Innovative tool tells whether or not your investment is economically viable

Digitisation, Industry 4.0, connectivity, smart manufacturing... these are just some of the many buzz words that we have been bombarded with over the past few years. Gradually, though, really interesting applications are emerging that could represent considerable added value, also for joiners. For instance, Flanders Make has developed a tool, together with Reynaers Aluminium, that enables to simulate the impact of an investment.

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Assessing investments

Decisions about major investments can have a decisive impact on the health of your company. Being cautious, not rushing into things, listing all pros and cons and going through several scenarios on how the future might look with or without this investment: this is probably a very recognisable scenario for any joiner, possibly causing sleepless nights in the bargain.

"The tool simulates the impact of an investment on the production flow." - Jan Goos, Flanders Make

Apart from the question within which term the investment will pay for itself, there is still another factor that is all too often underestimated when considering substantial investments: the impact on the rest of your production. Suppose you consider purchasing a new CNC machine to be able to meet the increased customer demand. In this event, you need to do more than include the rising sales in your decision whether or not to invest. You should also ask yourself whether the increased output will not lead to bottlenecks elsewhere in your production process. The production process might come to a halt at the angle press or you may have insufficient storage space for your raw materials and finished windows or you may need extra personnel to be able to process everything on time. Often, dozens of unforeseen scenarios are possible. To eliminate as many blind spots as possible, Flanders Make has developed a tool that can guide joiners through these investment scenarios.

Removing doubts

Unlike in other manufacturing industries, there is a close link between developers and manufacturers of windows and doors. This requires some clarification. Peter Ottevaere, sales manager at Reynaers, guides us through this process: “We also have this link. We develop aluminium systems and all corresponding accessories that are needed to build windows, doors, sliding windows and façades. We do not manufacture windows and doors ourselves, for this we appeal to our customers, which we call manufacturers. They buy the systems from us but take on the production themselves. They, in turn, may either install these systems themselves or act as intermediate manufacturer, selling their windows and doors to installers. We as developer make sure that manufacturers have everything they need to execute their manufacturing process.”

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Assisting customers in selecting the right machines

We said “everything they need” in the previous sentence. And this may be taken literally. Because also the software and machines are delivered by the developer. Paul Vanneste, Product Manager Industry 4.0 of Reynaers Aluminium, explains: “We ourselves work for our internal production according to the ISO 9001 quality standard but for us it is also important that our customers deliver good products to the end customer. This requires permanent efforts from them and us. What began with the development of small tools such as drilling jigs and punching tools, has evolved over the years into a comprehensive package, including machines and software. We ourselves work closely together with machine builders making CNC machines, milling machines, angle presses and sawing machines. As such, we can recommend machines to our customers that match our products. For the sake of clarity, this is no obligation, every customer is free to buy the machines that he wants. But because these machine come with some advantage, they do stand to profit from this offer.”

“For instance, the .dxf files with profiles are already integrated in these machines and we can also provide for the necessary training sessions. They purchase the machine and, in a manner of speaking, can immediately set to work with it. In this way, our manufacturers can work fast and efficiently and deliver high-quality products. We stand to profit as well: because they can realise a higher output, they will buy more profiles from us.”

Tool simulates investment

We’ve already mentioned it: investment decisions are not always easy to make. For smaller companies, these decisions may even decide about life and death. When a company wants to produce more, it runs the risk of creating bottlenecks. Raw materials that are supplied too slowly or semi-finished products that cannot be disposed of rapidly enough, delays at machines further on in the production chain, insufficient storage space... the potential problems are diverse. We gradually notice a new evolution in the strategies followed by manufacturers to assist joinery workshops in the selection of their machines.

"Although this tool functions perfectly well by itself, we see great potential in connecting it with other recent innovations." - Paul Vanneste, Product Manager Industry 4.0 at Reynaers Aluminium

This was the case here as well and it has led to the development of a tool. For this, we called in the knowledge of Flanders Make (cf. box text). Jan Goos of Flanders Make joins the conversation and explains how they work: “Advice on machines used to be mainly based on the experience and knowledge gained by the manufacturers from the market: customers told them how long it took them to manufacture a given window or door and, based on this, the average time needed for an order could be estimated. They used to work like this here as well but about seven years ago they took it a step further. They timed for a whole year all possible actions for a well-defined task, e.g. manufacturing a window, door, sliding door... These actual measurements were entered in a large Excel matrix, so that they had disposal of a database with a wealth of information. They felt they could do more with this huge amount of data but lacked the specific expertise to do it all by themselves.”

All factors mapped

“More concretely, they wanted to develop a tool that allows to simulate the impact of an investment, using their time registrations as a basis. This practical knowledge was useful because our strength lies mainly in the theoretical side of this story. Besides, we had already worked together with them in the past for other research projects.”

“After the first introductions and after having defined the project scope, we analysed in a first stage the time data available in the database. Then, we listed all factors that are important for calculating the profitability of an investment, such as costs and time spans. It also had to be a universal tool: it should work for both small and large joinery workshops. And we’ve integrated a feedback mechanism through the software, which enables us to make the tool increasingly accurate.”

“A user can fill in various factors such as the amount he wishes to invest, the aimed at output, his present machinery, the number of employees that are active in his production, etc. Subsequently, the tool simulates the impact on the production flow. For instance, a growing business can simulate the purchase of a CNC-machine. The tool will not only calculate the new output but will also point at additional investments that may be needed to avoid bottlenecks. Also the payback time of the investment is shown. In short, the tool is an instrument to analyse potential investments based on all available information.”

Also solving bottlenecks

“In addition to this application, the tool is also used to solve bottlenecks in a production process. Using the tool, they can simulate various solutions. Furthermore, the system can be used to help businesses to make the switch to a paperless environment.”

"The tool also helps customers to solve bottlenecks in their production process." - Peter Ottevaere, Sales Manager at Reynaers Aluminium

“We see that their customers that wish to apply this principle in their production environment are often confronted with flows that aren’t working as well as they should. With this tool, these issues can be solved more easily, for instance by optimising the buffering system or suggesting other investments.”

The future?

The development of the tool appears not to be an end station for Reynaers Aluminium. Paul Vanneste: “Although this tool functions perfectly well by itself, we see great potential in connecting it with other recent innovations. Some examples: the software platform Reynaflow is our intelligent system for managing the workflow of our manufacturers. Through ‘smart manufacturing’, their production processes are optimised and the quality and production time improved. It is an auxiliary tool towards a paperless production, especially in combination with screens that display the production data."

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“A second example is the VR room Avalon. In this room, 25 laser projectors generate a perfect 3D image, through which projects really come to life. Every setting designed in a commonly used 3D software programme can be displayed here. It is also possible to make real-time adjustments to these projects. This tool was originally solely intended for architects, who can visualise major building projects with it. But we also see potential to connect it with the tool developed by Flanders Make. Uploading the business premises of our manufacturers and then watching in real time what the consequences would be of the installation of a machine would be an ideal next step. It would enable us to ‘walk’ together with our manufacturer across its virtual production area and discuss the possible options.”

More information about customised innovation

This article was first published in Schrijnwerk.

Jan Goos - Research Engineer

Jan Goos - Research Engineer

Jan Goos is a Civil Engineer in Computer Science and Mathematical Engineering (KULeuven). He obtained his PhD at the VUB in 2016, on modelling and identifying parameter-variant systems. Since then, he has worked at Flanders Make as a research engineer. His favourite research topics are data science and optimisation.

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