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The untended fab shop - can we achieve it?

Most technologies required for the computer-integrated, untended fabrication shop are already here and in use, says expert.

Twenty years from now, independent fab shops-those that cut, bend, and weld parts for OEMs-will use computers that are linked to customers' and suppliers' computers. Processes will be evaluated, materials chosen, quotes made, machine NC programs selected, materials handled, and parts fabricated, welded, and inspected-all with little or no human intervention.

That's the futuristic scenario described in a recent talk by Donald B Ewaldz, partner in Ingersoll Engineers Inc, Rockford, IL.

"It's real Flash Gordon stuff," he says. "If you use today's fab shop as a base, getting to this hypothetical shop of 2009 may seem light-years away instead of just 20 years.

"But the astonishing fact is that we can do most of it today, using today's proven technologies," he maintains. "What we really need is the imagination to take advantage of them. "

Everybody's networked

In his vision of the fab shop of the future, Ewaldz sees OEMs networked to their suppliers-fab shops and others-through widearea and metropolitan-area networks. When an OEM needs fabricated parts, he sends out an alphanumeric description of it to all suppliers known capable of producing it. Such knowledge resides in the buyer's database.

When a fab shop receives a query for a part, the shop's own computer systems analyze the specs and produce a proposal. First, a knowledgebased engineering system compares the part's functional requirements with a group technology (GT) database. Then the engineering system "fills in the blanks" in the part description, according to how the company's process capability can best make the part.

"This entire gamut of activity, from receiving a coded part specification to transmitting a proposal, takes less than 10 minutes!" says Ewaldz.

Enter the machines

If a fab shop receives an order to proceed, the shop's computers, machinery, and controls go into action. Process plans are retrieved and refined, and machine NC programs are written for the sheet stacker, cutout picker, parts-positioning and welding robots, and validation system.

Under guidance of the material control module, the shop's mechanical systems cut, weld, heat-treat, and test the weldment. When it has been pronounced acceptable, it goes to stations for packaging and labeling.

"Throughout this entire process, most work has been planned and executed without human involvement," says Ewaldz. "No parts were cut weeks ahead of time and then lost. No welder misread a blueprint and welded pieces upside down. Nothing went out of schedule because of personal preference, lack of information, or any other reason."

This all sounds great, but how realistic are expectations that it could happen? According to Ewaldz, most technologies needed to emplace and operate the computer-integrated fab shop of the future are now available (see graph). Some are more refined and suitable than others, however.

Networking, software for material control and business operations, and equipment and controls for inspection, metal processing, and material handling-these are quite advanced. But equipment and software for CAD, CAPP, process control programming, robotic systems, and vision inspection need further refinements before a pushbutton fab shop can be realized.

"We don't need to wait 20 years, though, or even 20 days," Ewaldz stresses. "We can't build a lightsout shop today, but we can form a tight link with our customer base, respond quickly to proposals, and define and control work as it progresses.

"Further, we can use automation to do most of the welding, measure work accurately, and store test data for later use. On the other hand, we still need people to flesh out product design, develop processes and control programs, and monitor welding. "

"That includes defining type of weld, preparation geometry, amount of penetration, and how the weld is to be installed," Ewaldz says. "Further, the engineering system will identify parts, raw materials, and process materials needed, and then compile a bill of material.

"Note that all this is done as part of manufacturing R&D," he adds. "The only place people are really needed is in R&D."

Using past experience

Next, a computer-aided process planning (CAPP) system goes to work, using several databases. A GT database looks at how similar geometries and requirements have been handled in the past, and tries to match those to present needs.

"If the GT database can fully define and describe process needs, it completes the work and downloads data to the next module," Ewaldz says. "If there are needs beyond the GT database's capability, the process database comes into play."

This module examines the part's unique features, and matches them against the company's process capabilities. If a solution isn't found, the computer calls for human assistance. A technician either corroborates the system's findings, or suggests how process needs can be met.

If the fab company can make a reasonable quote, other software modules come into play. A CAPP module selects or develops process control programs and run-times, and downloads these data to a materials module :

Upon receiving a query, this module first searches its own files for suitable materials. It also queries supplier files for material availability. "In this world of 2008," says Ewaldz, "the fab shop will be datalinked to its suppliers, just as it is linked to its customers."

Once material availability has been determined, the computer system adds process data to a scheduling program. This includes mathematical modeling capability, so the impact of additional work can be tested against current work loads.

A business system module then goes to work. It collects data from the engineering, CAPP, and material control modules, and computes a selling price. Three motives

Why work toward the untended, computer-integrated fab shop? According to Ewaldz, there are three strong motivators: A shrinking supply of skilled welders, a need for easier ways to do business, and competition.

"It's tough to get people who want to weld, and it's getting more expensive," he says. "It's also difficult to find people who have expertise in manufacturing technologies and business practices. Acquiring that expertise in the form of a computer database alleviates the situation. "

And then there's competition, from domestic companies as well as foreign. "Some US fabrication companies recognize the problem, and have themselves become tough competitors. Those that don't do this-well, there's always a choice. That choice may be, however, to go out of business."
COPYRIGHT 1989 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Quinlan, Joseph C.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Jan 1, 1989
Previous Article:Beyond CIM - what?
Next Article:Quick-change die handling.

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