Manufacturing burners in compliance with industry 4.0

0
118

Flam Gas widens its manufacturing site by developing a project that includes a corporate upgrade and the introduction of automated production processes.

With over half century of expertise gained in the sector, Flam Gas is one of the protagonists on a world scale in the production of gas burners for cooking appliances in domestic and professional ambit. With a yearly production of one million of units made in Italy, it relies on as many as 1000 different models. One of the features that characterizes Flam Gas consists in its approach not as a common supplier, but as a partner that can design and implement tailored burners according to customers’ specific requirements. The headquarters are located in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, at Fiume Veneto, in Pordenone province, with a production site that takes up an area of 6,000 sq.m.
On the occasion of the enlargement of the manufacturing site and the introduction of new technologies and automated machines into the company, we had the chance of interviewing Mrs Stefania Leto, innovation project coordination manager at Flam Gas.

Stefania Leto, innovation project coordination manager at Flam Gas

Could you illustrate us the enlargement project of your manufacturing site? Besides the extension of the industrial area, does the project involve also an organizational and technological renovation of corporate processes in compliance with the lean manufacturing?
The enlargement concerns the establishment of a new structure taking up over 400 sq.m. inside the manufacturing site at Fiume Veneto, intended as warehouse for the stocking up of the necessary raw material for our production. The new structure used as warehouse and equipped with modern stocking technologies has allowed us to reorganize spaces and to exploit production areas more efficiently, permitting us to plan production flows and processes in leaner and more efficacious manner, according to lean manufacturing principles. In addition to the extension of the industrial area, the project then involves also an organizational upgrade that we are developing and refining through the introduction of sophisticated technologies and modern automatic machines, in conformity with a precise innovation plan of our manufacturing processes, suiting the technological requirements demanded by the market, so permitting us to satisfy with promptness and efficiency our customers’ needs, with innovative high-quality products. Therefore, it is a wide-ranging renovation project, already undertaken some years ago, along an all-round evolution and review course, giving a new image to the company, starting from the logo just updated.

Your products have reached high qualitative standards; to go on pursuing this direction, besides new technologies, how much are the staff’s skills and constant training determinant?
We believe that the staff is one of the fundamental resources to reach the quality and reliability standards that characterize us. In the over fifty years of activity in the sector, the expertise constantly gained in the company by qualified operators is one of the primary highlights for Flam Gas. We think, then, it is important to maintain high competence standards at all levels through a constant training of workers. The introduction of modern technologies and state-of-the-art automated machines into the company together with the integration of new professional figures has been the opportunity to gain new competences, besides implementing and structuring the staff’s training. In Flam Gas training is not meant as pure academy but it is a time to share the analysis of real cases, such as products with defects returned by customers or problems surveyed in manufacturing processes, with the goal of enhancing the awareness and the vision of the causes/effects of the non-conformity. We believe that in this way we can create a united team of skilled professionals inside the company, permitting a constant amelioration in operation, to full benefit of the product precision and quality. Moreover, we have carried out the “job rotation” practice, that is to say a rotation programme of the staff so that workers can periodically execute different activities and tasks, coherently with their professional course. In this way, operators can dialogue, sharing their experiences, and enriching their competences by learning different technologies, besides acquiring higher awareness of the various machining processes and of the relative criticalities of the manufacturing system in its whole. We are investing in the “job rotation” because we believe it is a more stimulating and involving working approach that allows performing a significant constant training oriented to the team building and an important opportunity of personal and professional growth for each operator.

Robotic welding carried out by cobots

Speaking of new technologies, can you describe us some of the state-of-the-art automated plants that you have introduced in production and what advantages are they bringing to the company?
Among the new technologies and the innovative plants recently acquired that have remarkably contributed to giving an evolutionary turning point to our manufacturing processes, there are the NC automatic machines for laser cutting and precision-welding robots. In particular, we have integrated an automated machine equipped for the precision laser cutting of metal tubes and a combined machine that can carry out laser cutting of both sheet metal tubes and sheets. The introduction of robots into the company has allowed us to make qualitative welding standards evolve, permitting us to execute precision machining hardly achievable with manual processes. In the welding department we have introduced an industrial robot and two cobots, that is to say collaborative robots. The industrial robot is an automatic machine with two workstations: the operator loads the workpieces and the robot carries out autonomously the precision welds, following the instructions programmed by specialized staff. The two cobots are instead collaborative robots since they are provided with sensors with protection systems that allow them to operate by interacting, and simultaneously, with the operator in the production cycle. Equipped with arms with higher degrees of freedom, they can carry out precision welds also along profiles in complex positions, without having to displace and to reposition the burner, in favour of the machining quality.
The investment in forefront technologies and in the automation of these manufacturing processes has proven to be an advantageous choice since the beginning because it has allowed us to give up complicated manual processes, increasing the machining precision and efficiency in repeatable manner, then maintaining in time the qualitative standards reached, decreasing machining times and consequently production costs. Furthermore, the new automated plants have permitted us to decrease errors and to implement innovative projects and solutions for our products, due to the possibility of executing sophisticated machining typologies, making us even more competitive on the market. I would like also to mention the introduction in the company of automated vertical warehouses, enabling us to reorganize and to optimize the stocking spaces of materials to feed automated machines, and all workstations in general, efficiently. Concerning machining processes, through the automated warehouses it is much easier to programme and to manage the collection of codified components and materials as indicated in the bill of materials, drastically reducing errors. Moreover, the loading and unloading of the material through barcode readers permit to keep the inventory status updated in the management system.

Automatic machine for precision cutting with laser technology

Can you describe me your managerial system and how it is integrated with the digital resources of the various divisions for the data sharing?
The managerial system that we use to monitor and to manage production processes, from the order receipt to the job order fulfilment, is part of one of the fundamental stages that make up the renovation process that we are facing. It is a customized software that we are developing in collaboration with an Italian software house, designed and modelled according to our specific requirements. Being a system implemented in compliance with our requirements, it allows us to monitor manufacturing cycles more efficaciously than whatever standard “adapted” managerial software. Therefore, the software we have developed allows us to manage the data in optimal and targeted way, with a great interconnection potentiality. After an important activity of design, collection and exchange of data, processing and tests, currently the system is stable and integrated with the various corporate departments. In production, each operator enters the system by inputting his credentials through dedicated terminals, distributed in various areas inside the factory. Each operator, after obtaining the access to his page of the managerial system, can browse for each job order the programmed machining and a whole series of further technical information, such as the materials to be used, the equipment and the programmes to be recalled on the automated machines. The operator inputs the machining start and end for each manufacturing cycle, warning the technical office, through the software, about eventual anomalies detected or data to be implemented. Where the interconnection of the managerial software with the computers that run automated machines is possible, the software monitors the whole manufacturing process, registering all data concerning the machining, but we think that also the data and the reports sent to the managerial software by single operators are important to enrich our database, with the target of making our data analyses even more precise and detailed.

New material acceptance area

What are the advantages for the company obtained from the monitoring and the analysis of shared data through the connection with the automated machines in production?
The interconnection of the managerial software with automatic machines allows us an accurate monitoring of the machining phases, enabling us a detailed data analysis to assess production times and then costs, energy consumptions, the eventual anomalies and machine downtimes. The analysis of these data results in a great advantage to make machining phases more and more efficient, optimizing manufacturing flows and processes. The result is a significant reduction of time and resource wastes and an increase of the machining precision and quality and then of the final product, making us more and more competitive in satisfying market demands. After the introduction of the robotic welding in the company, I would like to mention the development of the “interconnection 4.0” project; it is an interconnection between the cobots and the managerial system for a data sharing in both directions. Through this system, cobots can self-manage for each job order, automatically recalling in the machine the machining programmes to be executed on the single workstations, once the operator declares the machining start in the software. By means of this data sharing, we can monitor in real time the machining quality, the quantities produced, the time taken, eventual anomalies and machine downtimes. Moreover, through the creation of a historical file in the database, we carry out a detailed data analysis of manufacturing cycles, which enables us to calculate the machining times and costs of the various articles, besides performing technical machining analyses for a constant improvement of the product quality.

What kind of relationships do you establish with customers?
The relationship with customers is a cornerstone for us, in fact we do not propose ourselves as a mere supplier but as a partner that can make a tailored product that satisfies specific requirements. We support and take care of customers making our know-how and our expertise available, from the initial consulting up to the implementation of the finished product. We wish to transfer our values of reliability and competences to customers, to establish and to consolidate in time a collaboration and confidence relationship.
Besides, we are working to improve and to organize our sales network more efficiently, to be able to take care of our customers from close up, shortening the necessary times for supplies and to strengthen the support and collaboration service.

How do you manage the development of a new burner, from the design to the job order fulfilment?
To offer a high-quality product, when a burner is commissioned to us for a new cooking line, the target of Flam Gas is satisfying the customer’s requirements through the design and the manufacturing of a customized burner, with the suitable technical features for the application type, the housing spaces and the materials of the cooking appliance where it will be installed, besides obviously the type of feeding gas and the destination market. Therefore, for each cooking line of each customer, Flam Gas manufactures the tailored burner for the specific application. Our research and development laboratory is equipped to design and to implement prototypes to carry out the tests of the new burner ordered. We establish a collaboration relationship with customers since the early phases: if, for instance, they supply us with the cooking appliance since the beginning, we succeed in notably shortening the prototype design and implementation times, permitting us to execute the real tests since the first prototyping stages, as we can integrate the new burner model into the destination appliance. Once solved criticalities and carried out all tests for the quality and the performances of the model, complying with the safety and conformity requisites of the regulations in force, the definitive prototype is subjected to customers’ assessments. Once obtained the validation, we proceed to the production of the pre-series, with the relative check tests. Once overcome also this phase, we can then start the definitive production of the new burner.

Open-fire burner series NTS

What engagements is Flam Gas taking for the reduction of energy consumptions, with the consequent drastic reduction of CO2 emissions in production?
The upgrading process that we have started with a properly structured organization according to the lean manufacturing and the introduction of state-of-the-art automated machines have allowed us to decrease errors and machine downtimes and to streamline manufacturing processes, diminishing both energy and material wastes, with a consequent reduction of the wastes to be disposed. Moreover, the new technologies allow us to monitor the energy consumptions of the different machining phases in detailed manner, allowing us to improve production processes in favour of the energy efficiency enhancement. The functional organization of spaces according to lean manufacturing principles has permitted us to handle the raw material and semi-finished products in rational manner optimizing production flows, thus resulting in a reduction of consumptions for the material displacement, too. We will continue the project started, availing ourselves of innovative plants and equipment to decrease more and more energy consumptions and wastes, in favour of the environmental protection. Among medium-term projects, we are planning the installation of photovoltaic panels, too.

The regulations about the environmental sustainability and the energy transition have started a progressive reduction of emissions from fossil sources, including gas. Can you give us an idea about your future projects according to a green vision?
Concerning future projects in a green vision, we are committed to the “hydrogen project” with the goal of acquiring and perfecting in the shortest possible time all necessary competences for the implementation of burners powered by hydrogen, which can grant the same levels of safety and performances as current products to customers. Our research and development laboratory has already manufactured the hydrogen-powered prototypes and is carrying out various tests to collect data and to assess potentialities, the behaviour of materials, the criticalities and the safety limits for future developments.