A Moment of Great Opportunity for Manufacturers (Part 2)

Jim King

(Recently Jim King was invited to be the Opening Keynote Speaker at the NTMA’s Engage 2020 virtual conference. Following are some of the highlights from his presentation, in Part 2 of this two-part series. If you haven’t seen Part 1, you can find it here.)

In my first article in this series, I shared my belief that today we exist in a moment of great opportunity for the manufacturing industry and I outlined ways shops can prepare to take full advantage. Today I’ll wrap up this discussion by covering steps 3 and 4 of this process.

Read about steps 1 and 2 here
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Step 3: Lean Out with Automation

When it comes to automation, once again we want to start small and keep it simple. You don’t need to engineer a complete work cell overnight, just look for an area where you can automate a repetitive task, or replace simple manual labor.

This can include things like bar feeders, pallet pools, flexible manufacturing systems, auto gauging, in-process gauging, conveyance and robots. You can devise a plan where you can make incremental investments over time that will steadily increase your efficiencies. Automation is higher cost and risk, however it is a now a proven technology with a multitude of important, often immediate, benefits:

  • Reduces direct labor costs
  • Improves spindle utilization
  • Increases consistency in your processes
  • Facilitates repeatable quality
  • Enables you to run unattended cells
  • ...and VERY importantly...
  • Reduces product cost

In today’s global economy all of us must find ways to be as lean as possible. Even simple automation, such as adding a bar feeder to your most complex cells, benefits companies which are willing to make the investment. If you have not tried automation at all, I encourage you to get started.

Step 4: Leverage Data to Rise Above the Rest

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Once you have your processes and production flow tight, then data can become a tool that allows for a clear picture of what’s happening in your shop. Keep in mind, connecting machine tools today is much simpler than it was a few years ago. The latest CNC controllers should now come standard with the ability to connect to the network and provide data to the enterprise.

MTConnect is a great way to connect your machine tools and has become an industry standard. Start small and connect your newest machine, and you’ll begin to see what’s happening on the shop floor in real time. As you progress through the data gathering cycle, and move to analytics, life becomes interesting.

Technologies like MTConnect can also allow you to connect legacy machines. This will allow visibility to your entire fleet of equipment. So you're aware, MTConnect is just one way of gaining access to your data. Okuma’s own Connect Plan (pictured above) is a robust solution, and there are others in the industry as well.

It can happen that shops initially feel crippled by a sudden onslaught of data, or become overwhelmed with no clear path forward. For this reason, I recommend choosing a small set of data to monitor at the beginning.

Similar to an ERP implementation, clear specifications and an understanding of expectations for the end zone are critical. Start small and expand your connectivity until you have a complete picture of what and how your plant is performing.

There are a great number of shops that have embraced the next level of efficiencies. One example is MetalQuest Unlimited, Inc. in Hebron, Nebraska, which has been honored as a Modern Machine Shop “Top Shop.” They are a technology-driven company dedicated to constantly improving their manufacturing processes. Their use of automation, communications, and lean operations has set them apart for a long time now.


MetalQuest, and many other companies like them, started with a commitment from the management team and then incrementally introduced new technology and innovation each year. Through this process they’ve discovered that data yields discoveries that help the organization rise to new heights in manufacturing efficiency and productivity. This kind of opportunity exists for all shops which embark on a journey to leverage their shop data.


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In summary, there are four key steps that will result in elevating your shop to the next level. Begin by establishing a baseline: take inventory, evaluate and assess. Then, find your pesky slow fat rabbits and take care of them. Once your processes are under control, get started with automation. Lastly, when you have a lean organization, begin to monitor and leverage your data.


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Keep in mind, you don’t have to go it alone in any of these processes. I encourage you to find good partners to work with, and I assure you they’ll be happy to help you along the way. It might be your builder, or distributor, tooling supplier or other shops going down a similar path. I know at Okuma, we welcome these kinds of calls, and I’m sure they will too.

The message for all of us is this: we have to start moving toward automation and utilizing data. This will NOT be optional for your shop; it’s inevitable. If you haven’t started, I have to tell you, you simply can’t delay any longer. The best way to move forward is – just find a way to get started. I hope the steps we’ve discussed will be helpful to your process.

About Jim King
Jim King is President and COO, Okuma America Corporation.
Connect with Jim on LinkedIn.

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