Plug Your Future Into Software

Kim Phelan

Software has evolved into a silent but active partner at work in every foundry, though ranging widely in scope and benefit depending on an operation’s size and management’s appetite for technology. When harnessed well, it can become a powerful presence that helps foundry personnel organize, plan, bid, produce, inspect, predict, report, and, in a nutshell, compete successfully now and in the future. 

For most, adoption of various types of software has been a gradual process over many decades, and because it’s embedded in so much foundry technology, it might not be top of mind among management’s chief priorities. But given the growing digitization of the industry, now is not the time to think passively about software in your business. 

Rather, software for the foundry operation is more important than ever and requires consistent and intentional planning, budgeting, investigating, and understanding, say two experienced foundry professionals. A posture of curiosity should prevail among foundry leaders, says Philippe Dubuc, CEO and president of AFS Corporate Member Fusium in Quebec. And though there may be significant effort, time, cost, and possibly pain in the pursuit of software that best fits your needs, it’s simply a nonnegotiable.

“You must do it,” he asserted. “Today’s tools may not be exactly the way you want them, or tomorrow’s tools either. Nothing is perfect, but when you feel a solution is mature, go for it. If many companies are using a tool, it’s probably because it’s good. Use [software] tools to fulfill a need in your business and not just to have a gadget. You don’t have to be an early adopter, but you can’t afford to be the last one either.”

Jiten Shah, president of AFS Corporate Member Product Development & Analysis LLC in Naperville, Illinois, warns that foundries reluctant to invest in digital manufacturing, which includes the latest sophisticated software technologies, will face grave competitive disadvantages in the very near future. 

“Our industry is truly migrating into the digital manufacturing age, called Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing, where software and electronic devices are integrated and communicating with each other seamlessly,” he said. “It’s coming, and in fact it’s already here. Foundries need to soak it in and be ready to adopt and embrace this digital manufacturing wave. Those who are not part of it will be left behind.”

Data, he added—retrievable, at-your-fingertips information that’s analyzed and harnessed––helps replace the lost knowledge of retiring baby boomers, enables predictive maintenance functions, identifies causes of casting problems, and produces real-time reporting that drives efficiencies throughout the business.

“This will be the only way you will survive,” Shah said. “Your competition will be doing all that, and they are able to reduce their scrap, improve their productivity, which you cannot do the conventional way anymore. And now your cost is higher because you are making a scrap, for example, of 4%, and your competition has like .1%. You have to adopt this technology; it’s at the heart of your future.”

Top Priority

The first artery to the heart of any foundry is its ability to manage all aspects of the business with ease and accuracy, and this is why an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system may be the single most vital type of software in the company. 

Sources believe many foundries still use Excel spreadsheets to manage the business, but shifting to digital ERP software has countless advantages over manual or makeshift business systems. With a multitude of modules available, as well as plug-in compatibility with other software, an ERP facilitates functions in many departments. Enabling resource planning (as its name suggests) and budgeting, ERP software comprises budgeting, job costing and quoting, which includes labor and time estimating. But it extends further to support documentation, internal and external reporting, certifications for customers, as well as other integration with customer systems for job progress and delivery tracking, for example.  

While several AFS Corporate Members offer ERP products tailored for foundries, Dubuc found the marketplace lacking 25 years ago and made the unorthodox decision to build his own ERP solution for his company. Its fitting appellation is “Le Fondeur,” which in French means The Foundryman.

“At the time, there was no solution for a small foundry,” he said. “And it’s not an option to not have an ERP. Foundries that are using spreadsheets and Word documents, that’s not an ERP. If there’s one thing you cannot afford to avoid using, it’s this.” 

The beginning of his homegrown ERP in the mid-1990s consisted of big frame terminals using BBX and Unix software—it’s now in its third generation, and the company has moved to a SQL Server database. Dubuc said he and his team manage the content and design of the system but outsource the programming. 

“Minimally, an ERP needs to have a good interface and a well-made, structured database,” he said. “And that database needs to be accessible so you can do your own reporting. Inside an ERP, you need to see every transaction—a transaction being a quote, a purchase order from a customer, production logs, scrap logs, shipping, invoices and so on. We also manage human resources inside it, so the punch-clock, payroll generation, employees’ files, everything.”

Generating reports is of utmost importance to Dubuc, whose company creates numerous, continuous reports for KPIs and forecasting purposes. While the database in his ERP is strong, additional data from the accounting software, a separate CRM software, and various managers’ Excel files have to be merged together—what they needed was a system that could combine data from everywhere to make all necessary reports, he said. They ended up with Microsoft Power BI, a user-friendly, cloud-based solution that meets all reporting requirements, and doesn’t rely on an IT department to reinvent a report format every time he wants something new.

“What’s cool about this tool is if you want to explore it and do reports, it’s all free until you want to share your results,” he added. “So if you’re on your own and you want to take a few weeks or months to make your reports, it’s all going to be free. But even when you’re ready to share, it’s pretty cheap.”

Bedrocks of the Industry

In order to remain viable, foundries of any size must adopt two fundamental types of software: (1) computer-aided design (CAD) software and (2) simulation modeling software. 

“At a bare minimum, the foundry needs a CAD package so they can read electronic 2D and 3D drawings, estimate the volume, estimate the tooling costs, and then provide a bid to the client,” said Shah. “Without CAD, they won’t get that opportunity. Our customers, the OEMs, don’t deal with paper drawings—nobody sends you hard copies; that’s not going to happen. They just email you the CAD file to get the quotation.”

For the foundry that has installed robotics automation in the plant—a growing strategy to combat the shrinking skilled workforce—an additional CAD programming module like CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) will be needed, or, if preferred, a separate programming software for robotic cells can be purchased and integrated with the company’s existing CAD software, said Shah.   

Simulation software, available at different price points to satisfy small, mid-size, and large foundry budgets, is used by foundry engineers in all casting processes to play out and anticipate the physics-driven scenarios of a rigging and process design from a casting’s CAD file. It will simulate filling, solidification, microstructure, properties, distortion, raising red flags about any potential defects or production challenges. Yet despite its predictive value, not all foundries have invested in simulation software and instead outsource the simulation function.

“That’s totally true,” said Dubuc. “But I’m not a fan of outsourcing this because it adds time and cost,” he said, both of which have to be passed on to the customer. 

Putting the Fun in Functional

Another software category Dubuc considers essential in the foundry is communication software for the production team to guide work activities from the time a new casting job arrives into the plant till it’s shipped out to the customer. Fusium uses a Kanban style project management software called Trello, but many similar products are available in the marketplace. With Trello, virtual cards representing jobs move through columns, and workers throughout the company have access to specific areas they need to perform their jobs. 

“It helps us get things done quickly,” he said. “A card grows with added communication, files, and screenshots—it’s like a social media inside our company. Instead of big files on your desk, these cards are all in columns in the system.

It also facilitates instant, streamlined communication while a job is in progress. 

“I’m the boss, but someone in the shop can tag me and say, ‘Philippe, I have a question for this, blah, blah, blah, and here’s a picture,’ and, boop, I can answer that question even if I am at the airport waiting for my plane.”

Dubuc chose Trello for a couple reasons: (1) It pushes out tasks to mobile devices, reducing delays and driving efficiency. (2) The database is accessible. (3) The cool factor is off the charts, which matters when you need everyone onboard and using a software system. 

“The first response we got from our workers was, ‘Wow, it’s cool. It’s like Facebook,’” he said. It’s a pretty big tool and they’ve made really complex stuff easy. If it’s fun, people are more willing to adopt it. This is made to be cool—I have my little icon; it’s a cartoon character. When I see gamification in a tool, it’s a good starting point.” 

The Future of Fixing

Predictive maintenance has already become a reality in larger, advanced foundries, and adoption of the monitoring software that helps avert machine breakdowns will only continue to expand. Equipment from molding to furnaces emit data through sensors, and today’s maintenance software puts real-time status and schedules on a dashboard, keeping crews abreast of machine condition and wear before failure occurs.

“The current trend is to have a connected enterprise,” said Shah. “This is part of Industry 4.0, and it is happening now, not off in the future. There are multiple software products gaining popularity, and it’s going to evolve, but they are going to tie all of these different areas of operation together and integrate with the business side of the foundry.”

The future may be here, but it will take sizeable capital investment to make the software upgrades you want and need a reality. Budgeting and strategic planning will get you there, even if expendable resources are scarce. Dubuc, who considers his company small with three locations and 90 employees, said he invests $100,000 per year on software, a reflection of his commitment and belief in the value for his company and customers. 

Shah added that when you invest in new software, don’t forget to budget for the maintenance contract that will provide upgrades that aren’t normally free—the 24/7 tech support makes it worth the 12%–15% additional cost. Training employees is a hidden cost to consider, as well—the time away from doing their jobs can be two, three or more days. 

Once your new software is installed and running, be patient and resist the urge to reject it because it’s different from what you’re used to. Like any other capital investment, set a realistic goal, timeline, and a business case with return on investment.

“What I see often is foundries are using a new tool and they try to use it in the same way they worked with a manual system,” said Dubuc. “So they struggle with it and say it’s not a good tool because they can’t make their same spreadsheet or they can’t get the same blue color they used to have. They try to mirror what they had in their new software, and in the end, they quit and go back to their old method.

“Be curious,” he said. “Take the time to educate yourself. These things are doable. Take advantage of them.”      

Click here to read the full Software in the Foundry issue in the digital edition.