A Cut Above
To remain competitive in a global market, you need to offer value and service. HE&M Saw of Pryor, Oklahoma does just that. We spoke with Chief Engineer Maxwell Harris about competition from overseas, the effect of artificial intelligence (AI) on the industry, and what it means to be family-run and owned.
HE&M Saw started as an engineering firm in California, specializing in customized machinery. Then, the company began making bar feeds for other companies’ band-saws. The owner saw an opportunity to make a better band-saw, and through that process, the company became the HE&M of today.
“We began with a small, half-inch band machine and methodically worked our way into the late seventies and early eighties when we endeavored to make larger equipment. Now we manufacture an eighty-inch by eighty-inch capacity machine,” says Maxwell.
Along with this equipment, HE&M makes customized and non-standard machine products. Because it is vertically integrated, HE&M controls the process from start to finish.
Being family-run has allowed it to reinvest and continually strive to be at the forefront of the industry. It is engineering and technology focused, and being American-made is crucial to making quality products. The company also ensures that customers have the necessary support on both the engineering side and with service out in the field.
“Just because a customer gives us a problem to solve, doesn’t mean when they receive the equipment, our job ends. That is when our job begins,” says Maxwell.
The aim is to make sure the machine is meeting customers’ needs and is holding up to the design criteria. Beyond that, HE&M wants to support a machine for fifteen to twenty years.
Unlike many its competitors which import individual components or have gone overseas for band manufacture, HE&M tries to make certain that all its components are designed to be replaceable. Everything is designed for a twenty-year lifespan.
The movement toward more information exchange and automation in manufacturing has been given the name Industry 4.0. A huge component of Industry 4.0 is about having the data to make business decisions.
“There are two different terms for Industry 4.0. The standard American spelling of it, which talks about data and about making informed decisions. Then there is the Industrie 4.0 with the German spelling of the word that speaks to being fluid and able to operate and run quantities and lot sizes, anywhere from a lot size of one to a lot size of two thousand parts,” explains Maxwell. In the German model, the aim is to be able to adjust on the fly to changes in demands.
Industry 4.0 relies on manufacturing standards like MTConnect, which lays out how to retrieve process information from machines. MTConnect is an open source standard for communication and data. It is used today to improve process flow from start to finish, but more importantly, it permits the machine to give information on the current status of the equipment.
HE&M is starting to see more of the computer-numeric control (CNC) machine manufacturers supply MTConnect and other data gathering techniques allowing people to apply Industry 4.0. HE&M wanted to be the first band-saw manufacturer to supply methods that customers can use to gather data.
“The band-saw may seem like a simple machine, but it is critical because it is the first process for a lot of parts. Due to that, if it shuts down, so will the facility, so we want to make sure that we are monitoring the health and prognostics of the equipment,” says Maxwell. HE&M can see if the band is starting to wear and predict the failure before it occurs. That way, it can be easily replaced rather than waiting for a failure to occur and waiting for parts.
HE&M strives to ensure that a customer’s operations are focused on being efficient and wants to make sure that the job is optimized for the materials that it currently has. To do this, it has developed technology similar to MTConnect: Smart Saw Connect.
“The Smart Saw Connect methodology was developed by the engineering team here at HE&M. The vision is to make sure that we have the ability for visualization as well as job programming, all within a central package. It will not only handle the saws but also be able to generate cut lists for other pieces of equipment outside of our line of saws. We want to become the main industry standard for band-saws,” says Maxwell.
A list is produced that indicates what needs to be cut, and the operator must be able to program the machine and operate it. Smart Saw Connect allows the engineers that design the parts to program the cut list. The machine operator does not need to have that skill, and this is important because it is becoming harder to find a skilled workforce.
“We have to adapt and improve the intelligence of the equipment so we can streamline the efficiencies of the companies we work for,” says Maxwell.
MTConnect allows HE&M to communicate, using a standard language from the machine, to either a database that gathers the statistics of the machinery or directly with Smart Saw Connect to create a digital plan.
“MTConnect is used in two ways. If the customer already has a software package that allows for the visualization of CNCs and uses MTConnect, they can then adhere to the same standard that everyone else is using and integrate the saw into the same ecosystem. Conversely, Smart Saw Connect can be used to view the status of CNCs that are in their current process,” says Maxwell.
HE&M is looking to have a staggered release of the Smart Saw Connect product line. This is being developed with a focus on job programming, and that is another reason for the MTConnect partnership. It gives HE&M the ability to output a standard data set. Within the next year, the company will start making use of all the data.
“In that way, we can really focus and develop to make sure everything within this ecosystem is intuitive and helpful to everyone within the process, from the maintenance manager down to the saw operator, all the way up to the CEO of companies purchasing the equipment of HE&M,” says Maxwell.
Today, everything is done in a reactionary manner. We look at what is occurring and react to it because there is no easy way to predict what will happen. As more data is gathered and processed, programs will learn how to respond. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the buzzword of the moment in manufacturing and every industry across the board.
AI will begin to have an impact on the future by being predictive rather than reactionary. It will be able to process data and understand failures so the machinery can either inform customers that a failure is imminent or be able to respond before it occurs.
“Across all industries, AI is becoming an interesting game changer, trying to figure out ways to improve processes and keep machinery up longer,” says Maxwell.
The amount of research and thought going into AI is vast, and the systems are so varied that what we envision AI as today may change drastically in the next ten years as systems are able to be more competitive and autonomous.
Within the last five years, firms have been able to come up with AI that can beat people at video games. There is AI that can automate and predict traffic flows and AI that can perform real-time pricing for applications such as Uber.
Some of HE&M’s biggest competitors come from China and Taiwan. Because Taiwan is a Department of Defense protected country, it is not subject to tariffs on products. The Taiwanese products can be manufactured in large quantities and distributed at low cost. The selling price to its distributors here in the U.S. is almost on par with what HE&M’s material and manufacturing costs are. It cannot be competitive with this equipment.
“Our biggest challenge is not about how we can manufacture a product cheaper that may not withstand the test of time. It’s about trying to figure out how to become that innovative company that generates a product which is intelligent and able to accomplish a lot more, cut faster, outperform competitors, and justify that extra money so it can still be made in the U.S.” says Maxwell.
The answer is to continue generating ideas such as Smart Saw Connect. HE&M is doing more than developing ways to monitor the machines; it is producing an network of equipment. It is working on the quality of the HE&M product line, so that if someone does purchase its equipment and Smart Saw Connect, that customer will get more than their money’s worth and a quicker return on investment than with a lower-cost saw.