It takes skilled workers using up-to-date equipment to run the most efficient casting operations. Software is a key component in these shops, enabling optimal performance in each production zone, collecting data for management as well as linking one zone to the next. Numerous metrics can be tracked digitally to aid managers in controlling costs and scheduling, enable quality and other certifications, and communicate job data to customers.
Many metalcasting equipment vendors offer software-based management systems. For both ferrous and nonferrous facilities, these can enable data logging, trending and report generation along with managing operations and process control. Real-time information obtained via a data collection system provides a way for operators on the shop floor to not only run jobs accurately and efficiently but track key maintenance requirements and perform diagnostic checks.
In world class facilities, documented control plans address a wide range of molding, melting, pouring and finishing parameters. These range from raw material inspection to the metallurgical microstructure of the finished product. Software-savvy companies producing small casting volumes also benefit from improved accuracy and safety when running equipment.
Enabling everyone in the operation to interface to a management information system (MIS) improves shop-floor communication as critical job information is made available in real time. The result is measurable savings in scrap and rework.
Connecting Production Zones
“The number one thing any metalcaster can do to improve the bottom line is getting a handle on scrap, bar none,” said Shane Allen, head of North American operations for Synchro ERP, Austin, Texas.
Process knowledge is the key to controlling casting quality and reducing scrap, according to Dr. Hathibelagal Roshan, Maynard Steel Casting Co., Milwaukee. (See “Start Gaining Process Knowledge,” Modern Casting, May 2013.) With ever increasing costs and quality requirements, interest in shop-floor data collection is growing, according to Allen. “Software can help report and isolate what you need to do to control scrap,” he said.
Shop-floor data collection also can assist workers in communicating critical data on jobs in process.
“We’re starting to see more plants push information management down to the shop floor,” said Matthew Gacek, vice president of business development for B&L Information Systems, Bridgman Mich., U.S. Anywhere in the process, trusted operators can be allowed to alter work instructions based on their observations in production.
“The molding line is a very critical job,” said Gacek. “If, for whatever reason, there’s a problem with a parting line on a casting, in the past you’d call the supervisor over and talk about it. And, sometimes it wouldn’t be communicated to the next department.”
Instant communication takes place in modern facilities via touchscreen, to improve workflow in a wide variety of casting businesses. A management information system (MIS) keeps work information up to date as a job travels from one zone to the next. The ability to show photos of a product as it moves through a casting facility can be particularly beneficial where multiple languages are spoken on the shop floor.
“The person running the job can go into the work instructions, upload a snapshot of the mold, circle where the problem is, and put it into, for example, the grinding instruction,” Gacek said. “They can annotate it to say, ‘For this job, keep an eye out for this parting line that’s excessive. Please grind it down.’ And all this is done in real time.”
“Automated melting is an ideal process using computerized controls,” said Satyen N. Prabhu, president and CEO, Inductotherm Corp., Rancocas, N.J., U.S. “Adaptive melting control optimizes power usage by minimizing temperature overshooting, saves time by reducing frequent temperature checks and enhances safety.”
The operator enters the weight of the charge, or it is received automatically via a weigh system, and the heat content and desired pouring temperature are used to calculate automatically the kilowatt hours needed to complete the melt. It turns off the system or drops to holding power when the melt is complete, and bath temperature readings are measured to ensure accuracy. Reducing the chance of accidental superheating can improve lining life.
Varying Levels of Automation
Robotic operations represent the highest level of controlled automation in metalcasting. In melting, an operator in a control room remotely commands the robot, which is monitored using closed-circuit video, to perform slag removal, ground testing and other tasks via a digital human-machine interface. High powered furnaces with demanding cycles also can employ automated charging linked to a computer control system to produce the desired bath chemistry at the lowest cost.
“Computerized melt shop control systems are designed to provide supervisory control of the melting process for enhanced quality and to reduce the risk of accidental superheating,” Prabhu said. Some are incorporated into the melting equipment and others are PC-based, standalone applications, which enable users to customize reports and interface with other applications.
Whether the production data is entered manually or in a fully enabled digital system, software maintains critical information for safety, operations, costing and quality assurance. That data can be passed along into an MIS for enterprise resource planning purposes.
“On the melt deck, typically we’ll see devices to indicate what job to run next, the standard heat recipe, and then they’re going to be entering in what their actual metal usage was,” said Gacek.
Automated pouring lines are an example of an operation that can run in a closed-loop system. Computer-controlled mechanisms dispense metal into a mold. A sensor continuously monitors the metal level in the sprue cup and adjusts to minimize the difference between the desired and actual level as the cup is filled. It also can accommodate changes in pouring conditions and stop automatically if there is a blowout in the mold.
“Automated pouring systems keep pace with the fastest molding machines,” Prabhu said. Consistency and repeatability provide benefits in quality and waste reduction. They also can be configured to pour multiple mold lines at once.
Quality control, whether operated as standalone processes or integrated into a fully automated system, is an area where software plays a key role.
The spectrometer interface is one area that has been automated for the melt department. Before any castings are poured, test data can be downloaded right from the instrument.
“Anyone in any sized company making a high quality aluminum casting benefits from quality control software,” said Robert Nealon, president, Thermtronix, Adelanto, Calif., U.S. “Investment casting in particular is focused on high quality castings, and a system for detecting porosity of the casting can make it more productive for them.”
Workers on the melt deck can put a halt on a heat and alert other departments via an MIS system. “They also can enter a quality alert that will pop up at the next workstation,” Gacek said, “bringing it to the attention of the operator working on that casting.”
Gacek offers Bremen Castings Inc., Bremen, Ind., U.S., as an example of a shop eliminating islands of information and pushing data out to all levels. “They’ve got 50 or 60 iPads in their finishing stations,” he said. “It’s not something you see all the time. And these iPads are reflecting what those jobs are. Often, it’s a picture with annotations to watch out for something, or, ‘Grind this nodule off, here.’”
In case of a critical quality problem, a user can electronically halt further shipment or production of that casting.
“It’s keeping the problems within your walls, because the last thing you want to do is have it go out into your customer base,” said Gacek.
Whether in a small casting operation or a multisite global supplier, software-based production management is becoming the norm. Companies enjoying the fullest benefits move beyond standard operations to analyze real-time data from the shop floor and facilitate communication between departments to ensure quality.