Michigan machine shop turns corner with digitized work instructions

A factory operator at Pollington Machine & Tool Inc. uses a rivet gun for assembly, guided by digital work instructions displayed in Pico MES. Image: Pollington Machine & Tool, Inc.

A factory operator at Pollington Machine & Tool Inc. uses a rivet gun for assembly, guided by digital work instructions displayed in Pico MES. Image: Pollington Machine & Tool, Inc.

Digitizing work instructions and making them more visual is a significant way to help small to medium size machine shops streamline operations. This shift allows machine shops to eliminate binders of paper instructions, eliminating printing costs and making information more accessible. The digitization also allows machine shops to become more connected, to devices on their factory floor and clouds beyond it.

All changes that benefit small to medium size factories cut expenses and save time aid the manufacturing sector. In the U.S., small businesses make up over 98% of America’s manufacturers. Machine shops build a wide array of components critical to aerospace, automotive, aviation and medicine, from engine bearings to N95 respirators.

Solutions to bring down costs helps machine shops cope with inflation. It also puts them in a better position to purchase the latest equipment. The concern regarding machine shops’ health is evidenced by data showing orders for manufacturing technology are down 31% from December 2023 and 3.7% since January 2023.

Many small to medium manufacturers rely on paper-based systems to relay instructions. This activity is a good point to begin improving efficiency.

Pollington Machine & Tool, Inc., a 150-person company in north central Michigan, recently adopted Manufacturing Execution Software developed by Pico MES. The shift is benefitting the production of electric vehicles (EVs).

Pollington started communicating with Pico MES, a San Francisco-based company, in December 2022. The goal was to improve production of side rails, a component of a vehicle’s chassis that contains a multitude of necessary parts, including batteries, motors and wheels. Pollington is a Tier 1 automotive supplier for an EV original equipment manufacturer.

“The real strength of Pico MES is that a revision appears instantaneously across multiple devices. I don’t need to edit a document and then print and distribute copies across the manufacturing floor,” says Chris Stewart, manufacturing engineer for Pollington Machine & Tool.

As of spring 2024, Pollington uses Pico MES to create and share instructions about several products. Pollington hopes to eventually use Pico MES to deliver instructions for all products made on the floor.

“With Pico MES, work instructions are interactive, digital and can be changed instantaneously. This gives manufacturing engineers the majority of their day back for continuous improvement. Then engineers can talk more with floor workers to see how the product comes out,” says Bryan Bauw, chief operating officer of Pico MES.

Another advantage of Pico MES is that it stores the history of work on a machined part.

Scanning a part’s QR code allows an operator to see what steps have been taken to move the part to completion.

“Showing a part’s history simplifies shift handover between operators. It also indicates who was responsible for prior work. This increases safety and ensures less waste of time and resources,” says Bauw.

Machine shops help software developers “reverse engineer” processes 

Software companies like Pico MES realize an advantage from collaborating with machine shops because machiners explain how the software can be refined.

“Right now, we’re working on integrating a stack light (also known as an indicator or warning light) using a wireless scanner. If an operator scans a part, they can’t easily see the screen from where they’re standing. The functionality of the Pico MES module we are using to accomplish that was originally designed to turn on a bin light. This light normally turns on when a bin is full,” says Stewart.

Operators use tablets with digital work instructions in Pico MES to perform tasks in the assembly area at Pollington Machine & Tool, Inc, in Marion, Michigan. Image: Pollington Machine & Tool, Inc.

Operators use tablets with digital work instructions in Pico MES to perform tasks in the assembly area at Pollington Machine & Tool, Inc, in Marion, Michigan. Image: Pollington Machine & Tool, Inc.

Pollington is also determining how to get a direct notification light to turn on if an operator scans a part. Such efforts change the function of the software.

“We learn a great deal from the machine shops who are our customers. Talking to them gives us the ability to test our new features in our software. This shows us how to do things in a more robust way,” says Bauw.

Pollington enjoys working with Pico MES partly because Pico MES charges a flat license fee for software, including traceability.

“This allows us to experiment and talk with them about our ideas without an extra cost. As a company, they’re very laid back and helpful. Frequent communication is necessary because we’re trialing ideas to see how they work,” says Stewart.

When Pollington first began using Pico MES, it saw its operators pass critical safety requirements in two weeks. In 2023, Pollington was able to connect 18 work stations, digitize 100 processes and integrate 56 tools.

“An engineer can take still pictures and short videos with their phone. They upload them to Pico MES, integrating them into written instructions. Then operators follow along,” says Stewart.

He adds one of the most helpful things to record is what a product should look like when it is finished. That way a worker is more likely to cut or build it correctly.

Different possibilities with software

Pollington exemplifies the need for American machine shops to make tasks more understandable and easier for operators. The company is located in Marion, a village of 900 people. The family-owned shop has been open since 1966. Yet currently it is difficult to recruit and retain skilled workers. It is also hard to make production processes repeatable and consistent.

Pollington first heard about Pico MES from a consultant.

“Next thing you know, a representative from Pico MES was visiting. They showed us we didn’t need to do much from our end. They sent over some hardware, a kit with a Raspberry Pi server. We plugged it into our network on Monday and were testing by Wednesday,” says Stewart.

Another benefit of Pico MES is it provides work instructions in Spanish. Some workers prefer to access information in that language. In addition, the software makes sure an operator has correctly followed all of the steps necessary for a task before moving forward.

Pico MES captures data to make sure an operator has accomplished a step within the desired parameters.

“Say we have a caliper connected via Bluetooth to the company’s network. An operator can use it to measure a part and send the data to the program. If the part is within 10 mm of where it should be, the system will allow the operator to continue building it. You could never do this with paper instructions,” says Stewart.

Further, Pico MES interacts with a Zebra printer to generate a serial number for a part.

“This option provides traceability. After delivery of the product, a customer can scan the number to see what work was accomplished on the part. It also shows the order of the steps. This helps them see if there could be an issue with the part and where it would have occurred,” says Stewart.

The software cuts on costs partly because it allows a machine shop to continue using “dumb tools.”

“With Pico MES, I can connect a traditional air-powered rivet gun to a digital I/O board. This makes it a smart tool. I do not need to buy one or more $20,000 connected rivet guns to collect data,” says Stewart.

Bauw says the more companies Pico MES serves, the better it can train its representatives.

“Our work requires backing into companies’ existing IT systems and retrieving data from their machines. There are so many different types of systems and pieces of equipment across North America. We are learning a lot about how machine shops work and can modernize assemblies,” says Bauw.

Across the U.S., software like Pico MES is giving American machine shops the technology and collaboration necessary to modernize their operations.

“Before software like this, small to medium size machine shops, defined as those with between 50 and 500 employees, were still using data retention, distribution, measurement, and tracking techniques from the 1970s and 1980s. We are helping companies make the jump from Industry 3.0 to 4.0 practices, sometimes in days,” says Bauw.

He adds Pico MES is currently focused on working with small to medium size manufacturers.

“Large companies tend to have in-house software tailored to their operations. The software for enterprise systems is well suited to work with other technologies they have on their assembly lines,” says Bauw.