Right from the start, the Chinese company SNBC knew that turning down a huge contract due to a lack of resources wasn’t even an option. The management team turned the situation to their advantage by bringing TRUMPF on board to help them conjure up a fully automated Industry 4.0 factory in record time.
Winning several major contracts virtually simultaneously from a total of six key customers in the logistics sector – that’s clearly a cause for celebration in China just like anywhere else. But there was a lot of head-scratching to begin with at Shandong New Beiyang Information Technology Co., Ltd. (SNBC) – a Chinese company that specializes in ticket printers, scanners, banknote sorters and parcel lockers – because it was far from clear how they could get everything done. The contracts all involved the production of automated parcel lockers, and the jobs were due to run over a number of years. The company knew it didn’t have the in-house sheet metalworking capacity to manage it alone, and even getting all the local job shops involved wasn’t enough to solve the problem. Yet turning down the jobs wasn’t an option, so that left only one alternative: a new factory. “We were determined not to do the project by halves,” says Liu Bo, head of production at SNBC. “What we had in mind was a fully automated production facility – and we knew we needed top-notch expertise and absolute reliability to have any chance of getting the project finished on time. Those were two things that TRUMPF had demonstrated to us time and again, so we quickly agreed that working with TRUMPF was the best way forward.”
The clock’s ticking
Time was tight across the whole project right from the very start, so it was clear that multiple aspects would have to run in parallel. One of the conditions of getting the contract was that SNBC had to start producing the first batches of parcel lockers right away with whatever capacity it had available.
At the same time, SNBC placed an order with TRUMPF for eight new laser, punching and bending machines with automation interfaces for the new manufacturing facility. “We were determined not to be tripped up by long delivery times,” says Liu Bo. “And we knew that having the interfaces already prepared would save us time when it came to system integration.” At the same time, experts from SNBC, TRUMPF and Stopa were mulling over the layout of the production hall. Around half of the more than 7,600 square meters was earmarked for warehousing and fully automated sheet metal processing. The rest was set aside for a large laser welding area and a paint shop. Sonja Hilbig, TruConnect project manager, explains the challenges they faced: “SNBC had a very clear idea of how much production capacity it needed. Our job was to use their figures to work out how many machines and how much storage capacity that translated into.
As it turned out, the situation was impossible. To achieve the production capacity they wanted, there simply wouldn’t have been enough space for the warehouse, the machines and the logistics areas.” This accurate appraisal was based on factory machinery calculations made by TRUMPF experts at the same time as the planners were designing the production hall. Hilbig explains: “Based on the drawings of the parcel lockers, we analyzed every single part of the assembly. We analyzed what would be the most suitable technology, which machines would match the requirements, and which automation concepts would be the most effective.” The process took time, but Liu has no doubt it was worth it: “By discussing everything so thoroughly within the team, we ended up not just with concrete figures, but also a good gut feeling that things were on the right track.” TRUMPF’s suggestion to only implement half of the originally planned system in the first step turned out to be a good one. The 126-meter-long Stopa storage system with 360 storage locations and two storage and retrieval systems is linked up to multiple laser, punching and bending cells as well as the corresponding automation components. “Based on the layout and available space at the SNBC facility, it also made sense to convey the scrap skeletons back into the warehouse on the automated storage carts and then channel them out of the facility through the incoming goods area.” The warehouse is controlled by the TruTops Fab Storage module. This regulates the flow of materials through the production facility and keeps track of the warehouse inventory. That, in turn, ensures that each machine always has the right materials at the right time and that finished parts are consistently forwarded to the correct workstation. Transparency and reliability are assured thanks to clear inventory lists and standard reports on warehouse movements.
Searching for the master plan
The TRUMPF TruConnect experts also worked closely with the SNBC team when it came to designing the actual processes, says Hilbig: “People who have always worked in a manually controlled production environment can find it very challenging to make an ad hoc switch to fully automated production. We ran a lot of workshops to get the middle management team familiar with the new system, and we helped them set up processes that would work well in practice.” In automated manufacturing, it is crucial to ensure that each part navigates the production process as smoothly as possible. The machines and components connected to the Stopa storage system are the least of the problems, because they form a self-contained system that runs like clockwork. Complications arise when it comes to what are often referred to as ‘soft’ processes. For example, what happens to a part after it leaves a bending machine? How do you tell the paint shop or a manual workstation that the part is ready? And how do you forward the part to wherever it is supposed to go next, getting exactly the right quantities in the right place at the right time? “SNBC wanted everything to be fully automated right from the start,” says Sonja Hilbig. “We haven’t quite got that far yet but, thanks to our manufacturing execution system software TruTops Fab, everything is in place to allow us to gradually achieve that in the future.”
Keeping things flowing smoothly
TruTops Fab visualizes all the workstations and assigns jobs to them. If a job consists of eight steps, for example, TruTops Fab defines a corresponding work schedule. The current status and progress of each work schedule at each workstation can be easily accessed and clearly visualized. “We managed to incorporate a large number of the third-party technologies into TruTops Fab – in other words, making the corresponding operations part of the overall manufacturing process,” says Hilbig. “Even so, the user still has to manually choose when they want to start the painting process, or when to start riveting the parts, for example, and they also have to end the job manually.” But the other operations at SNBC are fully automated thanks to various different TruTops Fab modules. The TruTops Boost programming software provides an automated means of performing all the steps required to generate production programs, all in a single system. Meanwhile, the Quick Job module focuses on managing and controlling production jobs. Maximum transparency is assured thanks to the automatic notification of processing times, job status, and material consumption. The system also updates the status of all the machine jobs in real-time to ensure optimum capacity utilization. “Automation enabled us to increase our production capacity by around 20 percent,” says Liu. “And that reduced our employees’ workload to an even greater degree than we had expected.” The new SNBC manufacturing facility works in three shifts. “And with the new system we only need three machine operators a night,” says Liu. Throughout this process, the TruTops Monitor module acts as a reliable source of up-to-date information. It records all the machine data around the clock – including downtime, error messages and idle time – and sends it to the shift manager in real-time by email or SMS.
The final hurdle
Just before the first frost of fall 2016, heating was installed in the new production hall in Weihai – just in time for the TRUMPF technicians to start installing and commissioning the machines. That took a total of four-and-a-half months, and the SNBC managers took this as an opportunity to train their workforce. “The idea was to get the production line up and running as soon as the machines had been commissioned, so we wanted to be sure the operators were ready to start immediately,” says Liu. That represented another Herculean task for Sonja Hilbig: “SNBC hired a lot of new people and brought in some highly qualified staff, half of whom came straight from university. We spent two-and-a-half months training 20 SNBC employees in machine operation and programming at the TRUMPF training center in Taicang. During that period, they pre-programmed many of the parts for the various assemblies with the help of our application team.” By March 2017, the manufacturing facility in Weihai was up and running. Just as Liu Bo had hoped, everything had gone according to plan. And the success of the whole venture means that a follow-up project is already in the pipeline.”The system has only been running for nine months,” says Liu. “But we’re already reaching the limits of our capacity again, largely because our customers are so impressed by our expertise in producing what they need. It was definitely worth making this investment in our future, even though our first factory is just the start of our journey into the realm of Industry 4.0.”