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Award-Winning Shop Offers 10 Tips For Digital Manufacturing Excellence

Category: Manufacturing Technology Feb 1, 2021

By Chuck Schroeder, IMTS Media Representative/Owner – Insight Marketing

Necessity is the mother of innovation, which is how the factory of the future took root in a Nebraska cornfield in 1996.

Scott Harms founded MetalQuest in his hometown of Hebron (pop. 1,511), located about 150 miles from Omaha. With skilled labor in limited supply, Harms knew his company needed to be an early adopter of digital manufacturing technologies. Today, the company serves as a benchmark for the industry’s best. Recognized by Modern Machine Shop magazine as a 2019 Top Shop Honoree, MetalQuest’s shop floor practices set it apart from any shop—in any town of any size anywhere in the world.

“We employ a high degree of robotics and automation, and we bring a lot of services to our customers that others don’t, such as supply chain management,” says Harms, now President of a 70-person, world-class operation.

“We were IIoT before IIoT existed,” adds Vice President Scott Volk. “Because we monitor, analyze, and act on data, it’s very easy for us to get 90-plus percent efficiency on a horizontal mill.”

MetalQuest provided IMTS Network team members with a tour of its facility and shared some of its best practices. Many solutions come from IMTS exhibitors—a show Harms has attended without fail since 1996.  Learn how MetalQuest stands out among the rest. 

1. The Digital Twin.
Early in 2020, MetalQuest acquired an INDEX MS40-8, an eight-spindle turning machine with 40 mm bar stock capacity, and implemented a digital twin, a one-to-one model of the company’s exact machine, right down to the serial number. Via software, what Harms and others experience on their computer mirrors what operators on the floor experience, but much more.

“I proved our setup, tested the tool paths, and digitally inspected the part in my office before cutting,” says Chad Oswald, the company’s Director of Engineering. “ We began production in March 2020, and [within weeks] we have already decimated our old production numbers. We ran 2,200 parts in 17 hours compared to 800 parts in 24 hours.”

Harms notes the digital twin because it enables him to train operators while the INDEX MS40-8 makes parts.

“We brought on another second shift person, and I did two three-hour training sessions without being interrupted or disrupting production,” he says. The digital twin also helps reduce inspection time because users can verify quality faster, and it supports the digital thread because it includes data from every step of the part fabrication process.

MetalQuest operates six Okuma 400 mm horizontal mills and a 600 mm Okuma HMC, all with efficiencies above 90 percent.

2. Machine Monitoring
MetalQuest started monitoring its CNC in 2002. At the time, the company used vertical machining centers (VMCs).

“We found out really quickly that VMCs are not very efficient,” says Volk. “On a good day with a good operator, we could maybe get in the 60 percent efficiency range with a vertical.” As a result, the company sold four VMCs and today uses six 400 mm and one 600 mm horizontal machining centers (HMCs), all from Okuma.

“Horizontal mills are phenomenally more efficient. Nowadays, it's very easy for us to get 90-plus percent efficiency on an HMC, and some of them run very close to 100 percent efficiency,” says Volk.

3. Automatic Pallet Changers
The root of the efficiency improvement between a VMC and an HMC is the ability to use an automatic pallet changer and tombstones from Advanced Machine & Engineering that fixture multiple parts. An automatic pallet changer puts a different tombstone into the machining area, and the operator changes parts on another tombstone in a dedicated loading area while the spindle runs.

4. Switch to MTConnect®
MetalQuest has 31 CNCs connected to its enterprise system via the MTConnect protocol. Volk began tracking MTConnect following an article in Modern Machine Shop. He was attracted to MTConnect because it is a free, open-source, cross-platform communication protocol that enables MetalQuest to connect any enabled device with its enterprise systems.

“We need people making decisions and not sitting behind a keyboard typing,” says Volk. “MTConnect allows us to automate processes that make it easier for people to immediately identify problems and make decisions. That’s exactly the direction we want for our company.”

5. Multitasking Robotic Cell
MetalQuest teams use IMTS as an opportunity to evaluate components for automated cells to reduce cost and increase efficiency.

This robotic cell eliminates the repetitive, boring task of assembling boxes.

As an example, one cell consists of two Okuma 2SP CNC lathes with dual gantries, three FANUC M-20iB robots, one FANUC LR-Mate robot, and an Okuma M460 vertical machining center. Automated steps include horizontal turning, moving via conveyor, demagnetization, text stamping, automated loading into the vertical machining center, dipping in rust preventative, moving for a 10-minute dry cycle, and boxing… and of course, the boxes are assembled robotically.

With this system, MetalQuest uses a single operator per shift to make 50,000 to 70,000 parts every month, winning a contract to keep parts made in Hebron instead of offshored.

6. Automated Load/Unload
Robots for loading and unloading are “really quite simple to install, and they’re the best way to achieve the highest level of machine uptime,” says Harms. “Through automation, we realize a 90 to 95 percent uptime” on three different CNC lathes that machine a component for a flow control valve. For a relatively minimal cost, the company gains machine uptime and eliminates repetitive tasks where an operator doesn’t add value.

7. Shop Floor CMMs
MetalQuest operators are responsible for their own part quality, but quality is not checked in isolation. MetalQuest connects its shop floor CMMs to its enterprise system so that the QA department can obtain real-time data.

“We’re merging all the data together—what’s going on at the CNC, what happened with inspection, and which operator was responsible,” says Volk. “It makes it easy to manage our quality system when the enterprise ties everything together.”

As an example, MetalQuest uses SPC data collected from the CMMs to make real-time corrections to its CNC machines.

“We’ve actually seen where an insert has been made incorrectly or a tool holder had a problem. Instead of running hundreds of parts, we were able to catch it in just a few parts and identify the exact cause of the problem through SPC analysis,” says Volk. “Also, every machine here uses tool life management, and SPC helps us determine the optimal time to change tools.”

8. Track Everything
The process starts with a matrix barcode tag for every bundle, box, and container that comes through the door. “I could tell you who did what, on what day, at what machine, at what location, on every part that we’re running to the shop,” says Volk.

9. Tool Presetter
To further increase productivity and accuracy, MetalQuest presets all quick-change tools with a Zoller presetter, which preform tool measurement independent of the cutting machine, eliminating the downtime caused by using feeler gauges and making test cuts. They also decrease waste because proper presetting produces 100 percent correct parts.

MetalQuest has integrated its Zoller tool presetters with its ERP system. “When our engineers create set-up sheets for new tooling, it automatically shows up in the presetter,” says Scott Volk.

“We integrate the Zoller presetter with our enterprise system,” says Volk. “When our engineers create setup sheets for new tooling, it automatically shows up in the presetter, so we’re communicating information digitally back and forth between devices without having to retype data.”

10. Variable-Based Programming
MetalQuest employs variable-based programming, notably parts that comprise a family with similar feature sets.

“We have a series of variables programmed, based directly off the print. By importing the print data, the CNC literally does the math to figure out what this part needs to be when it’s all said and done, including the right inserts and tools,” says Harms. “The advantage comes when you’re making a lot of different parts because you only have to keep track of one program. Let’s say we buy a new insert. Instead of having to edit every program for every part, variable-based programming lets us edit the cutting insert data in only one spot. The program then automatically populates the correct fields for any other part in the family.”

Common Sense
MetalQuest operators take immense pride in owning product quality and workstation productivity, keeping their workstation organized. However, the company has no formal program or rules. 

“We don’t call that kaizen—we call it common sense. That’s the culture we create, and it proves that we’re not just a typical job shop,” says Harms.

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