The Connected Factory

A revolution is happening in manufacturing. Here at Bullen, as we become part of the revolution that is “Industry 4.0”, “Factory of the Future” or “Connected Factory”, there are days our team members feel like kids in a candy store. There are other days, of course, where the candy appears to be stationed at the top of Mount Doom. The growing pains of becoming a connected factory are real, but in the process we are learning a lot about the benefits of and strategies for a small but global company joining the digital age of manufacturing and machining.

Bullen provides ultrasonic machining services of hard, brittle materials such as glass, silicon, CVD Silicon Carbide, and Ceramic Matrix Composites for the Semiconductor, Aerospace, MEMS, Pressure Sensors, and Medical industries. Bullen has partnered with companies in these industries to help advance their technologies and, in the process, has advanced our own in order to remain competitive.  Ultrasonic technology is historically a fully manual process utilizing manual controls and operator adjustments.  However, in our customers’ connected factories of today, higher precision and increased efficiency are the standard, and we are adapting accordingly.

Over the last few years, we have incorporated Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM), Computer Numerical Controls (CNC), automation, data analysis, and feedback loops into our custom-designed equipment, fixtures, and tools. Our proprietary feedback technology allows our ultrasonic machines to “adapt” to our customer’s part variation automatically. This innovation increases precision and accuracy while keeping overall costs in check.

Of course, not everything can become “connected” in the factory in an instant. The small size of our company, the limited engineering resources, and the continued demand in our workflow have presented great challenges as we attempt to digitize more operations. However, the small size of our company has also been one of the biggest benefits. We can adapt and move quickly toward the competitive position in which we need to be. Since we design and build our own machines we have been able to insert digital technology architecture into our equipment and control systems. This digital architecture is a platform for the connected factory of our vision for coming years.

We are not there yet with our vision, but we are taking strides each year. The key seems to be in identifying the long range vision while not trying to accomplish too much too soon or making things too elaborate. As we add new technical employees it has been invigorating to see how they have taken up the vision, add to it, and help build the ever-evolving Bullen.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is one that all manufacturers struggle with when it comes to connecting their factories: proprietary technology and information. Our advancements partnered with our customers’ technology allows for products never-before imagined, such as implantable heart monitors, low cost DNA sequencing and economical and environmentally friendly aircraft engine components. However, we can’t invent, advance and connect at the cost of giving away our intellectual property, especially in such a specialized manufacturing sector. There is a fine line we walk daily in sharing enough to ensure a robust communication without risking our decades of investment. The answer is in evaluating each relationship and information to determine the limits. We share detailed manufacturing data almost real time with our customers concerning their part data. However, there is a line drawn at sharing characteristic process data in relation to our technology.

The struggles and challenges all become worth it when our engineers can pull up detailed technical process information on our data dashboard and easily identify trends from the last shift’s production, or when underlying technologies detect a problem and stop a process before it creates a failed feature in our customers’ parts. Our existing workforce is adapting and being trained in the new technologies, and we have expanded and continue to develop our engineering and research workforce. Working at Bullen provides those in technical positions the unique opportunity to work on and create cutting edge “Industry 4.0” technologies right here in a small, rural community in Preble County, Ohio.

 

Eric Norton, Technology Manager