NEPEAN – Generating productivity and customer satisfaction gains

Over the next five years, the Australian mining industry is set to increase its level of maintenance activity by nearly 60% as companies endeavour to maintain a competitive edge. As a sector, the mining space is particularly complex as businesses must navigate fluctuations in resource prices and availability, as well as the introduction of new technologies and automation processes.

Controlling costs throughout the entire mining product lifestyle across exploration, construction and operation to retirement is a challenge. As a result, mining businesses need to maintain control of their financial components, embracing technologies that enable a full view of equipment and operations to remain competitive and profitable.

One example is NEPEAN, Australia’s leading privately owned engineering, mining services and industrial manufacturing organisation, with operations in six continents and more than 1,200 employees. Founded in 1974, the company supplies mining equipment and fabrications to more than 65 countries and manufactures building products in Australia for the local construction industry.

Boosting efficiency by streamlining processes

Due to its expansive network, NEPEAN needed to streamline its reporting and business management processes to create efficiencies, increase profitability and strengthen competitive advantage. The company leveraged Pronto Software’s flagship enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution, Pronto Xi, to build a strong foundation for consolidation and insights. NEPEAN started using Pronto Xi in 1999; however, the company still opted to run much of its business on Excel spreadsheets. As a result, financial accounts took weeks to reconcile.

As a large and complex organisation with many different business units including mining, steel fabrication, machinery and construction, it was facing significant challenges when it came to managing and streamlining its operations. One of the major frustrations for the leadership team was that the company’s disparate systems made unified financial reporting and analysis challenging. This impeded the gathering of the critical business-wide insights that are needed to support strategic decision-making.

Inventory management was also a concern for the organisation. NEPEAN was often unable to tell customers if the item they wanted was in-stock and when delivery might take place.

Andrew Honnibal, CIO – Technology & People at NEPEAN, explains: “We realised that there were a range of issues in how we had set up and used Pronto Xi. Fundamentally it was a good solution, we just needed to find a way forward by integrating ERP, financials and reporting.”

Conveying a focus on efficiency and customer service

According to Honnibal, the decision to upgrade to the latest version of Pronto Xi was taken for several reasons, including the fact that employees found the system easy to use.

“For any new system, adoption rates are critical for success and this often depends on how quickly users can become confident and complete their key tasks,” he says. “I knew with Pronto Xi our employees would see a familiar tool they trusted.”

NEPEAN completely reimplemented its Pronto infrastructure, beginning with one of the more demanding units.

“A recent acquisition meant that our conveyor business expanded rapidly and we had to support about 65% more IT users,” Honnibal adds.

The upgrade to a later version of Pronto Xi and the integration of previously separate business entities delivered instant improvements.

“We were able to automatically report a P&L on a project-by-project basis, something that was not possible in the past,” says Honnibal. “This is significant because since the mining downturn in Australia margins have been tighter than ever. The real-time insight we receive from Pronto Xi enables us to ensure we do not deviate from plans and budgets, which helps us remain profitable, even with lower margins.”

NEPEAN’s building and infrastructure lintel business, Galintel, was the next to upgrade. This has enabled the business to respond rapidly to customers enquiries with accurate inventory availability, product lead times and quotes. NEPEAN also gained clear insight into the profitability of different stock keeping units (SKUs).

“We went from managing businesses using hundreds of error-prone spreadsheets to having a fully integrated system containing all pricing, materials and inventory in one system – Pronto Xi,” says Honnibal.

NEPEAN’s Weldlok business has also reported strong gains from the Pronto upgrade. Honnibal remarks: “We used to do monthly stocktakes in this area but we now do them annually and the last stocktake showed zero variance.”

The company has also benefited from improved Business Intelligence (BI): “We now have clear dashboards and can see all our open orders, and details show if we are on track to meet the commitments we have made to customers. The right people also receive alerts and can extract the information they need to identify trends and make better decisions for our business.

BI has also really helped NEPEAN with critical financial reporting after acquisitions.

“When we acquire a business, especially those offshore, we can now produce consolidated financial results from day one,” Honnibal comments. “It used to take us a week to do this and now we do it with a single button press. This is a tremendous time saving and of significant value to business leaders who require timely insight.”

In addition, NEPEAN utilises the Pronto Xi Payroll and HR module, and Honnibal notes that this is delivering significant benefits: “Most other Australian ERP providers do not offer payroll and it’s a great addition that Pronto provides. We are able to very efficiently bring timesheets straight across from the manufacturing module, improving project costing.”

“Overall, Pronto Xi gives NEPEAN measurable productivity and customer satisfaction gains, which is a phenomenal achievement as it directly impacts our revenue.”

Empowering mobile teams to seal the deal

Pronto Mobile CRM is another key feature of the upgrade, enabling NEPEAN’s field-based sales staff to better service customers with faster quotes, more accurate pricing and inventory information.

“Our sales teams can visit a customer, take an order and check to see, with absolute certainty, how much stock we have of that item,” says Honnibal. “They can then provide quick quotes, which are all automatically integrated back into the core Pronto system – reducing the chance of error. Shorter lead times and accuracy are critically important in our business. Pronto Xi enables us to give our customers reliable information, quickly, as it’s needed.”

NEPEAN chose a hybrid cloud infrastructure, and according to Honnibal this has given them an added layer of assurance.

“Having access to Pronto Cloud’s technical expertise to manage the server is important,” he says. “With Pronto Cloud monitoring and managing the machine, we know we have better uptime and faster results.

Today’s leading manufacturing companies operating in the mining sector need the ability to control their financial components and consolidate disparate business processes. Through access to real-time, actionable insights and a comprehensive inventory management process, companies like NEPEAN are enhancing productivity and boosting customer satisfaction. By deploying resources like Pronto Xi, businesses can enhance the scalability of their operations, and also leverage predictive monitoring and accurate financial reporting to support smarter business decision-making.

“Pronto Xi is an excellent solution, especially when it comes to managing the complexities of a business like ours,” concludes Honnibal. “Pronto does what it says it can do. The total cost of implementation is low, the ongoing costs are low – therefore the return on investment is very good.”

MFB Products – Upgrading for the future

As it approaches its half-century, Victorian manufacturer MFB Products is maintaining its competitive edge with the latest state-of-the-art sheet metal technology. By William Poole

MFB was established by Brian and Faye Bilston in April 1970, taking its name from Faye’s initials: Margaret Faye Bilston. While they remain involved in the business, these days they’ve largely handed the reins to their son David Bilston, now MFB’s Managing Director.

“They started the business 50 years ago, and the driver behind it was providing precision sheet metal for the electronics industry,” says David. “And that’s still basically how the business operates today. Our core business these days is data enclosures, but we still offer jobbing shop services.”

Over the years the company moved from site to site around Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, before settling at its current base in Wantirna in 2002. Today MFB employs 50 people, with a couple of staff running a sales office in Sydney and the remainder in Wantirna. Its main product range is in electronics enclosures, ranging from the cabinets widely utilised in data centres, to more rugged models for outdoor environments.

The company’s customer base is varied, encompassing the data electronics, communications and IT industries, as well as clients in defence and security, through to specialist engineers requiring radio frequency (RF)-shielded enclosures. Apart from occasional exports within the South Pacific region, MFB’s products are largely destined for the Australian market.

According to David, the business’ strength largely stems from its core product range of standard 19-inch rack technology. However, growing competition from China is increasingly pushing the company to seek new ways to differentiate itself.

“That’s forced us to kind of reset and focus on more specialised product,” he explains. “I love it when a customer comes and says ‘I want 500 of these’, but the reality is that doesn’t happen often enough. It’s more about the bespoke, specialised, customised option. Or a customer says: ‘I want that cabinet, but I want it wider, I want it higher, I want it deeper. I want it to do different things.’”

To meet those demands, MFB boasts a diverse array of capabilities. Most sheet metal processes can be performed in-house, in a workshop equipped with turret punches, press brakes and panel benders, plus five welding bays. The company can perform light engineering, inserting and finishing, with a dual powdercoat line and a batch oven for larger objects. Final assembly is further complemented by the capacity to even incorporate low-level wiring. All this means MFB can offer an extensive set of options to its customers.

“It’s much more specialised, and to do that we have a fairly sophisticated CAD design centre,” adds David. “Customers can come to us and say ‘Here’s our drawings’. They might just give us a sketch and we’ll develop something from that, there’s this process of discussion and finetuning, and then it goes into production.”

Underlining MFB’s capabilities are a growing list of certifications. The company is Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)-approved to supply Class B and Class C enclosures. It has also held ISO 9001 quality management accreditation since 1997, and earlier this year, it was accredited with ISO 14001, the international standard for effective environmental management.

“It’s new, something we’re still working our heads around, but it’ll extend further,” David adds. “It’s an important aspect to the business: our carbon footprint’s minimal, and we’re careful in how we manage our waste. When we tender for government work, or even commercial, they’re all looking for companies that can tick those boxes. As a preferred defence supplier, we are conscious of having the right accreditations to ensure we are a centre of excellence in everything we do. It gives peace of mind to our customers that we have good policies in place. It’s a feather in our cap to develop these systems in growing the business. We want to be seen as an innovative, smart business – and a relevant business at that. So, this is very important to our operation.”

Crucial in making all this possible is MFB’s 6,000sqm purpose-built facility in Wantirna. Designed with a clear, coherent sense of the company’s processes, the factory has an open layout that minimises congestion and bottlenecks while maximising productivity and efficiency. With three forklifts usually in operation, a traffic management system keeps operations running smoothly, while an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system handles stock control, inventory and production flows.

“This facility has workflows that are unique to MFB,” explains David. “And we’ve been able to develop that process, whereby raw materials go in one end, we process and assemble the work, and then finished work goes out the door at the other end. There’s a clearly defined system in terms of how we process our product.”

As well as optimising productivity, the site has also been designed to create a beneficial environment for its personnel. As well as recently installed LED overhead lights, all the walls are painted bright white, eliminating dark spots and improving visibility in the workshop. MFB’s turret punches are situated in a dedicated room, separated from the rest of the factory by a noise absorption wall. While this shields the broader workforce from the noise from the turrets, the wall also prevents the noise reverberating within the room, making for a better workplace for the turret operators.

That emphasis on building a workplace that supports staff welfare is indicative of the people-focused culture at MFB. With Faye and Brian still working a couple of days a week, the company remains a family business, which can also boast minimal staff turnover. For David, a workforce dominated by long-term employees brings significant benefits.

“Those guys who have been here, they understand the business, they understand what their part is in the operation of the business,” he says. “From a manager’s point of view, it self-manages; it really does help in terms of how things work. Everybody takes ownership, the guys really do take ownership of their job and push things through. And that’s a great thing, that we encourage. A concept developed by my father, that I am keen to see continue.”

Enhanced capability

MFB recently acquired a RAS Multibend-Centre panel bender, supplied by Sheetmetal Machinery. The company had already owned an earlier model of the same machine for about 20 years, and it has served MFB well. However, it was starting to show signs of wear and tear: the machine’s accuracy was fading, making it harder to achieve the required tolerances; and on the occasions when it broke down, sourcing parts was becoming increasingly difficult. Nonetheless, events out in the wider world meant the new machine was a long time coming.

“To be honest, we’d been looking to purchase a new RAS in 2008; I was very close to placing an order, and then the GFC hit,” says David. “Holding off on the purchase was the prudent thing to do. Things take their course and you just have to grin and bear it for a while. Our decision was to try and extend the life of the existing RAS. But now we’ve just come off two boom years for the company. That gave us the opportunity to rethink investing in a new machine.”

Meanwhile, RAS had released a new scaled-back version of the Multibend-Centre, which is the model MFB bought. The old panel bender remains in service as a back-up for busy spells, but according to David, the new machine unquestionably represents a significant upgrade.

“I think they market this machine as an entry-level panel bender, but from our perspective it’s a perfect fit,” he explains. “It’s a really sophisticated bit of equipment. It suits our purposes hands down. For doing large panel work, it’s a no-brainer. There is more sophistication with the machine. It’s a lot faster. The way the machine works, it just has a sense of accuracy about it.”

The 20-year interval since MFB bought the first machine has seen the addition of numerous new technological features, including offline software and a more intuitive, graphical user interface. Operators can program the machine and then see an animation of the actual folding sequence, so that if a part or fold is going to crash, it will be flagged up on-screen in advance rather than during actual folding operations. Despite these changes, the new model features many of the same logos and icons as on the original, easing the transition for MFB’s operators.

For David, the new machine brings enhanced accuracy and productivity, while also improving safety: “In our industry, with manual handling of parts, back injuries are a given, so it’s important that we can reduce the risk wherever possible. With the new machine, the guys load a panel onto a table and it goes away and folds the part. The alternative would be to have two people standing there holding that panel at a press brake; a lapse in concentration and the part is folded incorrectly. So straight away I increase my risk associated to injury, and I decrease my accuracy of folding.”

David was highly impressed with the service MFB received from Sheetmetal Machinery, both during the new machine’s installation and in terms of after-sales support: “I’d have to say they were ten out of ten. We’ve bought different machinery from them over the years. They’re knowledgeable. The technology that’s going into machinery that sheet metal fabricators are using is phenomenal, it’s amazing. And Sheetmetal Machinery is aware of that – they’re really, really good at promoting that idea and being able to provide support, which is really important. They’re hands-on; they’re responsive and very helpful.”

Looking to the future, MFB is concentrating on further diversifying its operations and branching out in new market segments. Amid increased competition from overseas, the focus is on high-end work where the company’s competitive edge is based on quality and advanced capabilities, rather than price.

“Competition from China forces us to look for alternative work. We’re doing that. We’re diversifying with our product, moving into different types of product. This morning we had a truck leave here carrying big enclosures for the energy sector. That’s an area we want to explore further. We think there’s lots of opportunities with renewable energies, all sorts of things that can come out of it. And that’s potentially a huge area for us.”

With this in mind, David is excited about the possibilities which technology such as the new RAS panel bender could open up for MFB.

“If we can promote this type of machinery through the business, we’re going to identify ourselves as a sophisticated manufacturer. Someone who can design, and manufacture, and turn around product quickly, which I think is an important part of how we market the business and how we operate. That ability to turn things around quickly, accurately: That’s what customers are looking for, from local manufacturers.”

The rationale behind ISO 9606-1 Qualification testing of welders — Fusion welding

In the wake of the introduction into Australia of ISO 9606-1 ‘Qualification testing of welders—Fusion welding—Part1: Steels’, there remains a widespread lack of understanding within the fabrication industry about the rationale for adopting the new standard. Geoff Crittenden, CEO of Weld Australia, explains the reasoning behind it, and more broadly the need for ISO Standards.

I would like to begin with a brief overview of AS/NZS 1554 ‘Structural steel welding Part 1: Welding of steels structures’. An excellent standard, AS/NZS 1554.1 states that a welder must be qualified, by welding a coupon in accordance with the relevant acceptance criteria as outlined in the standard. For shutdown work, particularly where welders move from site to site, this can impose a significant cost impost (especially in time delays) due to the need to requalify every time they commence work on a new site.

While this is not so much of an issue for workshop-based fabricators, where the shop will have ready access to the welder’s qualification records, it is a major problem for organisations within the resources, power, defence, and oil & gas industries, who will often employ teams of specialist welders to undertake program-specific on-site maintenance work – usually where there may be minimal records available of either the welder’s qualifications, or maintenance of qualifications.

In this situation, every welder contracted to undertake program-specific maintenance work must complete a welding coupon. Each welding coupon costs between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on the complexity of the weld procedure to which the welder is being qualified. Unfortunately, the failure rate of welders attempting these coupons can be as high as 80%. Therefore, to successfully qualify 10 welders, an organisation may need to test as many as 50 welders, at a total cost of as much as $250,000.

While this type of cost is an unacceptable burden on many industries, I want to emphasise that this is not a criticism of AS/NZS 1554.1.

To help alleviate this financial burden, Weld Australia looked internationally for an appropriate standard that would provide a benchmark for welder competency in Australia. We had two options: ISO 9606-1, or AS/NZS 2980 ‘Qualification of welders for fusion welding of steels’.

At the time of consideration, AS/NZS 2980 was known to be based on an old version of ISO 9606-1. In consultation with our members – particularly major asset managers in the resources, power, defence, and oil & gas industries – we settled on the current edition of ISO 9606-1 for several reasons.

Why Weld Australia opted for ISO 9606-1

ISO 9606-1 is the only standard in the world that is accepted in both Europe and the US, and is the minimum requirement for working on rolling stock, defence, infrastructure and pressure equipment projects. In fact, ISO 9606-1 is required under several international standards, including EN 15085 ‘Railway applications—Welding of railway vehicles and components’, and DIN 2303 ‘Welding and allied processes—Quality requirements for production and maintenance companies for military products’.

ISO 9606-1 utilises a simple test that assesses welding competency according to a specific weld procedure, based on a set of practical acceptance criteria. It can be used to test the competency of a welder to complete a variety of weld procedures, from a basic butt weld up to the most complex pipe joints, utilising various positions, processes and materials.

Under ISO 9606-1, welder competency testing is focused on the three key elements required of a welder, including the ability to:

  1. Set up a welding machine.
  2. Read a welding procedure.
  3. Welding a coupon in according with the relevant acceptance criteria.

Welder qualifications are valid for two or three years, and are transportable across worksites and employers, avoiding the need to requalify welders where there is evidence of maintenance of qualification. In addition, a six-monthly confirmation process is used to verify welder qualifications to ensure maintenance of welder skills, without the need for additional testing. The confirmation process is similar to that required for welders qualified to other standards including AS/NZS 1554.1.

ISO 9606-1 does not replace either AS/NZS 1554 or AS/NZS 1796 ‘Certification of welders and welding supervisors’. Rather, ISO 9606-1 is complementary to these standards, working well alongside both.

The Australian Welder Certification Register

Having decided on this strategy, Weld Australia acquired an online system to help us manage the process of qualifying and certifying welders to ISO 9606-1: the Australian Welder Certification Register (AWCR).

Under the AWCR system, welders complete a test that qualifies them to a welding procedure as set out in ISO 9606-1. Once qualified, the welder is provided with a test certificate to that procedure, becoming a Registered Welder, and the information recorded in the AWCR. The certificate is valid for up to three years, subject to six-monthly confirmations by a responsible person (such as a supervisor or an approved examiner).

The AWCR system is already proving to be enormously beneficial for many organisations. It enables asset managers and owners to check the competence level of any Registered Welder against an internationally recognised standard, minimising welder testing and reducing costs. By qualifying welders against a recognised and certified competency level, the risk of a welder failing a weld procedure is significantly reduced. In addition, asset managers can assess welders against current, rather than past, performance, and quickly and easily identify and contact Registered Welders for employment.

I encourage all Australian manufacturers to support the AWCR. You can register your business on the AWCR, and ensure your employees and subcontractors are registered and certified via the AWCR. Access to the AWCR is completely free of charge for all Weld Australia members.

Harnessing Industry 4.0 for quality inspections and assembly

‘Industry 4.0’ is quite possibly the manufacturing world’s most frequently used buzzword of the 2010s. While it is clearly more than just the flavour of the month, the phenomenon still has some ways to go before it gains complete acceptance across the globe. By Jutta Mayer.

For most people, Industry 4.0 mainly refers to the Internet of Things (IoT) — the fact that every piece of equipment is interconnected, and how they have the ability to ‘talk’ to each other. True as that may be, the other principles that characterise Industry 4.0 are just as definitive – if not more so.

The increased connectivity that modern technology brings enables information transparency, which allows the collection and sharing of vast amounts of data. Industry 4.0 is also characterised by decentralised decisions, where cyber-physical systems act as autonomous agents within its dedicated scope, performing tasks without the need for human intervention, and where humans are still required, Industry 4.0 has shifted their role — from operator of machines to problem-solver — through the use of technical assistance systems.

What constitutes technical assistance anyway?

Designed to aid operators in their role as decision-makers, assistance systems typically offer either physical support on dangerous, strenuous tasks, or they provide crucial information to enable better decision-making.

Examples of physical support systems include collaborative robots that take on the heavy-lifting parts of a task; exoskeletons to eliminate fatigue and injury; and headsets that optimise order-picking routes to save time and cost. On the other hand, informational support systems include wearables that alert operators to machine faults; tablets or glasses that offer step-by-step guidance on installation or assembly processes; and carriers that provide instructions on assembly, and transport the tools and components required.

In the context of the manufacturing environment today, both types of technical assistance systems play a vital role in alleviating production challenges. While Industry 4.0 may seem like a daunting endeavour to undertake, exploring and implementing technical assistance systems is one relatively uncomplicated way for companies to enter these unchartered territories, and to leverage technology benefits.

Streamlining tool and fixture building

One such instance of technical assistance is in virtual inspection, in particular for tool and fixture building. Often, in early phases of prototyping, companies would be developing tools, fixtures, or assemblies where not all the components of the whole are in place just yet. However, quality inspection early on in the process is still necessary, in order to ensure that everything eventually fits in its allocated position. Otherwise, any changes that may be required in later stages can incur additional costs and cause delays with prototypes and pilot lots, with the risk of pushing back production timelines for final inspection, approvals, and series production.

To circumvent that challenge, manufacturers can employ augmented reality software to conduct virtual inspections using CAD data. Advances in mixed reality technology have made it possible for an assembly, a tool, or part to be virtually examined in detail, even with an incomplete set-up. Missing elements — such as the prototype for which a tool will be used — can be represented by a virtual instance based on its CAD data. Through an overlay, the virtual object can be inserted into the software to see how it fits with the existing elements.

This way, any difference between the actual and the intended, targeted set-up can be identified, documented, and fixed early on. The information gathered by the system can also be documented and shared with team members and stakeholders located anywhere in the world, which enables better collaboration.

Manufacturers who choose to rely on such technical assistance systems stand to gain time- and cost-savings, as any problems with quality can be identified and fixed early on in the process, even before the first prototypes arrive for physical ‘real-world’ testing. By eliminating transfers to-and-fro, companies can ensure a quick transition from the first prototype phase to pilot lots, and series production.

Simplifying templating and positioning

Another scenario where manufacturers can easily introduce technical assistance to embark on their Industry 4.0 journey is in welding assembly and verification. Most basic welding jobs will see technicians rely on blueprints, tools, and tape measures to join and build the parts. While these traditional methods have worked well in the past, companies have also lived with the high levels of error and its associated costs — owing to rework, scrap, and lost time.

Originally used in the aerospace and defence industries, laser projection has since been made available to automotive, heavy equipment, and machine shops. The system utilises 3D CAD data to generate a series of specific points and create a projection outline on a surface. Using advanced optics, galvanometers and high-precision mirrors, the laser beam “draws” images onto a surface (which need not be flat) and the high-speed motion of the laser beam creates what appears to be a continuous line to the human eye.

Using 3D laser projection or 3D laser imaging systems, manufacturers can achieve significant improvements in efficiency and accuracy, while eliminating physical templates all at once. Instead of blueprints, operators can simply follow a sequential guide through the welding process. Such systems provide clear instructions to users each step of the way, and are capable of indicating where to place each component and feature — down to the detail of each weld bead or hole. This eliminates the risk of less experienced employees welding onto incorrect positions, allowing manufacturers to ensure alignment accuracy every single time.

A virtual templating solution removes the need for physical templates, and also the time and expense associated with the usage, including design, build, maintenance and storage. In addition, an advanced 3D laser imaging system enables in-process verification (IPV) to be performed after any step of the welding and assembly sequence. This means that manufacturers can evaluate placement and adjust alignment as the project progresses, not just afterwards when the welding has already been completed. For technicians, the ability to assess their work and take appropriate corrective action before investing further effort is invaluable, as it prevents a situation where the end result becomes a flawed assembly.

As Industry 4.0 continues to unfold in the years ahead, most businesses will recognise the need to roll with the punches and not be left behind. Technical assistance systems offer manufacturers tangible benefits of better quality, improved efficiency, and cost savings, and those that choose to adopt suitable solutions will stand to gain an edge over their competitors in this new era.

Jutta Mayer is a Product Marketing Manager (3D Manufacturing) with FARO Technologies.

Manufacturing an energy strategy that defies the economy

Despite energy costs hitting record highs, Australian manufacturers can still gain a competitive edge by finding smart ways to make energy savings. By Lachlan Jacobson.

Australia’s manufacturing industry is one of the nation’s most energy-intensive. It accounts for close to one quarter of Australia’s total energy consumption and around 40% of natural gas consumption. Historically, manufacturers have benefitted from low energy costs but in recent years, costs have increased. According to the Australian Energy Market Operator’s (AEMO) first quarterly report of 2019, prices are at a record high. While this has impacted manufacturers’ bottom lines, energy still has the potential to offer a competitive advantage.

Australia’s shifting energy market is creating new opportunities for manufacturers to generate savings in the energy category, from taking on portions of Australia’s growing pipeline of renewables, to investing in future-ready energy strategies that leverage market-ready tech to deliver savings. If manufacturers are able to engage with how they use energy, they can move beyond being simply price takers.

Plan for the long term

The energy market is changing. Coal-fired generation is leaving the market and being replaced by renewable energy. This is pushing new retailers to deliver more innovative offerings and impacting how users engage with energy.

At the forefront of this shift is the rise of the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). First pioneered by large corporates like Telstra and Coca-Cola Amatil, PPAs allow businesses to push past the traditional retail model and lock in long-term agreements directly with renewable generators.

This model, when treated as more than just a financial tool, enables manufacturers to contract energy directly from wind and solar plants, supporting Australia’s development of renewable energy. It is a low-cost strategy that reaps the most benefits when implemented for a long-term period, and allows businesses to fulfil sustainability commitments.

For one leading food & beverage manufacturer, the decision to enter a PPA delivered savings of 18% on its energy costs in 2018, compared with what it would’ve paid on a standard fixed-rate retail contract.

Knowing the hows and whens

Taken alone, PPAs deliver low-cost renewable energy, but if treated as part of a broader energy strategy, they create more opportunities on price.

The concept of peak and off-peak is familiar to many energy users – most fixed-rate contracts charge based on this pricing model. But these contracts don’t give transparency into the actual highs and lows of the market, which shift every 30 minutes. Manufacturers who buy from the wholesale market should look at how and when they use power, to maximise the opportunities to tap into low-cost pricing periods.

Demand management, specifically load shifting, encourages manufacturers to move operations in-line with the highs and lows of the market. This can be as simple as shifting energy-intensive processes to earlier in the day to reduce consumption during the more expensive late afternoon and early evening period.

These small daily movements, which can account for just a handful of hours over a year, drive down total energy expenditure. Aside from the cost-benefit, demand management connects manufacturers to how they use energy, allowing them to uncover potential areas of improvement.

For businesses, especially those buying power on the wholesale spot market, it can deliver savings of up to 33.3% on energy costs, in addition to savings generated by a PPA.

ANCA: Leading the way

Founded in 1974, ANCA has established itself as a leading manufacturer of CNC tool grinding machines, motion control systems and sheet metal products, exporting 98% of its product while remaining based in Melbourne.

Faced with a changing energy market, ANCA knew that it would need to make a change to how it bought energy if it was to keep costs down. When the power contract came up for renewal, its incumbent offered a quote of a 100% price increase, while another power supplier quoted an increase of almost 150% from the existing spend.

ANCA approached Flow Power for an energy solution that was reasonably priced and offered greater transparency on costs. Looking at ANCA’s energy usage, Flow Power was able to connect the manufacturer to low-cost wholesale wind power through a Corporate Renewable Power Purchase Agreement.

The renewable energy can be used in real time to offset grid electricity consumption, saving thousands of dollars in electricity costs and reducing overall emissions. ANCA buys a fixed percentage of wind power under a ‘take or pay’ arrangement, meaning that the business only ever pays for what it uses.

ANCA’s cost saving potential doesn’t stop there. Data assessed from a 12-month period (Q2 2017 to Q1 2018) has shown that using a demand response strategy would deliver a further 2.3% in savings. This is on top of those savings already achieved from buying wholesale power with a PPA.

Defying the economy

The time is right for manufacturers to act on energy, and the market is ready with tools to drive them.

Taking a holistic view of energy that encompasses how it is sourced, managed and consumed is the avenue that will power a low-cost energy future for Australia’s manufacturers. Once manufacturers are able to do this, it becomes clear where energy expenditure lies and its impact, including the all-important end cost to the customer.

Lachlan Jacobson is a Senior Business Development Manager at Flow Power.

Scala Award honour for Professor Murray Scott

Professor Murray Scott has become the most recent recipient of the Scala Award of the International Committee on Composite Materials (ICCM).

The Scala Award is given every two years and recognises the outstanding contribution of one individual to the field of composite materials. The decision to select Professor Scott was selected by the ICCM Executive Council to receive the Award in August 2017.

Professor Scott is Chairman of Advanced Composite Structures Australia, the spin-out company from the highly acclaimed CRC for Advanced Composite Structures, of which Professor Scott was CEO for more 13 years. He was also elected firstly as President and then as World Fellow of the ICCM, and represented Australia on the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences (ICAS), where he served as President for a two-year period and is now an Honorary Fellow.

Associated with the honour is the privilege of delivering the opening plenary lecture at the next conference in the series. On this occasion, it was the 22nd International Conference on Composite Materials (ICCM22), which was held in Melbourne from 11-16 August. Professor Scott spoke on ‘Advanced Composites Research and Innovation – an Australian Perspective’.

The presentation of the Scala Award certificate was made during the ICCM22 banquet, held at Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre (MCEC) on 15 August. The ICCM22 was a great success with over 1,400 people in attendance from 45 countries.

APT boosts productivity with Lang Technik workholding products

From starting out with a single machine manufacturing spectacle screws, Victorian manufacturer Australian Precision Technologies (APT) has successfully evolved into a leader in the production of precision components and assemblies, utilising the latest CNC technology and manufacturing software.

At one point APT was the preferred supplier for automotive components manufacturer Robert Bosch; its business with Bosch accounted for 86% of the company’s turnover. However, like many automotive suppliers faced with the imminent closure of the local car industry, APT needed to diversify into other areas. In APT’s case, the market it targeted was the defence industry.

To say the company has been successful in this transition is something of an understatement. Today APT’s key customers are a veritable who’s who of leaders in the defence industry, to whom APT supply a diverse range of specialised components. These include parts for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and components for the Steyer rifle, radar systems, remote weapon stations, submarines and munitions. APT also supplies a variety of products to customers in the electronics and security industries.

However, APT’s Founder and Managing Director Richard Weinzierl is quick to point out that it is the assistance of the Centre for Defence Industry Capability (CDIC) and its Supplier Continuous Improvement Program (SCIP) that has been a crucial part of their success.

“The SCIP program gave us the tools we needed to ensure we moved successfully into the defence arena,” says Weinzierl. “The business coaching, which included the development of a strategic plan and staff engagement programs, really has been the key to our success and transformed the business. We have also been fortunate to be the recipient of a number of government grants which has greatly assisted the transition and our continued expansion.”

For its part, APT has dedicated significant resources to ensure its processes and operations meet the stringent requirements of the defence industry, including increased security and putting a cyber-security plan in place.

“My wife Nicola has also been a key driving force in our transition and success and my daughter (a project management graduate) has joined us recently in a support role,” Weinzierl adds. “This will ensure APT remains a family-focused business.”

The ‘one large family’ theme at APT is clearly evident with the commitment and support Weinzierl has for his team of 30 staff, and this ethos is reflected in APT’s core values of teamwork, honesty and value.

Getting to grips with advanced technology

APT was the first company in Australia to purchase Lang Technik’s range of workholding products. These were initially acquired direct from the manufacturer in Germany, but more recently they have from been obtained from Dimac Tooling, which took over the sales and distribution of Lang products in Australia and New Zealand.

“One of the key benefits of Lang Technik is their patented Quick Point zero-point clamping system,” explains Weinzierl. “This allows for a one-time installation – once the base plate is mounted and aligned to the machine tool table, and the zero point is defined, you can build workpieces and fixtures quickly and accurately. This provides a huge boost to productivity reducing changeover time from one or two hours to five minutes.

“The zero-point system is super fast and accurate, which is essential given the nature of our work. We use Lang vices on all our milling machines – the quality is first class. Their Makro-Grip five-axis vices are the perfect solution for all challenging clamping tasks and are simply unbeatable in five-sided manufacturing.

“The flexibility of Lang vices are another key benefit. Because it’s an easy-to-use modular system, we can swap vices around machines easily and quickly knowing that the quality and accuracy will be the same.”

APT also uses Lang’s Makro-Grip stamping technology, Weinzierl adds: “This stamping technology, also called pre-stamping, involves the workpiece being stamped outside of the machine tool with up to 20 tons of hydraulic pressure, providing the highest holding power for five-face machining worldwide. Makro-Grip stamping technology provides tremendous material savings due to minimal clamping edge requirements.”

Another unique product in the Lang Technik range that APT makes use of is its Cleaning Fan. This fan automatically cleans the machine table, pallet and/or workpieces after the machining process is complete, saving time and reducing workload.

APT has had a close association with Dimac for more than 20 years. In addition to Lang Technik products, other products that APT has purchased through Dimac including the Mitee-Bite workholding tools, Dimac’s own Australian-made soft jaws, and high pressure coolant equipment.

“Dimac’s service and advice is second to none – it’s fantastic,” says Weinzierl. “We can ring up and have stock delivered same day, and crucially they hold stock for us, which is very helpful. Without the support of Dimac our CNC machines just wouldn’t run. They’re a one-stop shop; everything that we need to support our production we buy through Dimac.”

APT is currently working towards gaining ISO 9100D accreditation. This will open up new markets including the aerospace industry, and APT is already in discussion with a number of leading companies in this specialised sector. Given the expertise and knowledge that APT has, defence will continue to be APT’s main focus, but in the future other markets such as renewable energy are also likely to be part of the company’s portfolio. One thing’s for sure: APT will continue to be a leader and a dominant force in precision manufacturing far into the future.

AMTIL announces two new Corporate Partners

The Australian Manufacturing Technology Institute Limited (AMTIL) has announced details of two new appointments to its Corporate Partner program.

The two new partners are Rigby Cooke Lawyers – who will be AMTIL’s exclusive Corporate Partner in the Legal category; and Interlease, in the Business Finance category. They join AMTIL’s existing line-up of Corporate Partners: AGL – Energy; and William Buck – Accounting/Financial Advice.

Rigby Cooke Lawyers is a full-service Victorian commercial law firm with strong industry links and a significant depth of experience in acting for manufacturers. Its highly qualified lawyers partner with their clients to understand their needs and add value to their businesses. Rigby Cooke is at the forefront of legislative and technological changes that impact the manufacturing industry and offers the full suite of legal services to small and large manufacturing businesses, inlcuding commercial agreements, acquisitions, intellectual property advice, employment and OHS, customs and trade advice, litigation and insolvency and tax advice.

Interlease is one of Australia’s leading business finance broking firms. Established in 1973, it provides professional client services and well structured competitive financial products for Australian businesses. The team at Interlease are an experienced group of finance professionals involved in Equipment, Property and Business Finance. Interlease is well known and respected for its knowledge and skill in obtaining customised outcomes for its clients. The company takes a practical approach to securing the best solution for its clients’ funding requirements, ensuring a timely turnaround and regular communication.

“We’re very pleased to be able to welcome Rigby Cooke and Interlease aboard as the latest additions to our Corporate Partnership program,” said AMTIL CEO Shane Infanti. “Both companies have longstanding relationships with AMTIL over the years and we are looking forward to working with them more closely as partners going forward. We have no doubt that these partnerships will bring outstanding new benefits for AMTIL’s members.”

Australia-made secondary mine ventilation brings cost savings, compliances

A new technological solution for mining ventilation, engineered and manufactured in Australia, categorically offers power savings and control not yet seen in the underground mining industry.

Minetek’s patented secondary mine ventilation system, based on a High Output Axial Fan system uses a patented mine air control (MAC) system to maximise return from its performance on demand (POD) units, which automatically sense how much air is needed in any one heading at any time. Each solution is engineered and manufactured in Australia specific for the end user.

Whilst these secondary underground fans strategically optimise air flow, they eliminate much of the power traditionally wasted in such applications while performing across a very large operating range and meeting broad regulatory compliance parameters.

Compared to the common standard twin-stage axial fan ventilation systems found on the market, the Minetek High Output Axial Fan system is modular and provides:

  • Vastly reduced energy costs.
  • Adequate air at the face.
  • High levels of control.
  • Sensor tracking to automatically adjust to real-time demand.
  • High volume compliance.
  • Blast dust removal rapidly.
  • Reduced noise output.

According to Remy Bourcier, Engineering Manager at Minetek, the company’s High Output Axial Fan has been designed and manufactured in Australia completely with the underground mining industry in mind. He added that the MAC control system brings the mine’s fan system together with complete automation.

“Until now, the market has to a certain limit used high-maintenance Variable Speed Drives to provide some level of control to the air flow in secondary ventilation systems,” says Bourcier. “But our patented system works on high-pressure, steel-fabricated impeller technology, allowing operation at temperatures and conditions previously thought impractical for an axial fan – and we achieve this in seriously harsh environments.

“It’s in the area of energy costs where the real savings are found, and this is very tangible too. Various studies point out that between 42% and 49% of a mine’s energy costs are consumed by mine ventilation, with the figure of about 27% attributed to the cost of secondary ventilation alone.

“Typically, a fan consuming 190kW with an electricity price of 15 cents per kilowatt will cost $249,660 per year to run and may not even be properly compliant. Considering the average mine uses about 15 secondary fans, the total annual consumption costs around $3,744,900.”

Key to its high cost efficiency is the POD system – an electronic controller on the fan that allows the fan to be regulated from very low flow requirements right through to more than double the duty point of a traditional vane axial fan.

With the use of the MAC System RFID trackers, it constantly remains aware what items of underground mining equipment are moving into the heading, so the POD controller will automatically adjust the air volumetric flow required to provide sufficient air volume to disperse the gases and ventilate the area.

It will sense what specific truck has entered the tunnel and it will be aware of the size of its engine and the number of people it will be carrying, so it will automatically adjust to meet the demand for sufficient ventilation for the people in accordance with industry regulation.

Considering temperatures at the rock face can be up to 50°C, it is critical to ensure adequate ventilation is providing fresh and cool air reliably. Being a modular solution, mine managers can add or take away things such as silencers or adapters, booster fans or even boost the system further through control options. In normal underground mining conditions, the Minetek systems will operate significantly quieter, providing a noise level 8dB less than a twin 1400 twin 110kW for the same volume flow.

Richard McAlpin, Sales Manager at Minetek, says the big benefit to the global mining sector is that they are no longer hamstrung by not being able to control the volume of air within the headings, and that mine owners are able to save substantial money through this control.

“What we have designed is not just a top performer, but something that is also very durable without loss of performance,” says McAlpin. “The fact that our POD system can be controlled accurately, means that the re-entry times to the mines are shortened significantly, meaning downtime is significantly reduced.

“We have spent several years developing this solution and are proving already that underground mining sectors around the world are finding it hard to ignore the cost savings it can deliver”.

Restoring the human element – Mitsubishi Electric’s e-F@ctory in action

The application of Mitsubishi Electric’s e-F@ctory concept at its Kani manufacturing facility in Japan has delivered hugely beneficial outcomes, with the productivity of each square metre of production space increased through greater utilisation.

Part of its Nagoya Works, Mitsubishi’s Kani factory, which produces motor starters and contactors, was facing a number of significant challenges, not least the sheer number of product variations and possible configurations in its product range – some 14,000 in fact. Customer demand for greater choice had diluted the volumes of each particular product, despite overall product quantities increasing substantially.

Manual production at Kani had given way to totally automated assembly lines, which were ideal for mass production with few product variations where high yields could be realised at high speed. However, many individual components were required in stock and ready for the manufacturing process – without which the lines would not be able to run for any appreciable length of time.

For various reasons, substantial numbers of assembly lines had been optimised to produce a limited range of products, and these would stand still when components ran out. In such a scenario it became difficult and uneconomical to produce small batches.

The solution was to employ engineering know-how built up over many years and combine this with a vision of integrated manufacturing – known as the Mitsubishi Electric e-F@ctory concept. In tandem, existing technology and third-party relationships were utilised through the e-F@ctory Alliance, CLPA and other collaborative engineering groups. Put simply, the objective was to perfect the ‘art of manufacturing’ – or ‘monozukuri’, as it is known in Japan.

The major challenge was to find the root cause of any inconsistencies. This involved several approaches, from analysing existing data or collecting new data sets for fresh eyes to review, to looking for links between data that on the surface could appear unlinked. This factor is related to the first principles of Industry 4.0.

Studying existing processes, as well as the methodology, revealed that natural, normal, organic growth in the production process had inadvertently led to inefficiencies. Resolving this issue at Kani led to a re-evaluation of the need of 100% automated lines, which were not necessarily the most efficient. Restoring some human elements could potentially reduce manufacturing anomalies.

Further observations revealed that the automated parts feeding of some larger components not only created bottlenecks but led to the parts feeders consuming large volumes of space. This could result in minor damage to components – not enough to cause an issue, but enough that engineers were dissatisfied with the quality level being achieved.

Conversely, automation of some tasks which had, in the past, seemed impossible, now looked possible through a combination of technologies. An example of this thinking concerned the misalignment of certain screws during the assembly process. The automation system, unaware of the misalignment, would try to insert the screw and cause damage to the entrance of the hole.

Two technologies helped to overcome this problem: the automatic alignment of robots; and combining rotational drives for inserting screws using torque sensors. As a result, the hole can now be located easily and aligned correctly every time. Moreover, the torque sensor confirms the absence of misalignment and that the screw is tightened to the correct level. The increased use of vision systems, checking for correct assembly and alignment, has also helped to increase the number of right-first-time products.

A further, simpler idea was to etch a matrix code on the body of each product and track it through the various stages. Now, as the product arrives at a workstation, its code is read and the appropriate processes and parts applied. At the end of the manufacturing cycle, each product then has a traceable manufacturing history, making it possible to track the history of individual issues.

By redesigning the process and reintegrating the human element, a single line occupying some 280sqm has been reduced to a cell of just 44.1sqm. This 84% reduction means the productivity of each square metre of production hall has been increased through greater utilisation. Even though a single new cell cannot produce the same volume and speed of units as the original fully automated line, it is now possible to deploy up to 6.3 cells in the same space. In turn, total productivity density is much higher thanks to three key factors: a wider variety of products can be manufactured in smaller batches; one stoppage does not halt the whole of production; and the total number of production lines has increased.

The end result, much to the satisfaction of the team at Kani, is effective optimisation of both machine and human resources, as well as the production process and space – a true productivity gain. Mitsubishi Electric’s e-F@ctory concept shows how manufacturers can achieve their own smart factory concepts.