The smart factory

I’ve been to hundreds of foundries and manufacturers over the past 20 years and one of the things I hear most is that the demise of the foundryman or artisan continues to be of concern. In the foundry industry it is said the art of pattern making has gone the way of the blacksmith. There is no doubt that pattern making is a skilled trait and learnt over years of first hand experience.

They say the same is happening with a machine operator or a toolmaker in companies that focus on metal removal. But are they really disappearing or has the accent of the particular skill changed, and the tools that are now available to the individual and company are worlds apart compared to when a blacksmith was still around?

These days individuals with trade skills and a strong work ethic are no longer considered an asset and are often left behind if they have not added value, or more importantly added other skills to their ‘worth’. This is particularly so if they have not embraced the IT or electronic age.

Available to the foundry industry are a whole host of tools and software that have become essential for a foundry to be successful in the production of high-quality castings. As customers demand that the lead-time for new components and products be as short as possible, foundries that can produce sound castings from the very start have a distinct advantage.

Computer-aided design (CAD) software has emerged as a great tool for shaping an idea into a product. There are a whole host of these available for engineers to make use of, as there are CNC programmes and CAM programmes. Machines, including foundry equipment, no longer have to operate at a snail’s pace. Every year they get faster and faster as engineers and designers get the working components to talk to each other and run more smoothly.

With the advent of simulation programmes, it is now possible to combine the elements of a good casting design into a general method that is fast, thorough and highly accurate. Simulation tools are having a significant impact on the manufacturing industry. Companies of all sizes are gaining considerable competitive advantages by leveraging the latest simulation tools to optimise their manufacturing processes, from design and manufacturing, research and development, to sales and marketing. With the ability to access simulation results from various manufacturing processes, and to couple multiple domains of physics, such as fatigue and thermal properties for example, simulation and virtual prototyping is playing an increasing role in today’s advanced engineering. Design verification using CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamic) and solidification analysis tools are also available.

Other software packages available today offer depth and breadth of function with a wide range of flexible facilities designed to meet the unique requirements of your company. Features of the software include production and scheduling, costing and estimating, pattern and tooling, shop floor data collection, sales and marketing and much more. And we are not even talking about the accounting packages that are also available.

Today the question is not if, but when companies need to start considering 3D printing. There is nothing better than designing real-life scenarios in order to gain the proper feedback on a design. By using 3D printing, manufacturers are able to cut out much of their secondary tooling processes, such as injection moulding, resin tooling, mould making, and soft tooling. This of course saves on costs and shortens the time to market dramatically.

Using all these tools and programmes that are now available results directly in a more accurate result than manual techniques, in a much shorter time period. This integrated approach reduces overall costs and lead times. It therefore goes without saying that the skilled worker is no longer what the skilled worker used to be. They have to embrace all these new technologies and programmes and add value to their employment otherwise they will become a ‘labourer’, looking for work outside the smart factory.