A roll of steel at a Belgium plant Mark Renders, Getty Images

Four Ways to Crowdsource Innovation

How manufacturers using open engineering challenges to find solutions.

Having an organization adopt open innovation is a challenge in itself, but having the manufacturing area do it is even harder. The challenge of connecting with external people becomes even bigger when internal people do not have the time to take care of it.

However, an open approach can be of great help for manufacturing organizations that look for solutions to complex challenges. Some manufacturing challenges can be difficult to solve because either there is not a tech solution in the market or, if it does exist, it is too expensive.

Open innovation can save you a lot of time on scouting for different solutions, and the  diversity of solutions you receive tends to be very rich. You can even find solutions that have already been tested in other countries, or are already working efficiently in other industries, or are completely new.

Here are several challenges that we have solved using open innovation through engineering crowdsourcing. Companies can conduct an open approach either on their own or through a provider who specializes in this area.

1. Automating the Handling of Heavy Parts

By the end of 2017, Forsac, a subsidiary of CMPC, decided to try open innovation to solve a challenge in one of their Chilean plants. The objective was to find or develop a solution to automate the handling of heavy cardboard tubes at the end of the manufacturing line. These tubes, which could weigh over 25 kilograms each, had to be manually palletized to be moved to a drying area. The real challenge was not only to automate the operation but also to find a system with an investment below 20,000 Euro.

The challenge description included a layout of the manufacturing site, together with the specifications and cycle times of the portfolio of tubes. In less than eight weeks, 40 participants joined the challenge and proposed a cross-section of automation solutions, including different types of robots, non-gravity systems, and innovative palletizing equipment.

The winner of the challenge was Maksym Gaievsky, a mechanical engineer from Ukraine with specializations in hydraulic equipment for plants and aviation fuel systems.

We learned from this challenge the importance of preparation before sending out the open call. When you are trying to improve a process, you need to perform a thorough analysis and confirm what the business case is before looking for solutions.

2. Smart Quality Control of Laminated Steel Bars

Industry 4.0 intends to turn traditional factories into smart ones that can operate autonomously, and even make an efficient use of resources that matches their changing needs. For that purpose, many steel companies need to automate activities and processes that are still performed manually. Some of them are related to quality control activities at the end of the manufacturing process.

In July 2017, Celsa, a leading European multinational in long steel products, wanted to automate the measurement of the straightness of laminated steel bars. We launched the challenge to find a solution that could continuously perform the control, avoiding the halts that caused a 3% productivity loss. One tricky aspect was the need to perform a 90º tipping to gather the information and generate alarms in case of non-conformity.

A video that accompanied the challenge showed how the operators in the plant performed the activity, as well as the required specification of the dimensional control (profiles such as IPE 140, IPE 160…, tolerances, layout of the plant).

Forty-three engineers participated in this challenge, which took two months and featured a prize of 5,000 euros. The winners were a team formed by Rami Boutassghount and Justo Mercado from Spain, who proposed a system based on electromagnets and laser.

The winning solution was extremely simple and low cost, and did not require any changes in the manufacturing line.

3. Water Consumption Optimization

In August 2016, ArcelorMittal, a global supplier of steel products approached us to optimize one of their manufacturing plants by reducing water consumption. The challenge was to maximize the amount of water recovered from the cooling towers but also to keep the plant going, even if the river dried out during the summer.

After four months, Matteo Bruni, an engineer from another company in Italy, was awarded 10,000 € for his innovative solution, which can recover up to 4,5 m3/h of the discharged water.

Diverse technologies were assessed during this challenge, some traditional and some futuristic—including, for instance, different kinds of heat exchangers, additional air-condensing modules, air-recirculation for bubbling, air exhaust, etc.

This story confirms that open innovation can be used not only to solve productivity  challenges but also sustainability ones, either by cutting down the water and energy use or improving the safety of their workers.

4. Productivity and Safety Improvement in a Foundry

This is another Industry 4.0 challenge that aims to reduce safety risks and increase productivity in a steel foundry.

Back in March 2017, a stainless steel manufacturer was looking for an automatic or semi-automatic alignment system that placed the spoon of the foundry over the sprue, thus eliminating any hazard for the operators.

The challenge included pictures and a description of the process, which goes as follows:

A spoon is placed over a filling sprue, in which the steel was poured down to fill up the ingot molds. This activity is intuitively performed by the crane operator. If the position is correct, the pouring can continue by opening the hole at the bottom of the spoon. However, if the spoon is wrongly placed, part of the casting will be poured out of the sprue and the spoon will need to be aligned again to complete the filling process.

Forty-eight participants joined this challenge. The best solution came from a control process performed in a different industry, with some minimal adjustments One of the critical points in the validation of this solution was its ability to work in a dusty environment with extremely high temperatures.

Cross-industry innovation is highly valuable to attract existing solutions and reduce the risk of “reinventing the wheel.”

Enrique Ramirez is an industrial engineer who has worked in operational excellence for manufacturing companies for more than 20 years. Today, he is the CEO of ennomotive, a hub for engineering innovation.

 

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