During recent years, demands for greater efficiency, faster manufacturing, further cost reduction and resource conservation, have seen a shift concerning the future development of industrial engineering. Digitalization and digital transformation are the buzzwords, along with lloT, Industry 4.0 and others.

A change for the better should come as a result of smart project management and transformation of the production process towards automation and interop­erability of production means, as well as the ability to implement predictive maintenance. There is a long way ahead but the foundations have already been laid – MicroStep has been building its systems with these basic ideas in mind for at least a decade.

Over the past years, the company’s in-house developed solutions for machine-to-machine and machine-to-enterprise communications have been winning increasing interest and gaining adoption in enterprises throughout Europe, Asia, America, Africa and Australia. Integration of our equipment with existing production workflow and ERP systems allows our customers to interconnect MicroStep cutting machines with their existing machinery. We have implemented a number of automation solutions and machine-to-machine interfaces, especially in large-scale productions, integrating several cutting machines with automated material handling systems. Further such projects, and more complex ones, are scheduled for delivery in the near future.

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Flexibility is another trend shaping most industries. It is a result of increasing demands for a wide range of more customized product variants. “Lot size 1” is the ultimate goal. To be able to realize diverse projects in production efficiently, it is advisable for a manufacturer to have a set of versatile means of production that ensure smooth production transition between different projects. Additionally, a high degree of automation, a good selection of technologies and the capability to process various sizes of pieces are required. In line with the above mentioned trends, MicroStep’s cutting machines are designed to be actively integrated into centrally managed production systems by automating the material flow. Software that enables the machines to communicate with different applications of the production management system, such as stock-, order ­and part databases as well as with external ERP systems. The goal is for the machine to be able to quickly adapt to different cutting/processing requirements, increase work efficiency, optimize the production process and minimize costs and risks – the whole production should be fast, smooth and transparent, monitored (at first) from the corporate network.

A project of modular combination of cutting/marking machines and an automatic pallet exchange system with a storage tower, is successfully running at one of MicroStep’s Dutch customers – the maritime service provider Neptune Shipyards. The system significantly reduces manipulation time and allows for expansion with other cutting machines and storage towers in the future. The automation is in loading of particular pallets with pre-loaded plates into two cutting machines and then automatically unloading of the pallets back to the storage tower after the cutting/marking processes are finished.

The prerequisite for such automated material handling is the ability of the machine to automatically measure the location and rotation of the plate by a plate edge detection sensor. Integration of a CAPP software is also recommended. This allows for automatic  loading of cutting plans generated for the currently loaded material and to initiate the cutting process auto­matically, if required. MicroStep supplies its own production management software under the name Machine Production Management. With automation, systems that do not require the over­ sight of an operator, may run completely without supervision – all the plates that are loaded in the storage tower can be marked automatically during the night. In case of a forced interruption of the process, the machine will notify the operator via an e-mail or text message.

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Another example of such a complex solution is a fully automatic cutting/marking line consisting of eight cutting machines, an automatic crane, a loading wagon and two output conveyors. This is all fully managed with the MPM software that is capable of processing 500 tons of steel per day.

It is understood that digitalization of production means is a necessity for the future factory. MicroStep has had several years of experience in interfacing to third-party machinery such as automatic cranes, storage towers, loading and conveyor systems as well as controlling these processes and exchanging data with different devices, ERP systems and cloud solutions. Our machines are ready to provide detailed data to the upper control level. We are closely watching the developments in the field and also actively participating in several related initiatives, with the aim to not only be prepared for the upcoming challenges but also to help shape the industry of the future.

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