Digital tools are playing an increasingly important role in manufacturing as a whole but, so far, shot blasting has received less attention. Wheelabrator is filling this gap with a stream of innovative new digital tools that help optimize abrasive consumption, energy use and maintenance activity. Built on the company’s Monitizer digital platform, this makes previously hard-to-find information instantly visible while being quick and easy to implement.
The company’s latest digital tool is called Machine Effectiveness. We talk to Frank Eiterig, Project Manager, Digital Products at Wheelabrator, about bringing digital insight to shot blasting and the significant benefits that this practical new tool delivers.
(?) MFN: Frank, could you start by reminding us about the thinking behind Wheelabrator’s use of digital in shot blasting?
(!) F. E.: Our goal is pretty simple: to make it easy for our customers to access and understand data from their shot blasting machines. Instead of having to go to the local machine display to view PLC data, you can see it in Monitizer’s web browser interface from anywhere in the world. Ultimately, this allows customers to look inside the black box that the shot blast process ordinarily still is, and use what they see to hugely improve the operation of the machine.
Customers can use that data in many different ways: to monitor and improve their process, cut costs, reduce wear and generally get more from the machine. Real time KPIs and dashboards show them immediately if a problem is developing so they can take the opportunity to fix it now. These tools are very user-friendly, you need little or no training and certainly there’s no need for an in-house digital specialist.
(?) MFN: Where have you focused your efforts so far?
(!) F. E.: We talked to our customers and reducing operating costs was their top priority, so our first three tools targeted media consumption, energy consumption and predictive maintenance. Using digital analysis and monitoring simply to reduce abrasive consumption can save thousands of Euros a year.
(?) MFN: What prompted you to develop this new Machine Effectiveness tool?
(!) F. E.: This was the next priority for our customers. At the moment, they can’t easily see when downtime or idle periods are happening, for how long and why. There’s a lot you can glean just from tracking a machine’s operating status over time, with insight that can show issues not just at the blast machine itself, but upstream and downstream from it. There might be loading and unloading delays, machine faults, unscheduled maintenance, operators taking unauthorized breaks and other issues.
To check on operations, they have to physically visit the production line, which wastes a lot of time. It also means they will react too late to any emerging problems that are preventable rather than fixing them immediately and minimising any losses. They also have no easy way to compare the efficiency of different product runs or shifts, and they end up having to build spreadsheets or even use paper-based methods.
(?) MFN: How is this information linked to Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) for a blast machine?
(!) F. E.: OEE typically combines three metrics – performance, availability and quality – and it’s a powerful way to highlight where you can improve production. An OEE of 100% would mean that you are only producing good parts at maximum speed without downtime but that is really a theoretical maximum. 85% OEE would be an excellent result.
This tool gives you two out of three of those metrics automatically – blast machine performance and availability. We can’t automatically measure scrap as quality control (QC) is not available from the blast machine PLC (and is usually a manual process), but you could certainly add QC data later to allow OEE to be calculated and displayed.
(?) MFN: Tell us more about the sort of data the Machine Effectiveness tool can supply.
(!) F. E.: Machine availability is the main focus and the tool shows the time of day for any downtime or production loss and how long it was, so you can track and compare the production effectiveness of individual product runs and shifts. Where production stops, you can look at the other KPIs to find out why.
For performance, Monitizer can display the cycle time. We’re currently working on combining this with a workpiece counter to display the exact output volume by hour, shift or other time period.
(?) MFN: Could you give us some examples of how it helps in different production settings?
(!) F. E.: A standalone spinner hanger machine that is blasting batches of components coming from multiple cells in an aluminium foundry is a different case to an in-line CT blast machine that, for example, is integrated with a DISA green sand moulding line to clean scale from iron castings.
If the moulding line stops, the blast machine might be working perfectly and the problem is elsewhere. For example, if parts are not being unloaded from the machine’s outfeed – maybe a conveyer belt is failing or there aren’t enough staff available to unload parts – then soon, the whole line will have to stop too. In the same way, if there are no castings coming in via the infeed, then our machine will be idling.
Machine Effectiveness shows if the machine has a technical fault and the status of its infeed and outfeed, so you can see if a problem is local or upstream or downstream. Where you have Monitizer monitoring an entire foundry line (and this is very common now), you can then check on the other machines’ data too.
(?) MFN: Will the tool tell you what the technical fault is?
(!) F. E.: Not at the moment, but we can easily add that information and, in fact, the next version will do exactly that. For now, you would just check the machine’s own display to find out if, for example, there’s a low level of blast media or no compressed air. The main point is that you know immediately when there is a problem.
(?) MFN: How does this information help improve production?
(!) F. E.: With a digital view of operations, you can see when there is a hold-up and start to find the reasons for any downtime. How did production go this morning? Were volumes as predicted? If not, when did production stop?
Often operators don’t pass on information to management. For example, if a failing motor triggers an alarm every two hours and stops the blast machine, the operator should alert maintenance. But if they just press the reset button, then that fault keeps reoccurring, causing more lost production. With Machine Effectiveness, managers will see the regular stoppages, investigate and make sure the machine is repaired.
It’s about making the process visible, so if operators constantly stop a machine because the outfeed is blocked, managers might assume it is a blast machine problem when in fact it is running perfectly and actually there’s just not enough packing boxes to load cleaned castings into.
(?) MFN: Can you slice and dice the data to show how different shifts performed over a week?
(!) F. E.: There are various visualization options, like the bar graph that shows each day’s production, split by normal operation, technical faults and outfeed occupied. You can compare the days and spot where the highest amount of lost time occurred and see why.
For example, the worst problems might happen on Mondays. Comparing the times of stoppages to the type of product being produced could indicate if it’s a specific product that is causing problems, or if the chart shows an increasing number of technical faults, you know you need to alert maintenance.
In Monitizer, you can choose the time period to view – by hour, shift, day and so on – and that applies to all the dashboards, so you can very easily compare different data to find the reasons for a stoppage. You can check the machine’s energy or media consumption or, if you have other machines connected, you can compare their data for that time period too.
(?) MFN: Is Machine Effectiveness currently live at a customer site?
(!) F. E.: We’ve been working with two pilot customers ahead of officially launching the product – a German tool manufacturer and a Spanish foundry – and, so far, their feedback is that it’s extremely useful in maximising production time and getting higher outputs.
Research we conducted for our energy-saving digital tool showed that reducing idle time on a roller-conveyor machine with eight 45kW blast wheels by one hour each day could cut €14,000 annually from energy costs alone. In fact, these two tools work well in combination to help optimize machine use per shift.
Increasing machine effectiveness and OEE is also beneficial for sustainability. Less wear and wasted energy means blasting each component will consume fewer resources and cause less pollution.
(?) MFN: How hard is it to implement this tool on a blast machine?
(!) F. E.: Like our other tools, it just needs the starter kit: a NoriGate, an internet connection and Monitizer cloud storage for the data. The key piece of equipment is the NoriGate, which collects data from the PLC and any auxiliary sensors, and sends it to Monitizer.
All our new machines can be equipped with NoriGates and we have standardized PLC code that makes the process of connecting legacy Wheelabrator machines very easy. In fact, NoriGates can collect data from almost any machine, whether it’s a DISA moulding line, a StrikoWestofen melting furnace or another vendor’s equipment.
(?) MFN: Are we going to see more digital tools coming from Wheelabrator?
(!) F. E.: Our customers’ priorities are to improve their process and reduce costs, so those are our priorities too. A new tool will arrive later this year that will show any blast machine errors and alarms in a lot more detail – the times they occurred, the top ten historical faults and so on. Further tools are certainly in the pipeline, for example, for specialist blast applications like peening.
I want to emphasize that Monitizer is a future-proof, expandable platform, so it delivers ever greater value as you collect extra data and extend it into other applications. With all your data in one place, Monitizer can become the “brain” of the company and be the single source of data that everyone trusts. Once you have the infrastructure in place to collect data and people are regularly using the system, there’s really no limit – digitally speaking – on where you can go with it.
(!) MFN: Frank – thank you for your time!
MFN would like to thank Frank Eiterig for this interview!
Wheelabrator Group GmbH
48629 Metelen, Germany
Tel. +49.2556.880, Fax +49.2556.88 150