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Solving the Mystery of the Black Box at Great Lakes Industries

How Great Lakes Industries Reduced Downtime, Lowered Costs, Increased Capacity--and Achieved 30 Percent Growth with an Innovative Machine Control

In 1993, Great Lakes Industries of Jackson, Michigan took a chance on an unproven technology to solve its machine tool control problems. Three years later, the new technology had not only reduced machine downtime and repair costs, it had fueled a surge in manufacturing capacity that helped GLI achieve 30% growth.

That new technology is the OpenCNC control, the industry's first production-proven, software-based CNC machine tool control. Developed by Manufacturing Data Systems, Inc. of Ann Arbor, Michigan, OpenCNC software works with commercially available PC technology. The same can't be said for other controls. That's why OpenCNC is so valuable.

Taking Control with Software-Based Controls

Traditional machine controls are proprietary computers. When they go bad, a company has two options: buy an expensive new control or wait for the manufacturer's service technician to repair the outdated one. Companies continually suffer through downtime and high repair costs because their controls don't work, they're locked in a "black box"--and the manufacturer holds the key.

That's the dilemma GLI faced in 1993. The 36-year-old manufacturer of gears and sprockets for such companies as John Deere and CASE was struggling to keep pace with production demands. Unreliable controls were part of the problem. Don Werner, GLI's vice president and general manager, explains: "We had several machine tools that still made good parts, but they had obsolete controls. We couldn't afford new machines. But repair costs and downtime were major roadblocks to meeting our commitments."

Then GLI talked to MDSI. "We were intrigued by their concept of a software-based control," Werner recalls. "It seemed like a sensible solution to the problem of traditional controls--the mystery of the black box."

Quick Acceptance, Immediate Impact

In June 1993, GLI began retrofitting its first CNC lathe with OpenCNC software. The impact was almost immediate: downtime and repair costs dropped dramatically.

"Before OpenCNC, we'd get invoices of $3000 for control repair," Werner claims. "And repair costs are just the tip of the iceberg. We'd often lose three days when a control went bad. And after we fixed the control, we'd have to re-setup the machine, which added more scrap to the run. Then there's the hidden costs: my time calling customers to readjust schedules, the operators' time trying to find the problem. The costs go on and on."

When GLI started replacing obsolete controls with OpenCNC software, those costs began to disappear. "Today we've practically eliminated the need to purchase spare control parts," Werner observes. "We've had OpenCNC for over three years--and not one second of downtime because of the control. And we have 15 OpenCNC controls on machines that average 18 years of age."

Operators Start Asking for OpenCNC

The acceptance of OpenCNC software on the factory floor was just as enthusiastic as it was in the executive offices. "Our machinists accepted OpenCNC very quickly," reports John Sultini, a cell leader and 17-year veteran at GLI. "We were already comfortable with PC computers for our plant information systems. And OpenCNC relied on the same technology."

OpenCNC's operator-friendly interface also contributed to the control's quick acceptance--and a dramatic reduction in training time. "We found that we could train a new person on OpenCNC within an hour or two," Sultini remarks.

Another reason operators liked OpenCNC: reduced setup time. "With OpenCNC, operators no longer have to load tapes like they do with the older, memory-constrained controls," Sultini explains. "They just type in the name of the file they want and they're ready to go."

GLI's maintenance staff is also sold on OpenCNC. According to Supervisor Kelly Van Blaircum, the software's diagnostic tools are particularly helpful. "They're a major timesaver," he says. "You can run OpenCNC diagnostics while the machine is operating; you can't do that with traditional controls. And all the information you need for troubleshooting is on a single screen."

This makes it easier for operators to access information as well. "Before, we went from screen to screen with a toggle switch to get little bits of information," Sultini explains. "Now, you see everything at once. That lets you make quicker decisions and improve machine performance on the fly."

Machine Control Retrofits in Less Than 72 Hours

GLI's machinists constantly press Werner to get their machines retrofitted with OpenCNC software. "They've seen how quickly we can do retrofits now," states Werner.

How fast can GLI retrofit a machine with OpenCNC? "Today, if a machine goes down because of a control, we can do a retrofit in less than 72 hours with OpenCNC; our goal is 48 hours," says Van Blaircum. "Before, doing a retrofit meant contracting a systems integrator, spending tens of thousands of dollars and waiting for months."

One reason OpenCNC makes for such a fast retrofit: it's software that leverages off-the-shelf components. GLI has actually developed a "retrofit kit" that contains everything they need for a retrofit in a small suitcase-sized box. In the past, they'd need a refrigerator-sized cabinet to store the necessary equipment.

GLI is currently retrofitting three machines with OpenCNC--not enough for the machinists. "The operators in manufacturing cell E are really pushing for OpenCNC," Werner says. "They saw how fast we did a lathe across the aisle, and they said, 'What will it take to get that done here? If we have to get ahead of schedule, we'll do it.'"

Fueling a Surge in Manufacturing Capacity

Quick OpenCNC retrofits have had a big impact on the productivity of GLI's existing machines. They've had a bigger impact on the company's ability to add new machines. Werner explains: "OpenCNC enables us to go into the used equipment market, buy machines with obsolete controls, retrofit them and make them operational for a fraction of the cost of a new machine."

How small of a fraction? "We're installing equipment at one tenth its original cost," Werner states. "We're always on the lookout now for good deals on the used market. OpenCNC has changed our whole strategy for machinery. There are things that we had to go without in the past that we can now afford."

Case in point: GLI's new CNC gear hobbing machine. "We've looked at gear hobs for years, but new machines can cost a million dollars," Werner states. "Last year, we bought a used gear hobber that wasn't working because of a bad control for $50,000. After conversion to OpenCNC, we've been in production ever since."

A Rejuvenated Factory, New Machines--and a New Attitude

Reduced downtime. Lower repair costs. Increased productivity. Greater capacity. And 30% growth. By all measures, OpenCNC has been a tremendous success at GLI.

No wonder Werner has aggressive plans for expanding the use of OpenCNC. "We've already retrofitted 15 machines with OpenCNC—about half our CNC machines," he notes. "Within two years, we hope to double the number of new machines--including robots, welders and special machinery--operating with OpenCNC controls."

Not bad for a technology that GLI didn't know existed three years ago. "Everyone has openly embraced OpenCNC," Werner says. "We have a rejuvenated factory with new machines and a new attitude—and a lot of the credit for that goes to MDSI."