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The factory of the future

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by Alex Lawton

As manufacturers seek to reduce the number of suppliers they work with, they must look for opportunities to be more efficient at scale. Industry 4.0 offers some tantalizing opportunities to reduce costs and improve casting quality, on-time delivery and service levels.

The fourth industrial revolution – commonly called the “smart factory” or Industry 4.0 – is upon us. It weaves together multiple technologies that will revolutionize how manufacturers and their foundries coordinate and collaborate in the years ahead.

It will bundle today’s state-of-the-art technologies, such as additive manufacturing/3D printing, robo-molding, PLC controls, CAD/CAM and simulation capabilities with new technologies like smart sensors, big data, autonomous robots, and advanced simulations to create a manufacturing revolution. These developments will be many years and iterations in the making, but I believe the improvements will be very worthwhile to Lawton and our customers.

At The C.A. Lawton Co., we’re focused on serving our customers as a value-added supplier of iron castings. We’re always on the lookout to save them time, money and provide them with better-quality castings. Not surprisingly, information is a big part of that equation. That’s why we’re so hopeful about the possibilities and opportunities that Industry 4.0 will enable.

Here are some of the possibilities we see:

Closer coordination of casting orders across large organizations: We work with multiple locations and divisions of a growing number of global companies. Each of them communicates with Lawton, but often not with each other. This often leads to scheduling conflicts and delays.

For example, let’s say one division has ordered a set of castings to replenish its inventory – it’s not an urgent order. It’s first in the queue for production, even though a day later another division submits a rush order for a critical casting.

In a perfect world, casting orders should be harmonized between these divisions and the foundry so that we can make intelligent trade-offs in our production schedule. But with information currently trapped in our customers’ multiple legacy computer systems – sometimes even in Excel spreadsheets – this kind of coordination is almost impossible today.

Here’s another example: One division of a large company may be using Lawton for casting and machining, while another division may utilize an outside vendor for machining. If they had transparent, shared communication across divisions and with the foundry, they could coordinate their processes and save time and money. Industry 4.0 has the potential to help our customers be more efficient at scale.

In both examples, improved access to real-time information could help us improve our cycle times and be more agile when responding to changes. On-time delivery, cost, service level, and casting quality can all be improved with better, more detailed and up-to-date information.

Better quality castings: The more we know, the better we can optimize the part design and casting process to maximize quality. Today, conversations with engineers at our customers take place via phone and email. But it’s often a long process of back and forth communication, often with only limited information. Closer collaboration on a shared electronic platform could speed this process, enabling us to anticipate and to better accommodate changes and ultimately produce higher-quality castings.

Imagine if we had a way to collaborate in real time with our customers’ design engineers. If they could share their most up-to-date technical specifications and current revisions of casting, machining and assembly drawings with us, we could provide input on them earlier in their design process. In many cases, that could reduce the cost and improve the performance characteristics of their castings.

If we understand the final application of casting, we can suggest changes that can improve its manufacturability without limiting its durability and longevity in the field. Finally, if we understand the critical features of part designs, we can provide a higher level of quality assurance to our customers.

Improved logistics costs: Another way that improved order visibility can pay off is in reducing logistics costs. Today, to manage trucking costs, castings must be batched for delivery. This can often result in lengthy delays and significant expediting charges. Better planning and scheduling – enabled through improved, real-time communication with trucking firms – can help foundries to improve delivery timetables. It can also sharply reduce expediting charges and other associated costs.

Lawton’s commitment

As I’ve always said, my goal for Lawton is to be not just a source to our customers, but a valued resource. I’m excited about what the future will bring to our foundry and our customers. Why? Because the tools and technologies of Industry 4.0 have the potential to help us achieve our vision: To provide not only better castings but also a better buying and using experience. That may include higher levels of customer and technical service, greater responsiveness, faster cycle times, lower costs and other benefits.

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