A small Louisville-based engineering company has created computer programs to enable thousands of machines to communicate in hundreds of manufacturing plants at some of the world’s most renowned companies, including Ford, General Mills and BMW.
Next month, that company, iGear, will unveil software that it expects will revolutionize the next underserved data exchange area in manufacturing operations: communications between machines and humans.
IGear, housed in a nondescript one-story building on Vine Crest Avenue, about 11 miles east of downtown Louisville, dates back to 1986. Companies such as Ford Motor Co. for years had lamented that they were struggling to get certain pieces of equipment — presses, robots, paint booths — to communicate with one another, said iGear President Don Korfhage.
Computers that controlled parts of the manufacturing processes often did not work together, much like incompatible DVD systems Blu Ray and high-definition DVD. The equipment manufacturers were protecting their fiefs: They had made their devices incompatible with those of their competitors, because they wanted their customers to buy only their devices.
But customers needed their machines to be able to communicate to make manufacturing more efficient, said Korfhage, an electrical engineer and UofL grad.
He said it’s much like how the ubiquitous smart devices in homes, from toasters and fridges to thermostats and garage door openers, don’t all speak the same language.
Programs that allow all of these devices to communicate easily and effectively with one another — and with humans — will grow in importance, Korfhage said, because the number of devices that will have to be connected in the next five years is projected to be about 25 billion.
Companies such as Ford, UPS and General Mills do not develop software on their own because their expertise lies elsewhere, Korfhage said. And, he said, the economics for developing complex software work better for iGear — which can sell the program to hundreds of facilities worldwide — than for a manufacturer that can use the program only in dozens of plants at best.
To help manufacturers’ machines to communicate, iGear created Connect. The software assures, for example, that a car gets the proper seats, paint and battery, while the manufacturer can keep track of which machine did what, when and where.
Connect and other software have allowed the small company, which employs about 60, to develop into a global leader for machine-to-machine communication. Connect is used in more than 750 manufacturing plants across the globe, from the U.S. to China and South America.
On Nov. 14, iGear will introduce its next product, Squeaks, which will enable the manufacturing industry to go beyond machine-to-machine communication to incorporate machine-to-human communication. IGear developed the platform, which is a mix between a messaging app and Twitter, in the last 18 months. Korfhage and iGear Senior Sales Executive Mark Doyle recently showed IL what Squeaks can do.
Korfhage said that in manufacturing operations, even modern ones, communication between machines and humans is inefficient. Take messaging systems on an assembly line: If something goes wrong, a stack light at one end of the line may start to blink, or a speaker may belch out an alarm.
For one, the information is conveyed only in the vicinity of the assembly, and often to people who do not need to be notified. Worse, the information often does not reach people who really need to be notified, because they may be far away from the line. That results in delays and downtime, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Korfhage said.
It also means lots of information sources may be blurting out lots of loud, annoying and confusing messages that get to a lot of people who don’t need them, he said.
The information also is imprecise. A blinking light may indicate a problem, but it does not convey what the problem is: Does the line need more raw materials? Is one of the parts malfunctioning? Does a machine need oil?
It’s archaic, shallow communication, Korfhage said, and it’s slowing down manufacturing.
The Squeaks platform allows manufacturers to filter information that’s generated by the machines to direct it to the right people.
If a machine is about to run out of a critical raw material, Squeaks can send a message (“Flux capacitors needed on Line 12.”) to the forklift driver’s smartphone or smartwatch to let the driver know which line needs which material. And unlike an email, which may languish in the forklift driver’s inbox for hours, the Squeaks message will pop up right away, like a text message. The forklift driver can acknowledge receipt, and type that he or she is on his way. That message gets sent to everyone who subscribes to that feed, to which other employees can subscribe if they have an interest in a particular assembly line or even a particular machine on that line. Operators on a different line may be completely oblivious to the information exchange.
Messages are time-stamped. If the forklift driver does not acknowledge the Squeak within a certain period, which can be adjusted, it can be escalated to another forklift driver or to a supervisor.
Squeaks also allows employers to keep track of how often problems occur, how quickly the employees respond and what their workload is. And it can notify appropriate personnel when a machine does not perform as expected, such as when a press that routinely churns out 60 parts per minute drops to 50 or 45.
Communication between employees who use Squeaks works with labels, or hashtags. Users can even attach photos or videos to messages. If a printer malfunctions, the employee can take a photo of the erroneous printout and send a message such as “Printer is malfunctioning. See photo. Please address ASAP. #Printer.” Any employee who subscribes to #Printer will get the message.
Squeaks in action
Truck parts manufacturer Jost International has used Squeaks since late August to detect errors in its production line more quickly, which has saved time and money, said Scott Dyk, the company’s information technology manager.
Jost makes products like truck hitches and landing gears, which are the legs that hold up a semitrailer when it’s parked unattached to the truck. The company employs about 275 and has manufacturing operations in Michigan and Tennessee.
In the Michigan plant, one of the processes to produce landing gears involves the punching of holes into a tube. The holes have to remain within certain tolerances, a fraction of an inch, but before Squeaks, too many tubes that did not meet specifications were moved down the assembly line, Dyk said.
The parts are automatically inspected by a machine, but employees sometimes misread or failed to read altogether the digital readout that showed results of the inspection, and that meant noncompliant parts moved down the assembly line.
Dyk said that if the tolerances were exceeded by a significant margin, the defective parts usually were detected in the next manufacturing process, but even that slowed down production.
But, much worse, some parts with a slight deviation from the specs would make it all the way down the manufacturing line and were not caught until the landing gear had been assembled. That meant the product could not be sold, had to be disassembled and the tube replaced, only to have the piece reassembled again. All of that wasted time and money, Dyk said.
Now any time a tube fails the inspection, Squeaks sends a message to inform the appropriate personnel. Squeaks can be customized to notify the operator, on a cellphone or Apple Watch, for example, to remove the faulty part from the assembly line. Through Squeaks, the operator can acknowledge the message and reply that the part has been removed. If the operator fails to acknowledge the message within a certain period — 60 seconds, five minutes, an hour — Squeaks can be set up to forward the message to the operator’s supervisor, who can then check why the operator has not responded or forward the message to another employee who can respond.
Dyk said catching the errors right away helps Jost save a lot of time and money.
And, he said, Squeaks enables the company to generate a log of when the parts come close to exceeding tolerances, which will allow Jost to better predict when the machine is wearing down. The company can then schedule the appropriate maintenance service — rather than having to shut down the operation unexpectedly.
Dyk said Jost can save a lot of time because Squeaks monitors the equipment and sends out a notification when they threaten to exceed tolerances.
“I can see how valuable it is,” he said. “It’s big.”
Korfhage said Squeaks is being beta tested in eight plants, including Jost’s Michigan operations. While Squeaks can be used in small manufacturing plants — one version for 10 users could cost $5,000 — Korfhage said most of the testing has been done in operations with at least 250 employees and at least $100 million in revenue.
Customers will pay iGear an annual fee to run Squeaks. A large manufacturer may spend tens of thousands of dollars on Squeaks, but save hundreds of thousands of dollars in avoided downtime, Korfhage said.
He said he expects that about 80 percent of iGear’s current customers will adopt the platform. He also expects Squeaks to roughly double the company’s revenue to $10 million next year.