When an automotive company faces a quality issue, they pull out all the stops to fix it. It’s easy to understand why. An issue in one vehicle can lead to them having to recall thousands – or millions – of vehicles to ensure passenger safety – all at great cost to the company and to their brand.

It’s no surprise then that a recent report from Deloitte suggests that improving quality management is one of the top three business priorities for senior executives within the industry. Manufacturers need confidence that each part of the huge supply chain underpinning the industry is providing the best quality parts – at a volume that will satisfy the world’s growing demand for cars.

In turn, this supply chain relies on machines that can produce great quality at high volume, and automotive suppliers cannot afford for unplanned downtimes to impact delivery schedules. Companies at every part of the supply chain have to trust that the machines on their production lines will work as expected every hour of every day.

As one of the leading manufacturers of horizontal machining centres for automotive suppliers, German manufacturing systems supplier Schwäbische Werkzeugmaschinen GmbH (SW) therefore has a huge responsibility for consistent quality and productivity.

Machines that make machines

SW horizontal machining centres help the automotive supply chain manufacture parts for brakes, valve blocks, engine heads, parts for power train, gearbox housings (or more). Known as innovators in the field, SW always has the productivity of their customers as a focus – whether through the way their milling machines are designed or through the software they use to help maintain them.

The company helps their customers boost productivity through hardware, because theirmulti-spindle machining centers allow their customers to produce up to four machine parts simultaneously – where competitors can only produce one part. Customers save money and space because they only need one SW machine to produce more output – great for increasing output. But it is not just the hardware that makes SW a force for productivity – software plays an important role too.

Since 2003, SW has been using a Siemens-based application to monitor the operational health of their machines in the field. Data from this solution has been stored ‘on-premises’ at their German servers in Waldmössingen, and customers required extensive training to benefit from the data that each machine collected.

Making more of data to boost productivity

For many years this solution has helped SW to improve quality and productivity – but as the costs of storing and hosting data increased, they needed to find a more sustainable solution that would let them scale across their 1600 connected machines worldwide. Jochen Heinz, Head of Industrial Data Services at SW, elaborated:

“Initially, – SW wanted to continue with the Siemens relationship, but before doing so, we discovered Predix from GE as the platform for the industrial Internet of Things. After studying the market, we decided to go with a platform as a service solution. That was when the Predix platform finally came <s>i</s>nto the game. Predix offered the most mature industrial PaaS system on the market. At the same time we decided to hire more development engineers for our IDS (Industrial Data Services) department to improve our own expertise. Now – as of May – we will have the first release of our Predix based cloud platform.”

Avoiding unplanned downtime is good for productivity

The solution that SW is now deploying allows its customers to optimize their maintenance schedules, mainly to anticipate potential downtime before it happens and to minimize the customers total cost of ownership. This is helping their customers to become more competitive – and makes SW’s machines more attractive to use.

By using machine data more effectively, SW also sees an opportunity to greatly improve their customer services. Today their business model works like software services work on a Tesla car. While each machine is fundamentally the same, customers are given the choice to purchase different digital services they want to use. These services boost the performance which is typically not available without a digital service contract. And, as SW use this digital solution as part of their internal QA process, they benefit from economies of scale at the machines installation phase as well as the productivity boosts inherent in Predix analytic capabilities.

But SW are convinced they can take things further. Most customers they sell to, have a production line with many machines – not all manufactured by SW. Jochen concludes:

“Customers do not have one SW machine only – they also have lines of our machines integrated into an automation concept. Typically, we provide 60% of the equipment onto a plant, including several machines at the end of the line, like washing machines, pressure testing equipment, etc.

We have access to around 70% of the data from our lines. Our goal is to hook up not only SW machines but also to connect the complete line, including the third-party machines. Our target is to provide digital services of the complete line to our customers, as well as valuable insights from the data and we already have started to develop and deploy this continuously. This will be the future.”