Almacam, the vital link in the sheet metal digital chain

Did you say Industry 4.0?

The forerunner of Industry 4.0 was a concept developed in 2011 in Germany. Originally it was a visionary government program referring to the fourth industrial revolution, after mechanization, mass production and automation.

With the arrival of digitization, industry is becoming an interconnected worldwide system, where machines, systems (ERP) and products are constantly communicating with each other.

The aim of the Smart Factory or Factory 4.0 is to achieve new gains in competitiveness  and to optimize consumption through energy efficiency.

In theory there are no barriers to prevent this convergence between industry and the digital world, since to a large extent it is based on tools that already exist: sensors, PLCs, Big Data, Internet of things, Cloud Computing, etc.

In practice it is necessary to set up a new way of organizing production, where  networks play a much more important role. Continuous instantaneous communication between the different tools and work stations integrated into the manufacturing and supply chains makes it possible to optimize manufacturing processes, and to improve flexibility in order to satisfy the individual needs of each customer more effectively.

In this global concept, each tool must therefore be able to integrate into the digital chain that models the organization of production, and communicate with all the information systems and machines in this chain, offering maximum usability and flexibility in order to adapt to demand in real time.

All our products based on the Almacam platform aim to do exactly that. The platform has been designed to provide pragmatic solutions to meet the demands of Industry 4.0.

Almacam for Industry 4.0: this is for real!

For many years our CAD/CAM solutions have been contributing to digitization of sheet metal working, automation and optimization of industrial processes, simulation and off-line programming of robots (welding, cutting, etc).

So of the five main domains concerned by Industry 4.0 (digitization of production, Big Data, Internet of Things, robotics and additive manufacturing), our software packages naturally tend to fall within the first domain. But Almacam goes much further in communication with information systems and the controlled workshop machines.

Almacam: the vital link in the sheet metal and mechanical welding production chain

Programming tools have often been seen as a mere option on the machine, but now they are understood to be a vital link in the digital chain. They make it possible to manage machine tools and optimize production in the workshop on the basis of information supplied by ERP, Production Management Systems and CAD.

Our CAD/CAM software communicates perfectly with the company’s information systems: leverage of data to start manufacturing or to manage inventory (ERP, Production Management, sheet metal quotes), retrieval of technological information concerning the parts to produce (CAD, GDT), transfer of production information (MES), etc.

This need for integration was taken into account when designing the architecture of our products; what you might call “Integration by Design”. So Almacam is designed as an open environment where communication with other information systems is managed natively and adaptively.

In addition to data exchange, Almacam comprises tools to control production and manage workshops, and these tools can if necessary be used by other external systems: planning of machine workloads, or supply of production statistics.

Secure data for total traceability and smart operation

From a pragmatic point of view, for our customers the principal benefit of these exchanges between the different components of the information system is integration. This enables them to save time, improve productivity, secure their data (e.g. by avoiding data recapture errors), and improve data reliability (e.g. native management of the impacts of a part modification).

Almacam functions in a similar way to an Electronic Document Management system (EDM). The system makes it possible to store any relevant data, in addition to being used to control the machine. This structured storage system, secured in a database, delivers complete traceability of all the processed and generated data. For example, it is possible to find the parts produced in a casting number, identify all the nesting positions where the parts for a specific order are placed, etc.

The modules for planning machine workloads and generating production statistics (material consumption, machine utilization time, etc.) depend directly on Almacam’s capacity to store and exploit data from the programming of the sheet metal machines. So the Big Data concept applied to Almacam makes it possible to supply structured statistical information to control/verify our customers’ sheet metal activity, or to help users improve the way they use the software.

Automation pushed to the limit, while preserving maximum flexibility

To fulfill the Industry 4.0 principles of optimization of manufacturing processes and improvement of flexibility, Almacam incorporates numerous algorithms that can be used as part of “assisted interactive” or “all-automatic” programming.

Automation has always been a constant concern when developing our software. All the cutting and punching functions can be automated and concatenated, e.g. for Almacam Cut: nesting, calculation of cutting sequence and generation of the NC file.

In the robotized welding domain, our off-line programming software Almacam Weld incorporates numerous automated functionalities, e.g. to duplicate programs between similar assemblies with different dimensions. This makes off-line programming more relevant from a technical and financial point of view, especially when production runs are constantly becoming smaller.

But this automation must not be detrimental to the flexibility necessary to respond to production contingencies.  In the case of Almacam, automation in fact contributes to improving flexibility since we offer numerous functionalities making it possible to support any modification affecting the production process.

This means modification of a part’s design is detected natively. The affected nesting layouts are identified, to be checked and modified if necessary.

Other examples: any nesting can be completed at the last moment if a new urgent orders arrives. If a machine is stopped for maintenance, a nesting can be produced immediately on an alternative machine, e.g. a scrapped part can be produced on an off-cut in order to complete an urgent order.

In addition to the consumption optimization required by Industry 4.0 which is part and parcel of our core business (reduction of material consumption thanks to our powerful automatic nesting algorithms, reduction of machine cycle time and therefore energy consumption thanks to our sequencing algorithms, etc.), automation combined with flexibility is an important feature of our products integrated into the factory of the future.

A scalable extendable platform to integrate new modules

Bearing in mind the market trend towards increasingly customized needs, one of the objectives in our design of the Almacam platform was to provide a solution for every specific development demand, at minimum cost.

By extension, by making available a set of tools to manage data and tasks, our platform also enables us to host additional modules in a completely integrated manner. In a way we have developed our own smart platform, guided by Industry 4.0 principles.

For instance the almaQuote module for sheet metal sub-contractors and manufacturers is entirely integrated into Almacam.  It relies on the technical functionalities of the CAD/CAM portion (machining, nesting, etc.) to compute material requirements and precise timings. Once the quote has been accepted, almaQuote is then used to automatically generate the production orders.

The assembly retrieval module assembly2CAM functions in the same way. It is used to recognize and retrieve any component constituting an assembly (flat part, tube, folded part, supply, section, etc.), and is integrated into Almacam. It can be used not only to draw up a quick quote but also to start manufacturing.

Cloud, IoT and virtual reality: the future of Almacam?

In parallel to Industry 4.0, the cloudification of CAD/CAM applications is well under way. Alma already offers an automatic nesting application in 100% web mode, based on its Powernest algorithms. In just a few clicks, a user can import their DXF files and start automatic nesting. The data are sent to the servers, and computation takes place in the Cloud. The resulting nesting is displayed on screen and the material gains can be estimated or compared with those produced by other software. These optimized nestings can be exported in DXF to be injected into cutting machines or into the user’s CAM application.

In the longer term, it is perfectly possible to imagine that all machines will be controlled on demand in SaaS mode in the same way: CAD files for the parts will be injected in advance, and the NC code corresponding to the machine will be generated automatically.

Meanwhile, thanks to new technologies (IoT, Cloud, virtual reality), we will be able to propose new services thanks to innovative applications, e.g. to control production remotely or automate production returns (Web interface to find out the status of an ongoing production order or declare the cut parts, draw up a quote on your cellphone or take a virtual tour in a robotized cell to view welding operations, etc.).