Using Microsoft technology and web browser tools to deliver test data from the factory floor to engineers’ desktops, bearings manufacturer NSK is now saving £85,000 a year. But the real benefits are much more impressive, writes Dean Palmer.
NSK manufactures bearings and motion control systems. Its European Technology Centre (ETC), based in Nottingham, is the test HQ for its world-wide operations, and runs tests for NSK’s manufacturing division, but also co-develops bearing systems with customers such as BMW.
The site carries out endurance and performance tests, with some lasting as long as 10 months. So the company’s major concern is that the test equipment, and related data collection technology, are reliable. As Rowland Keable, engineering systems manager at the site, responsible for all test rig data, says: “The test shop information management system (TIMS) has to be up all the time – it’s mission critical.”
So IT is central to ETC’s work. But problems started to surface back in 1992, when the first test shop information management system (TIMS1) was installed. The system was unreliable, expensive to maintain – and it wasn’t going to be Y2k compliant.
Keable explains: “TIMS1 ran on a Unix database, with two separate Allen-Bradley [now Rockwell] SCADA [supervisory control and data acquisition] control views at the front-end. But because of its unreliability, test engineers had to make twice-daily trips down to the shop floor to check the test rigs.”
Keable reckons these daily trips were costing the company “£5 per stroll”. So in 1999, he set about solving the problem: “I wanted engineers to have the test data available at their desktops. The right way to achieve this was intranet technology. Each PC now has a Microsoft browser.”
So what’s changed? 117 out of 188 test rigs are now connected to Microsoft’s new Windows-based TIMS2 system, installed in January 2000. Each rig operates under programmable controllers (PLCs) linked on fieldbus factory networks to the control room. A server collects data from some rigs, others have their own SCADA systems running on touch-screen PCs. The SCADA software acts as a data logger, replacing chart recorders by capturing channels of data for instant display.
TIMS2 uses a Microsoft SQL Server 7 database, Visual Basic for any tailoring work, Excel and Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) for ‘talking’ to other applications. Keable: “Control room engineers can now use browsers on their desktops to view web pages on either the SCADA’s web server or the HP fileserver. The browser presents test data as a graph within Excel, so operators can now manipulate the data easily, by type of test rig, project leader, or type of test. And we can cut-and-paste Excel stuff into Word. It’s all so simple.”
And the implementation? “It took 15 or 16 months in all. We spent about £100k, £80k on software, the rest on integration work [by Dickinson Controls] and a new server. And training the guys only took about 40 minutes! They’re all so familiar with Excel and Microsoft browsers,” he explains.
£85,000 and much more
Typically, 30% of the connected rigs are running at any one time. So at £5 a stroll and two visits a day, that’s a saving of £85,000, just by installing TIMS2. “But we didn’t justify the project based on these figures,” continues Keable. “There was no specific ROI. We just needed better, faster information flows around the business, from shop floor to top floor. And we estimated that using chart recorders [NSK headquarters in Japan had suggested this] for data logging would have cost us £400k.”
So customers and NSK’s European sites can now access the test data. “They can choose a rig and see live test results coming into the SCADA system,” says Keable. “This means a sales rep with a pocket PC or laptop can go to his German client and show the test results as they are happening. Trend graphs can also be displayed going back a couple of weeks. It’s just very professional now, and nobody else to our knowledge is offering this kind of service to its customers.
Author: Dean Palmer