Melbourne-based manufactured MTM embarked on an Industry 4.0 journey a few years ago, when faced with the impending departure of a key staff member. The company saw an opportunity to expand its Industry 4.0 strategy to eliminate wasteful activity, and the resulting project could have far-reaching implications for the business.

Max Albert founded Melbourne Tooling Co in 1965. Initially based in Huntingdale, in Melbourne’s south-east suburbs, the company started out as a toolmaking operation, and soon made a name for itself providing tooling for the local automotive industry. Within a few years it diversified into the design and manufacture of automotive components, and established itself as a key supplier to the original five Australian car manufacturers Ford, GM Holden, Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi.

Today the company, now rebranded as MTM Pty Ltd, remains privately owned by the Albert family, with Max’s son Mark Albert now its Managing Director, but the business is a truly global operation. The closure of Australia’s car industry has seen MTM diversify into areas such as rail, water conservation and safety, but automotive components still account for a substantial part of the company’s business. Its customer base amounts to a roll-call of global car brands, including GM, Ford and Cadillac, Toyota and Mazda, MG and JMC. The company has assembly plants in the US and China, but all design and the more advanced manufacturing operations still take place at its 18,900sqm plant in Oakleigh South, which employs a workforce of around 80 staff.

MTM’s press shop is equipped with two power presses: a 200-ton machine, and a 160-machine. The tools on these machines would get worn after a certain number of strokes, and regular preventative maintenance is essential. Ensuring that this was undertaken at the right time to keep the machines running was undertaken by three members of staff.

Suresh Jayan, Plant Manager at MTM, explains: “We had a press shop operator who would manually record the number of strokes, and then go into the press shop office, where a supervisor sat down and tabulated the data. And then on a weekly basis he had a meeting with the toolroom supervisor, and they planned in the preventive maintenance of tools.”

This system obviously represented a fairly mundane task for the three staff involved, and was arguably not very efficient, but nonetheless it was working well enough to meet MTM’s needs. However, the problem really started to arise when it emerged that all three members of staff were planning to leave.

“It left us no choice but to automate. We didn’t have the manpower anymore. If we didn’t automate this, guess who’d have to do it?” Jayan laughs. “I didn’t want it to have to be me.”

Finding the smart solution

In tackling the problem, MTM turned to Balluff, which worked with Jayan and his team to develop a proposed solution. Further support came through AMTIL, whose CEO Shane Infanti and Corporate Services Manager Greg Chalker helped to secure some financial assistance for an Industry 4.0 pilot program via the Federal Government’s Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC).

“When we initially looked at the project we had the opportunity to involve Greg and Shane in helping us to help MTM to secure some funding,” recalls Jim Wallace, National Sales Manager at Balluff. “The initial order was 50% funded by AMTIL. So that kind of got the ball rolling in getting a couple of installations running.”

Balluff’s solution involved fitting the press tool with an RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag, which communicates with a reader inside the machine to count each stroke as the press passes up and down. This enables MTM to accurately count the “shot”, the number of times a tool has been operated since it last underwent preventative maintenance. With that number always available, the tool room can always be informed in real time how close each tool is to needing its next round of maintenance.

“Balluff’s system is standalone, and one of the beautiful things about it is it doesn’t need to be integrated into the machine,” adds Wallace. “And these guys have done a terrific job to really build on that, taking a really general simple system and integrating it further into their production process.”

While Balluff’s initial solution was elegant in its simplicity, it was MTM’s in-house team of Darren Symington, Information Systems Manager, and Daniel Zhu, Information Systems Administrator, who took the system to the next level. The project provided the starting point for a much broader upgrade of the way they were handling information from the press shop.

“Initially we were just dumping the data from the device onto a spreadsheet,” says Symington. “That file was accessible to the guys in the tool room, who had to update the data. What we’ve done now is we’ve bypassed the file and put it into a SQL database. And we’ve just migrated to Office 365, so we’ve set up a SharePoint departmental site, like an intranet, where everybody can get to this page to see what the preventative maintenance status is.”

Zhu also developed a smartphone app that the toolroom staff can now use to log the completion of each tool’s maintenance job. By simply hovering the phone over the tool’s RFID tag with the app open, the job will disappear and the tool’s shot count will be reset to zero.

The team at MTM went to considerable lengths to identify an appropriate trigger for notifying the tool shop that a maintenance job was imminent. The Balluff system used stacklights mounted on the machines themselves, operating a ‘traffic light’ system: if the light was green no action was needed; at 85% of the tool’s lifecycle, the light turned yellow as a warning signal that maintenance would be required soon; at red, the tool had reached its 100% threshold and would need to be shut down.

“In the beginning, we started off with just the light,” says Symington. “But the guys weren’t really fixated on that, they weren’t noticing the light, mainly because it was in the wrong area. So next we set it up to send an email, but that wasn’t visible enough. The challenge was making something that just sticks out.”

In the end the team settled on the use of a TV screen installed in the toolroom, displaying the same alert signs as on the stacklights: yellow when a job is imminent; and red when it is due. This met MTM’s focus on visual management and is working well.

Next steps

Today the new system is running effectively, successfully performing the work once performed by three staff. Indeed, in a way it might be working too well, with the toolroom staff often jumping ahead to perform maintenance on tools that have only just reached their yellow “warning” stage.

“The intention was for yellow to forewarn them, and then when it’s red, they go and get the tool,” says Jayan. “But now when they finish the reds, they’ll finish the yellows too. And it’s easy to understand why, because as soon as you walk into the toolroom, [the on-screen alert] is an eyesore. So the boys are fixated on clearing whatever they see out there.”

While such enthusiasm is a nice by-product of the new system, it also opens up the possibility for further efficiency savings. By performing maintenance when the yellow alert is triggered, at 85% of the tool’s lifecycle, a further 15% of the tool’s total capacity is lost. However, by tweaking the threshold at which that warning signal is triggered, MTM has the opportunity to improve utilisation rates.

Beyond that, with the press shop having served as a pilot project, the potential for extending the system is enormous. Most notably, MTM’s moulding shop, which is larger than the press shop, operates a similar manual system for maintenance of tools, and could benefit significantly from an upgrade along the same lines.

Meanwhile, the transfer of the process to a database accessible through the Cloud opens up options to incorporate a wealth of other data, such as inventory transactions, labour efficiencies or machine overhead costs. There is also the potential to enhance visibility across the organisation, through to departments such as sales or logistics, with remote staff, or even with MTM’s customers.

“Because we’ve got that database, if we ever put something else in, we can tie it in with this,” says Symington. “So say, this part was made by this person on this machine. These were the settings. This is how long it took. This is the amount of plastic, how much it cost in labour, parts being booked out. And this is the state of the tool. What’s more, you can trend it historically – you can forecast that in one week and four days, we will be at max on our usage. You can do everything better.”

Wallace adds: “And now MTM has developed this, if they wanted to, they could install it in their plants in China and USA. And from here, they’d have complete visibility over everything there.”

The MTM installation is an interesting case because it demonstrates that Industry 4.0 does not have to be a huge and expensive undertaking, only really viable for the largest manufacturers. By taking quite small, modest measures, any manufacturing business can start to embrace these emerging technologies and processes. Indeed, even relatively small manufacturers can begin reaping the benefits. For the team at MTM, it is a step that Australian manufacturers need to take.

“I think it’s quite critical,” says Symington. “Especially now, where we can’t afford to have tons of admin people entering numbers. And it’s just amazing because once you’ve got your basis, then you can grab data from multiple sites and start to tie it in.”

Wallace adds: “There are lots of ways you can do it at very low cost. You can start to collect this data and make a real-life installation. It might be a small first step, but then you start getting those justifications to get bigger and bigger and bigger. What we find at Balluff is that to get over that initial hurdle, keep it small. You can still get value from a small installation.”