is cut badly or improperly fastened, exactly as told to the machinery, right? What I learned from being involved in factory automation is that you need to have a level of process maturity that comes with experience. You need the technology background, sure, but you also need to know the business. As the owner/manager, you need to have people who are know how to program your machines and can take direction to follow your manufacturing processes. That’s not a kid with a phone.

Learn more about this subject during Randall's session, "Managing Your Soft Assets - Advanced Manufacturing Processes for Managing Your CAD Component Designs and More" at the IWF 2018 Education Conference.


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