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Tech Trends Have Real-World Effects for Metalcasting

Jan. 1, 2018
How are current technologies and IoT functions working for metalcasters right now?

As a leading global developer of metalcasting ERP software, B&L Information Systems staff visit with hundreds of foundries, diecasters, and investment casting firms every year, on location at the plant sites and at professional gatherings. In addition, the B&L staff works remotely to train and support metalcasters on various aspects of ERP technology. Lately these interactions are focusing on some of the information technology being harnessed by metalcasters, right now.

Trend 1. More display options — Because foundries, diecasters, and investment casting operations all rely on the Odyssey ERP system for real-time data, one area of concentration for B&L’s Technology Team is optimizing data gathering and selecting display options suitable for a shop floor, where heat, dust, and other factors can compromise performance. In the recent past, metalcasters focused on smaller, hand-held technology like mobiles for executives and hardened tablet-style devices for shop floors. The current trend is toward larger, display-style devices coupled with smaller, powerful computing technology. These set-ups are used on shop floors, in break rooms, and even as wall displays in executive offices.

Basically, using only a display monitor — either a large screen 60-in. TV or a standard 19-in. desk monitor — and a plug-in computing device, metalcasters are creating inexpensive solutions that are tough enough for the shop floor. Three technology pairings offer examples:

1) The Raspberry Pi is an inexpensive Linux computer that is smaller than a deck of playing cards.  It hooks into a display monitor via an HDMI cable and uses a browser to access the internet.  (Raspberry Pi also is Windows IoT Core-compatible.) This set-up allows the display to communicate with any browser-based software system, including Odyssey ERP.   Eck Industries Inc., Manitowoc, WI, uses this technology duo to collect and input shop floor data. 

2) The ASUS Chromebox is a Chrome-based, micro-computer that also hooks into a display monitor via an HDMI cable, and uses a browser to access the internet.  Any browser-based software can be accessed and displayed with this configuration of monitor and tough, low cost, micro-computer. Rochester Metal Products (Rochester, IN) is using this combo for shop-floor management.

3) The Intel Compute Stick is designed to be used in media center applications. Using a HDMI port, the Intel Compute Stick connects directly with a display monitor. The higher price tag of the Intel Compute Stick reflects the upgraded functionality that includes additional options such as running Windows programs either natively or directed back to a server as well as the option to run browser-based services (like Odyssey ERP) through the built-in Microsoft Edge or Internet Explorer browsers. The most common use of the Intel Compute Stick technology is to show dashboards or other graphic KPIs.

Trend 2. Harnessing the IoT — As B&L CEO Philip Laney has explained, the Cloud has powered the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT):

“You might think there is limited application for linking your manufacturing equipment, e.g. diecasting machines, moldmaking and coremaking machines, etc., but actually the ability to monitor activity, adjust set points, diagnose errors and fix (either by the machine supplier or the casting producer), creates a more immediate and cost-effective solution,” according to Laney. “Also, by coordinating these work centers in the Cloud, it is easier to establish interfaces for them with other cloud-based systems.

“For example,” he continued, “a diecasting machine-monitoring system in the Cloud would be very easy to interface with an ERP system in the Cloud, providing instantaneous awareness of shot count, good pieces, scrap pieces, etc., all with a simple Internet connection, at any time, from anywhere, with any device.”

This describes accurately what B&L is seeing now with the pairing of Odyssey Shop Floor Manager (browser-based ERP) with Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs.) Used in industrial control systems, PLCs are a common sight on the manufacturing shop floor. They are how very complex, large machinery is controlled and now are often connected to the internet, usually via Transmission Control Protocols (TCP.) By using that TCP internet connection (and a server/cloud combo running in the background to support and manage the data transfer), those pieces of equipment outfitted with PLCs can send information out to an MES or ERP using a local area network (LAN.) 

There are a growing number of metalcasters who use this technology pairing to extract data from their equipment PLCs directly into their Odyssey ERP, including Chicago White Metal Castings Inc. (Bensenville, IL) and Pace Industries Inc. (Fayetteville, AR.) This gives their staff real-time data on production tracking, which allows everyone to work from a single source of information.

LAN-based technology is not the only solution. Some facilities now include a secondary serial link, in addition to the TCP/LAN connection. Via that additional serial connection, the PLC for the machine and ERP software now can have two-way communication – basically harnessing the IoT through automation. This communication makes it possible for tasks to be completed within the integrated “loop” of the software and controller. 

For example, in addition to the data extraction from the machine (through the PLC) to the ERP system, now the ERP might provide information such as sending the PLC patterns that are stored in the ERP. This is a real-world example of putting technology to work to streamline the flow of data as well as to reduce the amount of time and number of errors commonly associated with manual data entry. And, this use demonstrates how ERP, and other software, is improving productivity on the shop floor.

These kinds of technology integrations will be mainstream soon. In a recent report, 62% of manufacturers noted that they are planning more shop floor automation due to the connectivity provided by the Cloud. The IoT is changing how manufacturing processes are planned and executed, creating more efficiency in how things are made. And B&L Information Systems is excited to be part of the future of metalcasting.