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Finding the sweet spot for CNC machining data

There is no great art to masking shopfloor inefficiencies and poor productivity when order books are bulging: but, as anyone who machines precision engineering components for the oil and gas industry will know, the last decade has been a roller coaster ride of breath taking highs and lows.

It is when the downturn in the market bites, that the euphoria turns to anxiety as hidden inefficiencies are exposed and shop floor operations managers called to account. During the boom, it’s possible to explain away delays or cost overruns. But not during the drought. Then, every wasted hour, every long walk for a tooling part that should have been within arms’ reach, becomes the difference between profit and loss. In that climate, every time a highly skilled operative takes time out to help a less experienced colleague with a problem, valuable time drains away.

Like many manufacturers, those in the oil and gas industry, have used Covid as a time to put their shop floor operations under the microscope in search of a more consistent and predictable growth graph. But, to do that successfully, they first need reliable data to work with. And all too often that is the vital missing ingredient to creating a high quality, high performing workforce.

“It’s very easy to mask overruns when prices are high, but when you are having to fight for every order your times are critical because, when you have slashed your costs, any overrun hurts. It’s then that it becomes very apparent that you need to raise your game and data is the best way to do that,” says one of our oil and gas industry supply chain customers.

But knowing you need data, and knowing how to get it, are far from the same thing. The complexity, cost and very distant promise of a return on investment can be big deterrents against engaging the major ‘digital transformation’ players.

In part, this is because even the most innovative CNC machine shops  – and there are many of them, as innovating is essential to survival –- have a multitude of CNC machines on the shop floor. Some have controllers, some are legacy machines that have none, and very few talk the same language.

Extracting data from each machine across the typical shop floor has historically been an invasive, complex and expensive process. Which is why so many firms either abandon the quest on receipt of the first invoice or opt for a ‘tried and trusted’ low-tech solution such as Excel.

While the latter may be a familiar tool, busy target driven operations managers quickly discover that this is a labour intensive process  – when labour is a scarce resource – that can struggle to secure buy-in from shop floor operatives who see it as yet another piece of paper work they have to fill in, thus reducing the process to little more than a box-ticking exercise.

Somewhere between the marketing hype of ‘digital transformation journeys’ (usually accompanied by an image of a young woman touching a Matrix-like screen with her finger) and the blunt but dependable instrument of Excel there is a sweet spot behind all the chatter.

Find that sweet spot – where you only get the data you want, when you want it and with no distortions – and you will discover the digital equivalent of what Frederik Turner described in his landmark book The Art of Cutting Metals more than a century ago: a more efficient way of working.

Accurate, reliable, timely data enables you to cut through the shopfloor chatter – the well-rehearsed ‘excuses of day’ for stoppages and downtime. In many cases it will give an experienced Operations Manager the data to confirm something he or she has suspected for a long time, but never had the hard evidence to back up that gut feeling based in instinct, intuition and cold logic.

Or it could be a complete surprise: such as finding out that on-machine programming is causing stoppages as jobs become more complex; providing an Operations Manager with the ammunition needed to win the case for additional off machine programming resource.

In both these cases, data on its own is not the solution. It requires human intervention. The knowledge of a skilled operative and an experienced manager. Using data in these ways enables firms to become more productive which is crucial to jobbing CNC machine shops – especially in the oil and gas industry, where the shock waves in the market can be as powerful and destructive as the harsh environments in which their components will have to operate.

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