Companies in the valve and control products industry are responding to a confluence of forces that are changing the landscape of manufacturing.
Kevin Tinsley shares a commonly held fear in the manufacturing industry. “My nightmare is getting the phone call that somebody got hurt in our facility,” said Tinsley, senior vice president of Neles Global Operations. The company recently mitigated some of the risk by combining artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to perform high-pressure testing of its valves.
“High-pressure testing of valves can be dangerous if there is a casting or design failure,” said Tinsley. “We utilize robots equipped with cameras, as well as sniffing devices, to detect valve leakages. They can be programmed to perform this task effectively and—most importantly—safely.”
Neles partnered with an outside expert to design and build an explosion-proof enclosure, then purchased an OMRON Collaborative Robot and developed a sniffing program with the industrial automation company for high-pressure testing, such as helium tests. “It’s a great advancement in technology,” said Tinsley.
New technologies, such as robotics, are changing the face of manufacturing. In a survey of small and medium-sized manufacturers released in February by The Manufacturing Institute and BKD, more than 77% of respondents indicated they were making technological investments to achieve cost efficiencies in the production process, with 73.4% doing so to improve operational performance. And increasing automation is just one of a wide array of trends shaping the future of manufacturing.
FORCES OF CHANGE
“I see several forces driving changes in manufacturing,” said Tony Scacchitti, operations manager for AUMA Actuators Inc. “One obvious one is advance- ments in technology, but another is customer expectations. People want things more quickly, and they have quality and cost expectations. From year-to-year, those three expectations vary depending on the market. But they drive change.”
Another factor that affects manufacturing is the role of federal, state and local government. “Government intervention is forcing more sourcing of local content to meet new regulations and avoid costly tariffs,” said Tinsley. “Countries are looking to create manufacturing jobs and driving legislation to block pure imports.”
Manufacturing jobs—and finding qualified people to fill them—are also at the forefront of conversations about the industry’s future. “The demographics of our workforce are contributing to change,” said Bill Metz, vice president of operations and engineering for Richards Industrials. “We have a lot of people looking at retirement in the next four to 10 years and not enough young people coming into the business.”
Workforce challenges, technological advancements, customer demands, the regulatory landscape and more are leading manufacturers in the valve and control products industry to adapt. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at movements in three main areas: agile manufacturing, automation and digitalization.
A QUEST FOR AGILITY
Manufacturers are increasingly embrac- ing agile manufacturing to enhance their operations. Encompassing a broad range of strategies and tools, agile manufacturing is a methodology that stresses the importance of responding quickly to customer needs and unexpected changes in the marketplace. Agility is becoming a hallmark of successful manufacturing facilities and will continue to do so in the future.
When Scacchitti joined AUMA Actuators nearly a decade ago, the standard lead time for orders was six to eight weeks. When the company expanded into the oil and gas market, it had to make changes to meet that niche’s two- to three-week delivery expectations.
“We wholeheartedly embraced a made-to-order system and eliminated all batch processes in assembly areas,” said Scacchitti. “We had to realign our shop floor, move equipment and change our product and process flow.” Among the changes AUMA made recently was to eliminate the purchase of pre-assembled motors from its parent company in Germany and bring the assembly inhouse to turn products around faster.
By using a made-to-order system, Scacchitti said the company has decreased its lead times up to 270%. AUMA has also reduced waste. “With batch processing, you’re making com- ponents ahead of time. Materials may become obsolete or get recalled, so you end up with a lot of wasted products you can’t use,” he said.
A focus on cross-training helps Richards Industrials remain agile. “Almost all of our employees can do multiple tasks on multiple machines,” said Metz. “You can move them where the work is rather than moving the work to where they are. We have that flexibility throughout our machining and assembly areas.”
At Neles, shortened lead times are often driven by customers who are completing engineering work at the same time the supplier of flow control solutions is processing the purchase order. “This requires us to react quickly to changes to their purchase order and still try to keep their original promise date,” said Tinsley. One of the ways the company stays on track is by using a workflow system that records, tracks and reminds individuals of their to-do lists and due dates. A second tactic is the delayed differentiation strategy, which occurs on the production side.
“For certain industry segments, we produce a family of products that can later be differentiated into a specific end product, thereby reducing lead times,” said Tinsley. “We use a variety of strategies, from subassemblies stocked on the shelf to components that can be transformed into many different end-use items.”
ADVANCES IN AUTOMATION
A record 2.7 million industrial robots work in factories around the world, according to the International Federation of Robotics’ World Robotics Report 2020. That represents a worldwide increase of approximately 85% between 2014 and 2019. Despite the jump, the move to robotics and other automated systems isn’t a simple decision—or undertaking.
While Richards Industrials is invest- ing in automation, Metz admits it’s challenging for the company because it has a high mix of products that it produces in low volumes. “Automation can help us, but it’s much more difficult to do compared to a high-volume, low-mix environment,” he said. One area where automation makes sense is machining to help minimize changeover and setup.
In addition to using robotic arms for high-pressure testing, Neles also relies on them for measuring and data mining of critical valve dimensions. Advancements have moved the task from coordinated measuring machines housed in a control area to robotic measuring arm equipment on the manufacturing floor. The company has several Hexagon Romer Absolute Arms in its Massachusetts facility to validate critical parts.
“In the past, measuring all these parts was so time-consuming. We had almost a ‘hope strategy’—build it, take it apart, try something new, repeat,” said Tinsley. “Now we are trying to be more scientific. Collected data is compared to our drawing and historical data. We then run 3D models to see if we could have a stack-up dimension issue. This eliminates wasted valve assembly capacity, rework and damaging essential parts.”
Neles also developed a machine for lifting and turning large valves—some the size of cars—that Tinsley said resembles a PAC-MAN character. “We stick the valves in the jaws of the PAC-MAN, squeeze it down, and the machine turns it over,” he said. “So we avoid using chains and cranes and lifting with people underneath the valves.” It’s a win-win, increasing both efficiency and safety.
A COMMITMENT TO DIGITALIZATION
Like agile manufacturing and automation, digitalization can take on many forms. Simply put, it refers to the use of digital technologies to change busi- ness processes and models. Two of the tools gaining buzz recently throughout manufacturing are virtual/augmented reality and digital twinning, which means to create a virtual representation of a component, product or process to run simulations before it’s deployed. But they aren’t the only digital technologies impacting industry.
Last year, Richards Industrials won the Manufacturing Leadership Award from the National Association of Manufacturers for innovating the company’s shop floor with FORCAM’s manufacturing execution systems (MES) software. MES packages collect and analyze data on the status of equipment and tools, personnel availability, material buffer to potential bottlenecks, such as tool changes or equipment downtime due to delays in receiving materials. The company uses the information to “dig a little deeper and find opportunities to make changes in the process,” said Metz.
AUMA Actuators has completely digitized all functional testing requirements for its products, which are configured to meet each customer’s specific needs for movement, speed, torque and other requirements. The company digitized data from nearly 3 million customer drawings. The data now runs through a computer system, and products are tested on custom-built testing stations. “You plug in the electrical actuator, pick the job number and the system pulls up pre-digitized functional testing for that order,” said Scacchitti. “You push a button, and when the testing is done it tells you what’s working or what’s wrong.”
Neles has invested in advanced planning software to connect supply and demand data from all its factories, which helps resolve one of the key supply management issues in the valve industry—part forecasting. The large number of markets, applications and variants in product lines creates erratic tial for inventory buildup on site while having shortages in another facility,” he said.
PLANNING FOR CHANGE
It’s a challenge for manufacturing companies to keep an eye on daily business while also forecasting where the industry is headed. To remain up to date, Neles Global Operations relies on internal talent, help from its parent company and collaborations with external experts.
“The valve industry is a small niche. It isn’t as lucrative for technology developers as other industries,” said Tinsley. “Most of our ideas for new technologies come from in-house, then we go out, search for a partner and get them interested. It takes a lot of internal development, then strategic partnerships with others.”
New technologies are just the tip of the iceberg. Companies must make decisions about offshoring versus onshoring, supply chain management, fulfillment strategies, material advancements—the list goes on and on.
“Change is inevitable,” said Scacchitti. “And in manufacturing, change is necessary to remain competitive.”