Leveling The Productivity Playing Field For Quality Inspectors!
Cathy: So, if you think about it, we’ve been very unfair to our quality inspectors in a small number of square feet proportionately. It’s true in our machine shop for sure. We introduced multiple brands of very sophisticated inspection equipment. Each with its own complex proprietary software to learn and support. It’s expensive. When I look at our quality department or that of some of the bigger manufacturers, I picture the magician’s plate-spinning act because we expect a lot from the talent in inspection.
So, in contrast we know it makes absolutely no sense to purchase, train, and maintain multiple CNC programming applications. Could you imagine on the shop floor with all the advances we’ve made, (and again we have a limited number of really talented CNC programs on the shop floor) if we threw Mastercam, AutoCAD cam, fusion and all these other sophisticated CNC programming software at them? First of all, it introduced a lot of chaos. Second, we can’t expect the limited amount of talent on the shop floor to be able to handle all those things. It’s very expensive as well. We’ve learned that lesson a long time ago. We need to make that philosophy and that mindset cross the barrier into the inspection Department as well.
Allan: Absolutely. Joining us in today’s conversation is Nathan Frost. Who is the Vice President of sales and marketing for QxSoft, the owner and developer of CMM Manager. Let’s get started. How are you doing today Nathan?
Nathan: Pretty good, busy. We’re through all of our reseller agreements with everybody in North America that we know pretty well. We’re getting into signing up some of these International resellers. I’ve personally met a few of them face to face, only a couple of times and would probably recognize them by their face. Just rekindling these relationships with people that are commercial contacts inside of Nikon that I’ve pretty much dealt with over the years. It’s been kind of an interesting past few weeks.
Cathy: Stressful to say the least. I think we’ve only had a couple of foreign relationship building meetings. I can’t imagine what multiple meetings like that would be.
Nathan: People coming out of the woodwork. Some of them are still just now realizing that we’re an independent company and fundamentally motivated to work with us because you could imagine working with a small company. We’re pretty flexible and eager to set up any type of relationship that we can have with these resellers overseas. Well, the red tape and bureaucracy that you may have with working with a bigger company.
Cathy: Yeah, that’s exactly why we’re winning business too.
Allan: Nathan, can you introduce yourself to everyone? Tell the world who you are, what you do, and why we’re here.
Nathan: My name is Nate Frost. I’m the VP of sales and marketing & co-founder of QXsoft. We started with the CMM Manager product as an independent company years ago. We were purchased in around 2008 – 2009 by Metris and then shortly after by Nikon Metrology. So just in the past four months, we’ve become an independent company again. We’re now fully responsible for CMM manager, sales, development, support and so on. Yeah, so we started off actually as a spinoff from a couple professors and some students at OSU. At some point, probably in about 2005 we moved here bordering the suburbs and into an industrial center. We’ve got seven employees right now. That’s four of us doing development, two full-time help desk guys. And then again because of the nature of our small team, even I’m doing the help desk pretty regularly and we all kind of take turns. We actually find that that works out well for our developers. One thing that we’ve seen developers of this type of software struggle with, is limited exposure to customers and limited exposure to what the product is really trying to achieve for the customer. So, when we get our developers involved in the help desk and talking to customers and interacting with customers gives them that much more insight on this development work that they’re doing and functions that they’re adding into our software. What our customers’ expectations are and really helps them get to that point, much more efficiently with that extra insight from the customers. So, we’re back to something that’s a little more comfortable for us with a small team and everybody wearing multiple hats, including myself. As a VP and founder of the company, I’m still talking to customers on a daily basis and giving support and really interacting with our customers.
Cathy: As owners were readily available to speak to and solve problems for them and you know including the talent that we have here.
Allan: Right, I think that has a lot to do with the way that today’s “thank you economy” works. Kind of the way people do business these days. I think people with the older mindset might think “Oh, the president is trying to reach out to me. What are they trying to swindle me on?” You know what I mean? The president, the owner supposed to be this guy up in the ivory tower that has his title and all the sales engineers are the ones that reach out. But now we’re getting to the point since we’ve been flooded with that for so long now that you hear from the president or the owner of the company is like a breath of fresh air, you know? So, what do you guys do? CCM manager is the product, quick soft is the company. What do you guys do?
Nathan: So, we make the CMM manager product. It’s a plug-and-play retrofit software that allows installing and operating on any type of CMM. We support motorized CMM’S from all of the major manufacturers. So’ when you’re thinking of Mitutoyo and Hexagon and ZEISS and so on… We’ve got software that works on all of those different systems, whether it’s motorized or manual we support probably a half dozen unique probing systems. And of course, our Legacy with Nikon. We also support the Nikon vision inspection systems and then again like the CMMs, those come in manual and motorized varieties. So basically, we’re creating a piece of software for a lot of our companies that have purchased CMMs and inspection equipment. Even portable arms through the years that are of course all different OEMs and brands. We’re producing a piece of software that allows quality staff and inspectors to operate all of those different pieces of equipment with a single unified software package.
Allan: Shorten up that that learning curve on the complexity of it all, sure. What’s been like the kickback from the OEMs are the OEMs okay with this? Are they excited about this? I know that you have a few that are working as a reseller on that. So, I’m taking it, those guys are cool with it.
Nathan: Yeah, so it’s a little easier now as an independent company or even as part of Nikon several years ago it became a little easier for us to talk to these OEMs. Some time ago Nikon owned LK Metrology that manufactures CMMs in the UK. Once that Branch split off from Nikon, it started to become easy for us to talk to some of these other OEMs. So, we’re working with the likes of l Helmel and Wenzel and even Mitutoyo overseas. Now as an independent company, it’s become very easy to talk to these people because we’re not selling a competing CMM frame. Only offering them software. We don’t have any other competing products. They all have their own software as well but, you could imagine these people that are manufacturing CMMs are really interested in selling the CMM frame and a lot of times they’re giving away their software for almost nothing, in order to sell their CMM frame.
Allen: Maybe even at a loss?
Nathan: Right! When they have a customer that comes to them and demands that they want to buy a CMM, but it has to come with CMM manager because this customer has already used CMM Manager for years on maybe three or four other pieces of equipment. It makes it a lot easier now for these OEMs that are cooperating and working with QXsoft to also offer CMM manager into their portfolio.
Allan: Sure. I’m not trying to make an assumption here. But if they feel that this CMM manager can provide an easier start up, faster starting point, and faster learning curve. They can get the machines up and running faster. Then they would probably be excited to sell them that over their own proprietary software.
Nathan: Yeah, we have several, at least a couple, OEM’s that we work with that are still stuck with these old text-based programming languages. Primarily DMIS that have pretty steep learning curves and that can be very powerful pieces of software. But again, for the types of shops that we deal with and customers that we deal with. Where you’ve got a guy that maybe is running some piece of manufacturing equipment one day or one hour and then running the CMM the next hour. Having those types of overly powerful, overly complicated applications don’t do those types of customers any service at all. Because you want somebody to walk from one system to another system. Inspection systems, but also these people are typically working in some sort of manufacturing environment where they’re operating manufacturing equipment as well. So having that one piece of software where they can jump back and forth from one system to another and having a piece of software that is very approachable and much easier to use when you’re not using it on a daily basis. You can walk away for a month and walk right back up to it and immediately operate it.
Allan: Everything makes sense. Sure. Yeah, that cross training is a big deal.
Cathy: It’s huge. As manufacturers ourselves. It’s exciting to uncover software like CMM manager and we did a recent podcast on Onshape and we’ve kind of tied these two things together so we have that universal standardization in the shop. A lot of our customers for our universal fixturing have multiple different kinds of CMMs and I can just see them struggling with limited staff because it’s really hard to find quality, very talented quality inspectors, and then have them learn Mitutoyo, Wenzel, DMIS Calypso, a number of different ones and they’re all amazing in their own right. But it certainly introduces quite a challenge.
Nathan: We know several of these software’s that you mentioned. Where it’s almost something you put on your resume and it’s really an achievement to become an expert in these types of systems. You go to find one person that can operate one of those can be a challenge. Let alone the scenario that you’ve described where through the years they’ve bought a ZEISS machine, a Hexagon machine, and a variety of different CMM systems. So now to operate all two, three, or four of these different systems. It’s almost impossible to find an individual that can operate those software’s on all those different systems.
Cathy: Well, we just experienced that in the last year or so. We had one brand of machine with completely different software than the new brand of machine. Right? So, if I add up all of the cost of training and the number of hours that we’ve invested in the first machine, in the software to run it and then add it up… Then layer on top of that when we switched brands of machine, we’ve had people in here training and sent people to school. The length of time it took to figure out the programs on the new machine those kinds of things. So, it’s very expensive especially for a small manufacturer like us. When we make those changes and then you know, as I mentioned before, there’s some manufacturers who have maybe five different CMMs and vision systems in their shops and each one of them with their own very complex software. I can see having a standard program like CMM Manager would make huge improvements.
Allan: What do you see as far as the state of the manufacturing industry as whole, in the metrology side of it? How were we, versus how we are now, versus where we’re going.
Nathan: So, I guess just road map wise, where are we heading? We tend to service not the highest Tech spectrum of what’s available with the CMM. So currently CMM Manager doesn’t support things like laser scanning and you know some of these new cutting-edge probing systems. Our main focus over the years has been helping typically small to medium-sized companies revive an older piece of equipment. So, a lot of these companies don’t have a budget to go out and buy a new CMM. Just because the software that they have is outdated and they need to update to a newer Windows operating system. Or they need to leverage CAD capabilities that their older software didn’t have. So we’re kind of reinventing ourselves in terms of how do we do this again. When we first started making CMM Manager was around Y2K and we earned a lot of customers just from the fact that they were operating old Linux systems, DOS systems, and non-graphical based programming systems for their CMMs. So, they were transitioning to what 20 years ago, was kind of a modern thing to just visualize the CAD model, the pro paths, and all of the things that happen with the CMM, even the report. So, now we’re looking at the fact that we’re through that period and everybody’s a custom now to working in 3D CAD systems. So, the next things for us are probably looking at how to better put CMM manager into automated cells. Not just dedicated cells, but interfaces to these collaborative robots and empowering somebody. Much like they can with CMM Manager to create their own CMM programs, but also empowering them to set up their own unattended so-called cells may be a collaborative robot.
We’re looking at usability. How do we further take what is already a pretty easy to use application and streamline that process even more? Probably one of the bigger things that we’re looking at right now, as I talked about, maybe 20 years ago people didn’t have systems that had 3D CAD period. Transitioning into that with CMM Manager compared to their older systems. But now we’re looking at how we take CAD models that have not only the nominal shape but the embedded tolerance or GD&T information. So, when somebody interacts with the CAD model, not only do we create this probe path automatically for something that CMM managers are known for, but we also extract out the report data. Creating the program is really just a matter of clicking on a cad model and generating not only the measurement but the full report. Again, all in an effort to further streamline and improve the usability of the entire system.
Cathy: What would it take for a customer? So, the light goes on, they hear this podcast, and they realize that there’s software out there that could really save them a lot of burden and time. How do they go about making the move to CMM Manager?
Nathan: So, the easiest thing would be to visit our website QXCMM.com and either from the main navigation find “Trial” or just QXCMM.com/trial and we offer a 30-day trial. So, we’ll give a license and help the customer install software and actually set up the software so that it works on their equipment. Then they can try it out, first-hand. We’ll give as much support as somebody needs, once when they’re doing this trial. But, we find that once we’ve set up the software and show somebody how to calibrate a couple probes, they from that point on, really figure it out on their own. Which again speaks to this ease of use and just the overall design of our user interface. I can’t tell you how many customers have done a trial copy. And before they purchase the software they’re coming back and telling us, “We can program two times faster than we could with our old software!” At this point they have not even been trained. So sometimes you don’t believe it, but they’ll send you a project file and they’ve got this big giant complex program that they’ve created in a matter of hours that may have taken them several days with their old system. So, we hear that a lot. It’s pretty exciting to hear that actually.
Cathy: Well, we have a lot of those kinds of case studies too and we build our business off of that, right? When you can show real life examples. Which leads me to my next question. Are there any or is there any comparative data or customer success stories that you can share with us, so that you know that our audience can relate?
Nathan: I don’t know how many customers’ names I can go throwing out there. But we’ve got a couple that we worked with that are kind of high-profile customers, from our experience with Nikon. So, one that comes to mind every time… it’s a really interesting case. Penske Racing in Mooresville, North Carolina. So, in Mooresville, they build NASCARs at almost every manufacturing facility in the entire city.
Allan: Every half mile or so. Yeah.
Nathan: So, Penske purchased some equipment from Nikon Metrology called IGPS. So, think of something like a FaroArm. But you’ve got a probe that’s wireless and you can walk around with this probe, literally in an area the size of a giant warehouse and perform similar types of measurements. So, Penske is using these things to build chassis and the sheet metal bodies and so on. And they’re using CMM Manager. So that’s where they first got their taste of CMM manager. Shortly after, they converted all of their systems in their facility including portable arms, a manual CMM, several motorized CMMs, everything, to use in CMM manager. They’ve got an aerodynamics team with a wind tunnel that’s in a separate building. They’ve got three or four people there using the CMM manager. So now for a manufacturing facility they’ve taken proportionately of the number of people they have working in quality and inspection is actually pretty high because they do a lot more R&D than a traditional manufacturing facility. But they’ve taken all of these people, a significant number of people, 15-20 people maybe. They’re all using CMM manager. So, everybody in that facility can walk to any of these different devices and almost immediately start using them. Of course, the guy that’s using an arm and maybe he doesn’t know everything about a motorized CMM. But at least he can sit down with that system and experience some sort of success with even a piece of equipment that may be totally unfamiliar to him.
Allan: Sure. You can at least sit down and understand what he’s looking at.
Nathan: That’s kind of our perfect case scenario. When you’ve got a customer that really has a high mix of vision systems, CMM’s, and arms.
Allan: And wind tunnels.
Nathan: We’ve got some major aircraft engine manufacturers that have standardized on CMM Managers. We’ve got actually a fair number of these customers in this NASCAR and racing industry. Roush Yates engine is standardized on CMM manager. They used to have a collection of CMMs from a very big well-known manufacturer. They’ve standardized all those CMMs now to CMM manager and then they’ve added some Nikon Vision system to the mix. Maybe they’ve got a portable arm as well.
Cathy: All of those Metrology departments or pieces of equipment, you know, is it $100 an hour for a high-end Inspection department? Is it more? But let’s just say it’s a hundred dollars an hour. So, if they were to save over all of those pieces of equipment, in the efficiencies that you describe. Is it 40 hours during the week for all of the people who touch the quality step in the process? $4,000 a week? We may not know that. And I think it’s safe to say, the savings are immeasurable in that department because a lot of times we don’t know just how many hours of wasted time, where we can find efficiencies and if we do tack that dollar amount on it, it’s pretty easy to sell in my mind.
Nathan: Right, really the people that benefit most are probably not big manufacturers that are running production jobs. But you know Penske as another, using them as an example again, it’s a big manufacturing facility. But they operate like a little Mom and Pop job shop. Everyday it’s something different. They’re doing a lot of R&D and always creating new inspection routines. So that’s really the type of customer. They’re doing something new every week, every day, or every 4hours or whatever it is where they’re doing these small runs. So, they’re not creating five or six programs and then just letting them run indefinitely, but they’re really walking up to their CMM and doing walk up measurements and maybe creating a program that they’re going to run five or ten times. Then they’re immediately moving on to something else and then going through that whole process again. So, you can imagine when you’re doing that type of work, if it’s taken you half as much time to develop your program, then you’re really realizing some significant benefits compared to somebody else. Finally, if I have to write six programs and let them run for 10 years straight and I save half that time on creating those programs, there’s probably not a huge benefit. But if I’m constantly walking up to my measurement systems and even just using the joystick to do measurements, and maybe not even creating programs every time, I think that’s the people that are going to benefit the most.
Allan: Absolutely I was going to ask you that actually. Who your ideal customer was and that actually makes a lot of sense. Your long and large production companies may not necessarily be benefiting but, it’s not going to be the same type of benefit as somebody doing more than one-offs and prototypes and R&D type work.
Nathan: Yeah, and I guess that’s probably your customers too. Somebody that’s doing a massive production line. They might use your stuff to create a fixture to hold a workpiece, but it just sits there idle forever. Where your customers are constantly changing it up. “I’m writing this part one day and then something else and another day”, when they’ve got that flexible fixturing option to just build something up very quickly and not have to go to the machine shop and build something.
Allan: Actually it’s both. We have on one side of it, because of the modular components, it’s very easy to build something very quickly for something and then take it apart and build something else very quickly. But because of the quick swap plates, even if you did have a long run and you said “okay well we have these six parts. We make them for 10 years.” He’s got those six fixtures sitting on the shelf just pre-built. Now you don’t have to tear it down on the CMM and then build the next one. All you have to do is just take one off and then click the next one into place. So instead of taking an hour to switch over you take a minute to switch over.
Nathan: You take one off just like you would with a fixture that was really custom built. But you’re custom building a fixture but out of modular pieces.
Allan: Yeah dedicated stuff. I actually say that to a lot of customers… That it’s nice because you’re building out of a standard product. So, if that part ever goes obsolete, you’re not taking a custom fixture and throwing $7,000 out the window. You just take all the stuff apart and use it again for something else down the road.
Nathan: Yeah. It’s really cool.
Allen: We do lots of custom work here and everything too, and build custom fixtures for pallets of parts, weird shaped parts, and odd different things. Mainly because there’s always something out there that no one’s ever seen before.
Allan: You don’t have to have a highly qualified and high-paid programmer on staff or in the building at all times.
Nathan: Right. That’s actually something that we’ve really taken to heart and really thought a lot about. When we designed the user interface for CMM Manager, I think this concept is maybe not so much the case today, but probably ten years ago, people really thought of CMM Manager as, “It’s easy to use so it must be basic. It only has basic functionality.” When really it couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve worked on some wildly complex inspection programs using CMM Manager. But the way that we maintain that very high level of capabilities, but then expose to the average user what they really only need to see at the very top level, has really contributed to this perceived ease of use. We show any user that walks up to the user interface what they need to do on a daily basis or what they need to do to get through a basic inspection. But then all those nuts and bolts, and if you really want to get into the weeds and do all kinds of crazy VB Scripting or your high level coding, that can all be done too. But it’s not staring the user in the face. Like you open up some of these applications and the first thing the user sees is a big code editor or text editor. Then you’re like I’ve got to know some language to operate the software and it’s not the way this is at all.
Cathy: So, the machines that can accept CMM manager… All of the CMM’s vision systems and gauge arms for the most part. Have you ever had any discussions with the folks at zCAT?
Nathan: zCAT is actually a plug and play system for us. They use an I++ interface. Which we support several different I++ systems. Primarily the Renishaw UCC stuff, of course. But zCAT uses that same I++ interface that we’ve seen on several controllers.
Allan: My final thought is how amazing this is for the future of the industry. Mainly because of the fact that we already know we’re in the midst of the silver tsunami. We’re seeing people retire faster than people are coming in. The people that are coming in, have to be able to pick up where the last guy left off after 30 years. In a situation like this if you’ve got newbies coming in, fortunately the next generation are kind of systemically brought up on computers. So, sitting down with the computer doesn’t scare them in the beginning. But it completely shortens the length of their learning curve. Mainly because they have the ability to just come right into the industry and do their job, sit down and use one program across all their equipment that much faster. It lessens the burden of their time, of their learning, of their stress, and to me, that’s huge! The reason being is because I found that if it’s hard, if it’s complex, if it’s cumbersome, they’re not going to do it.
Cathy: So hopefully by exposing or revealing all of this software and these partnerships that we’re developing with companies like yours Nathan, we’re going to create an inspection department utopia. Where there are less stove-piped proprietary, expensive and complex software. We just did a podcast on Onshape too and so what we’re ultimately trying to do is free up the time of our quality inspecting talent. So that they can add value in other ways and make progress towards this industrial revolution that we’re all hearing about, The fourth industrial revolution… So that we take a step two approach and standardize and make sure of that talent. It’s motivating for them to not have to have the frustrations of learning all these things and all these programs.
Nathan: They get to do what a quality engineer should have to do: Working with manufacturing and process engineers. Not just being stuck in front of the inspection device and then solely reacting on every inspection that you do. But like you said, free up some time to go and talk to manufacturing and talk to process engineers and figure out how to take what you’re learning from your inspection equipment and reapply that back to your manufacturing process.
Allan: That’s critical right there. And that’s a big thing. That’s a new kind of philosophy that I’m glad you brought up because we talk about that all the time. It used to be looked at as this non-value-added step. The parts made, cool. You have the part, let’s go ahead and inspect to make sure it matches the print. Now so it’s just after thought. Well, now we’re pushing and we’re seeing more people are using inspection and using the Metrology data as a way to control their entire process.
Cathy: And right back to the spindle.
Allan: Yeah. Absolutely.
Nathan: The zCAT that you mentioned is a perfect example of that. You’re taking this quality device that used to be stuck in a lab somewhere and you’re putting it near the machine or sometimes inside of the machine and really using it to influence the process in real time.
Cathy: Yeah, ideally, I’d love to see quality inspectors having more time to design their own simple, maybe even complex fixtures using our system. So now they don’t have to learn all of the software that they used to learn, if they introduced CMM manager, and they start to use an application like Onshape and draw in all of these components and the systems work together seamlessly. They can create their own fixtures where that in and of itself would speed and improve the process. So, I feel like this would be a really amazing end result.
Nathan: Yeah, I agree.
Allan: Yeah, it’s all based on the idea that inspection is not an afterthought any longer. So, in the design stage, not only are they designing the part, engineering the part, and getting all those details. They also say “okay well now we can design the fixture for inspection… Well, we’re going to design the fixtures for the CNC machines. We can also design the fixtures for inspection. We’re going to set up all the programs for the CNC machines. Let’s set up the programs for the CMM machines at the same time” and that way it’s all a project that becomes a whole, rather than piecemealing it.