We all know millennials are super savvy when it comes to technology, but it didn’t take long for Don Korfhage, president and founder of IGear Corp., to extrapolate further. “Communication methods are in the dark ages in manufacturing compared to the way my 16- and 17-year-olds communicate, ” he says.
An engineer by training, the head of the Louisville, Kentucky-based software and solutions company acted quickly to develop Squeaks, as in “the squeaky wheel gets the grease, ” a communications method that screens out all of the needless patter in traditional methods of conveying information and focuses only on the data critical to an individual or operation in a plant. “It’s Twitter for manufacturing in a sense, ” Korfhage says. “We have a growing amount of news to deal with in our personal lives and in manufacturing. It becomes more information than a human being can process.”
A 20-year veteran of the automotive manufacturing world, over the years Korfhage has proven an efficiency expert in the industry, putting in place a number of systems to reduce downtime and improve plant efficiency.
“In the automotive industry, the consequential nature of missed information or blind spots — that’s substantial, ” Korfhage says. “You can end up with downtime if you didn’t maintain a piece of equipment or have a problem. And downtime is measured in thousands of dollars a minute, or if it’s a quality issue, hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
IGear has commissioned multi-million dollar centralized monitor rooms, deployed hundreds of HMI & MES systems, integrated with the most advanced radio systems, built hundreds of Andon production boards, and integrated with thousands of process visualization devices (stack lights, counters, LED displays and such). That leaves Korfhage positioned to recognize just how much noise employees encounter in an automotive plant, and the light-blinking, machine-rumbling chaos of it is beyond distracting.
“You’ll have data systems throughout the plant, with log-ins and individuals going through all that data, ” Korfhage says. “It’s cumbersome to get to the piece of information related to them.”
It was his idea to filter the information so that, based on an individual’s role, the data was quickly and efficiently transferred directly. “In a manner similar to Twitter, we incorporate hashtags, ” Korfhage says. “Unlike Twitter, machines can generate a squeak if something looks a little awry. This also makes people more accountable. They can’t say, ‘No, I didn’t see or know about it.’”
Working with auto powerhouses such as Toyota, Ford, Honda, BMW and Volvo has given Korfhage an impeccable sense of what works. He recognized the immediate application of Squeaks for smart phone and tablet use, but he also sees this and additional developing technology being applied to wearables. In the automotive industry, it’s critical to know exactly what individual operation a piece of equipment is supposed to do so — a matter of knowing who is where in minding a massive shop. The objective of Squeaks is to share actionable information to the right people at the right time and cement that accountability, while keeping alive a collaborative spirit.
“It’s crazy how the next generation shares information and gets to what they need to know. They would never think of waiting for the evening news or the morning paper. They’re on top of the news. If a plant manager wants that concise, direct approach, this is it.”
The technology was rolled out in November 2016 at FABTECH in Las Vegas and already is running in 20 plants nationwide.
At JTEKT North America, a Toyota-owned company, Squeaks are in place when a serial number is questioned or a traceability concern or quality control question emerges. At Toyota in Princeton, the torque quality assurance and calibration information system is now operating on Squeaks. When a torque tool isn’t performing correctly, it generates a Squeak.
Some baggage systems at Chicago’s O’Hare International are beginning to squeak when they have issues routing luggage through bomb detection and on to the correct passenger gate.
Korfhage is in conversations with fulfillment groundbreaker Amazon to discuss its sortation system. “Just like the automotive industry, if something goes wrong in a sortation system, you’re going to have a lot of unhappy people the next morning, ” he says.
Immediately after Korfhage’s “eureka” moment, he sat down, sketched out a PowerPoint and met with his R&D expert, who agreed the idea was precisely what manufacturing as a whole needed and started work on it the same day.
“We’re a little ahead of the curve, ” Korfhage says. “As much as a system of this type is needed, I wonder why somebody hasn’t come up with it before, or why it took us so long. But if you take a look at manufacturing, it’s an industry that’s slow to accept change.”
That may be changing, too. IGear came to the automotive industry first as a global problem solver with its first product, Connect, which integrates real-time information among a diverse set of technologies. “We saw a lot of technologies didn’t speak the same language, ” Korfhage says. “Some were French; some were German — with data moving between dissimilar technology, we needed a common language. We created a translator in 1, 000 plants. Chrysler was one of the first companies that embraced the Connect system.”
When Korfhage graduated in 1982, he went to work and realized no one was listening to his ideas. He started his own business, and soon Ford rewarded his initiative, telling him they would keep eight people busy for two years on the launch of a light truck in his hometown of Louisville. His company could handle the new microcomputers that few were programming at the time.
He later started Advanced Production Systems in 1986, building on the principles of integration and spun off IGear in 1999 to laser focus on software development. Korfhage’s company employs approximately 60 with just over half of those dedicated to IGear’s work.
“The other part of IGear becoming popular is Assist (a manufacturing execution software controlling the quality and performance of production processes), ” Korfhage says. “It’s Assist in the sense that we have a work force challenge nowadays. A lot of automotive manufacturers need step-by-step operator instruction or verification systems as tasks are done. Squeaks would sit on top of Assist. Anything of concern would use Squeaks to notify appropriate personnel.”
Korfhage says as more millennials enter the workforce, more will bring with them the sort of technology we enjoy as consumers. Wearables will be part of that, and the brain behind Squeaks is working with an Apple development team on how wearables will look in the manufacturing environment. He’s already integrated technology with the Apple watch that is currently being deployed.
“The mobile device is still awkward in manufacturing, but with a watch, you can look at your wrist and see what parts need to be delivered, ” Korfhage says. “It’s more convenient and safer. And if you bring in all the anticipated features, like biometrics, safety and built in GPS, these plants, whether tracking inventory in a more virtual manner or knowing where people are, will be more efficient.”
The watch may also perfect the sort of grand plan pioneered by Toyota to give power to the individual on the line. “I can see wearables really prevalent on the shop floor in manufacturing and throughout the coming years, ” Korfhage says.
Text By CARA CLARK // Photos by AARON BORTON