For Williams Tool Inc. (Chadwick, NY), a small, metalworking job shop, it was becoming painfully clear that some changes were needed.

Williams Tool specializes in high precision turning and milling of stainless steel, titanium, brass and aluminum components for the valve, aerospace and instrumentation industries. And as the company's business increased, parts inspection was turning into a bottleneck.

With 18 CNC lathes in house, often running 18 different jobs simultaneously, Williams Tool's ability to ship higher volumes of parts was suffering, because its inspectors could not keep up, notes Jeff Gerling, the company's general manager. "Between first piece inspections, roving floor inspections twice daily and final inspections, there just wasn't enough time in the day," Gerling relates. "Parts were not being shipped because they hadn't been final inspected and machines were sitting idle because they required first piece verification."

In early 2001, Williams set out to update its quality software as a way to break the inspection bottleneck, while improving shop flexibility and giving machine operators more ability to evaluate how their machines were running. The company talked with numerous vendors of traditional statistical process control (SPC) software, but could not find a product with the features it wanted, Gerling says.

The logjam was broken, however, when Williams linked up with High Tech Research Inc. (Deerfield, IL), a provider of knowledge-based, process control software called Micronite, which was developed specifically for metalworking operations. High Tech Research promotes Micronite as a new category of software known as intelligent process adaptive control technology (iPACT), which the company says provides next-generation capabilities beyond traditional SPC.

For Williams Tool, one key benefit of the Micronite software is its ability to provide real-time feedback to machine operators, says Gerling. Based on "expert system" technology built into the software, the system "takes all your dimensional readings, analyzes them, and gives you immediate feedback on what you should be doing," Gerling notes.

The software and hardware package that Williams acquired from High Tech includes 10 workstations-one for each operator running multiple machines. This set-up gives the operators the ability to be proactive. "They can monitor their tool wear throughout the shift with graphic pictures and drift control charts that they can easily understand," says Gerling. The software tells the operator when a tool is worn or about to break and should be changed, he adds. "It will tell the operator that he needs to go back and requalify the dimensions pertaining to that tool immediately."

Another important feature for Williams Tool is Micronite's ability to monitor a large number of part dimensions, unlike many SPC packages that handle only a few critical dimensions, Gerling says. "In our business, an operator may have up to 50 variables and attributes for which they are responsible." Williams Tool is also pleased with the new software's easy programmability, and its built-in ability to "interface with any gages you have or any you might want to buy," Gerling adds.

Williams Tool began running the new software system in December 2001, and the company is already reaping the benefits. "The days of coming into work in the morning and finding problems of operators running bad parts are now virtually nonexistent," says Gerling. Nonconforming discrepancies were down by 60% during the first four months this year compared to the same period in 2001, he notes. Further, the company has reduced by 50% the number of pieces scrapped or requiring replacement by customers.

Because of the software's ability to provide real-time dimensional analysis of parts in-process, it has taken the pressure off the operators and inspectors alike, says Gerling. Operators can focus less on part dimensions and more on issues such as correct handling of parts to avoid damage that could cause nonconformance. Inspectors, likewise, no longer even check part dimensions during final inspection, but rather analyze the part data provided in printouts from the new software system, says Gerling. "Now, when inspectors scan trays of parts, they're looking for unacceptable nicks, dents or scratches that they previously had no time to even look at," he adds.

"I can honestly say," Gerling sums up, "that I don't know how we functioned without this software before."

High Tech Research Inc.
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  • Expert system-based software monitors part dimensions in real-time and provides immediate feedback to machine operators.
  • Nonconforming part discrepancies were down by 60% during the first four months.
  • The company has reduced by 50% the number of pieces scrapped or requiring replacement by customers.