Fabrication shop tours highlight the latest in digital manufacturing technology.
Finding the right pace for a manufacturing process is anything but easy. In the old days, when manufacturing was characterized by batch production and long part runs, the right pace was the fastest possible pace. A typical machine setup took a substantial amount of time, so profitability hinged on amortizing that setup time over the longest production run possible. Manufacturers ran the equipment as fast as possible for long periods of time to make vast batches of components. Warehouses were full of inventory. Every accountant’s nightmare, work-in-progress (WIP), ruled manufacturing.
Fast-forward to the current era, one characterized by CNC programming and quick-change tooling. Setups are almost effortless, requiring much less time than in the past. During the interim, the digital transformation led to computer systems and software capable of doing much more than in the past, helping enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems establish more thorough control over the entire production process. Batch sizes shrunk, WIP dropped, warehouses were torn down, and just-in-time manufacturing became the new way of doing things. Everything changed, including the pace of manufacturing.
The pace of manufacturing isn’t a single pace—compare a hare such as a
high-speed stamping press to a tortoise such as an induction pipe
bending machine—so every machine has an optimal pace that supports the
entire production line, which also has an optimal pace. In an ideal
situation, batching is eliminated as parts flow continuously through the
production line, one of the concepts of the Toyota Production System.
After creating such a system, manufacturers do what they always do: look
for constraints and reduce them to speed up the process.
“The big push is for faster machines, but the focus goes beyond the machine,” said Alex Waser, president/CEO of the Bystronic Group, Niederönz, Switzerland. “It includes connectivity and automation.” Connectivity is needed to monitor and control every machine, and automation is necessary to initiate and maintain a smooth flow of parts.
“Single-piece flow isn’t anything new,” said Bob St. Aubin, president of Bystronic Inc., Elgin, Ill. “It has been done in the automotive industry for decades. The challenge is bringing this concept to the fabrication industry.” Nobody disputes that challenges await. In comparing the metal fabrication industry to the automotive industry, the order volumes are smaller and the machine changeovers more frequent. The ideal pace changes from one product to another and one process to another, and it takes a clear vision to see what’s coming next.
Waser refers to the pace as the velocity of manufacturing. Velocity isn’t just the pace or the speed, but a speed and a specific direction. Understanding the direction of manufacturing is the key to mastering the production environment so it’s fast enough to be profitable and flexible enough to handle upcoming challenges.
Tours of a few of the company’s European customers and an orientation to Bystronic’s digital initiatives at the company headquarters in Niederönz provided substantial insights regarding the state of manufacturing technology and how the digital revolution is transforming it.
In most fields trends come and trends go, with a few exceptions. In manufacturing, a big exception is the gap between the supply and demand for skilled labor. The United States’ Bureau of Labor Statistics has been tracking job openings for nearly 20 years, and over this time period, this problem hasn’t abated. At the end of 2000, employers in the durable goods industry had 270,000 unfilled positions. During the worst part of the Great Recession, June 2009, this number was smaller but still substantial at 52,000. It was somewhat flat at 165,000 or so from 2014 to 2016, but it has been on an upward trend since then and reached 322,000 in April 2019. That’s just about 2 percent shy of the peak, 329,000, which it registered in January 2000. That record stands to fall, and it’s likely to fall sooner rather than later.
Bystronic has had its eye on this trend for years, augmenting its main product lines—laser cutting machines and press brakes—with software and automation to help close the skills gap. On the laser machines, automatic loaders and unloaders free up precious human capital so machine operators can apply themselves to decision-making tasks rather than brute-force labor. A parts sorter takes this a step further, finding and removing parts from a finished sheet and stacking them in an outfeed area.
Bystronic’s 70 percent investment in Antil S.p.A., effective in June 2018, established the company’s cooperation with a material handling specialist. A manufacturer of loading/unloading systems for laser cutting machines, automated sheet metal storage systems, and robot-assisted bending cells, Antil brought 30 years of experience to the table.
One of Antil’s customers, Carrozzeria Nodari, Torbole Casaglia, Brescia, Italy, takes the notion of automated feeding seriously. Initially a manufacturer of car body components, it branched out to become a metal fabricator a few years ago and uses two Bystronic laser machines, models 3015 and 4020.
It purchased an Antil storage system simply to reduce the footprint of its storage area, moving inventory into and out of the racks with a forklift or a crane. Space is at a premium throughout most of Europe; at 143 people per square mile, its population is 55 percent denser than that of the U.S., so conserving space always is important.
In looking to increase its productivity, the company later connected the storage tower to the laser machines. It sounds ambitious for a fabricator with fewer than 20 employees, but its processes, which include bending on a press brake with an automatic tool loader, are productive enough to justify the investment.
Another of Antil’s customers, STL s.r.l., Lurano, Bergamo, Italy, feeds its somewhat sprawling fabrication shop by means of a material handling system outfitted with 16 storage towers to keep the material flowing. The first stop for most of the sheets the system unloads is one of two Bystronic laser machines, either a BySprint Fiber or a BySprint Pro 3015 CO2 machine. From there, the components go off to the rest of the shop for bending on press brakes, forming in stamping presses, or welding on one of the of eight automated welding cells. Like Carrozzeria Nodari, the company seems to have an outsized storage capacity, but it’s related in part to the variety of material it needs for the markets it serves—agricultural and earth-moving equipment; electrical components; and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment—and an anticipation of future growth. The system is a little larger than it needs to be for STL’s current throughput, so the company is in a position to grow in the future with the storage capacity it has now.
Another Bystronic investment is Tube Tech Machinery S.p.A., Cazzago San Martino, Brescia, Italy. Known to many as TTM, it has been making tube-cutting laser machines since it was founded in 2001. A good technological and cultural fit, according to Waser, the investment provided the parent company a product line that was essentially ready to go, providing flexible machines, integrated automation, and networked production. TTM offers 2D and 3D cutting systems covering diameters from to 0.5 to 24 in. The machines can load and unload lengths up to 59 ft. Loaders can handle bundles of tube up to 6 tons.The demand for such automated equipment isn’t specific to countries that have a been riding the wave of industrialization for the last 200 years. Many manufacturers in newly industrialized nations—those known for having low manufacturing costs—have been trying to get away from manual labor and transition to automated processes, and this trend is nothing new. A primary example is on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean.
“Chinese manufacturers have been inquiring about automation for many years,” Waser said.
If that seems counterintuitive, it is. The mad rush to outsource manufacturing to companies in China in the late 1990s and early 2000s was driven by several advantages, a primary one being the average labor rate. It seemed that low wages would prevail far into the foreseeable future.
Where the labor supply is vast, doesn’t worker competition for scarce jobs keep labor rates low? Apparently it hasn’t worked out that way. Labor rates in China have been rising for years, slowly eroding one of the chief benefits of outsourcing manufacturing to China. Of course manufacturers in China and everywhere else still have to deal with other costs, both fixed and variable, but automation is becoming a bigger factor in remaining competitive.
“As more companies invest in automation, the cost of labor becomes less important in the cost structure,” Waser said.
How have such investments played out in the U.S.? Although the skills gap is still wide and growing, today’s manufacturing workers are more productive than ever before. In the U.S., output per worker in the durable goods manufacturing sector has doubled since 2003.
Typewriters, film cameras, and vinyl records—all were dominant in their day, and with just a few exceptions, these technologies are long gone. The digital transformation marches along, slowly but surely upending technologies that came before. Typewriters were shoved aside by word processing software and dot-matrix printers, and eventually laser printers. A few diehards hung on, mainly users who needed to complete custom forms in duplicate or triplicate. As far as photography, a few purists love shooting on film and going through the developing process, but most of us transitioned easily to taking digital photos.
Recorded music has taken another step, going from physical products (vinyl records, then compact discs) to intangibles (such as MP3 files) to services (streaming). This illustrates where Industry 4.0 is destined to take fabricators who have the resources to research and implement the necessary technologies. Just as purchase orders once were tangible (on paper) and eventually became intangible (digital), Industry 4.0 treats every manufacturing project, from purchase order through the manufacturing steps to shipping, more or less like a stream of data.
Of course this means that every purchase order must be comprehensive, identifying every relevant criteria for the component or assembly to be produced. It also means that the fabricator must have a system of hardware and software that can extract and interpret every bit of that data and use that data to put the manufacturing process into motion. A fully integrated Industry 4.0 system is able to digitize and organize vast volumes of manufacturing data and make it available so that employees can log in from anywhere to review the system’s status, run remote diagnostics, and even do some troubleshooting, if necessary; customers can log in to review an order’s status; and, of course, it runs essentially without paper.
This might sound like it’s something out of a science-fiction movie or a concept that will come to fruition in the next couple of decades, but it’s available now, and some manufacturers have made it work.
Working to establish connectivity among the machines on the shop floor, working toward a paperless environment, and making the processes so transparent that any customer can log in to check on the status of any of his orders at any time—a few of the aspects of Industry 4.0—without first working out all of the kinks of the company’s ERP system is akin to putting the cart before the horse.
“Small and medium-sized manufacturers usually don’t have the resources to fully implement ERP,” said Mitko Tomov, manufacturing engineering supervisor for Väderstad Industries Inc., Langbank, Saskatchewan, an agricultural equipment manufacturer with customers in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. Although the company is an OEM, it’s a small company and therefore it deals with essentially the same challenges that a typical fabrication shop deals with. To maximize the use of its ERP capability, it needs to populate a database with a vast amount of information. After compiling the material cost, machine time, handling time, and all of the other relevant criteria for every process for making every component for every subassembly for every assembly for every item it produces, management can pull data out of the ERP system to measure productivity, determine process efficiencies, and troubleshoot inefficiencies.
Whether a fabricator is making a component or an assembly from tubular items, sheet metal, or both, accumulating every bit of information that goes into quoting and manufacturing it isn’t necessarily a big task, but applying this information to all of the current orders a typical shop fabricates, and going back several years to account for the orders that are most likely to be repeated, can be a daunting task. Meanwhile, product designs change or the engineering team develops an entirely new product, rendering the database incomplete.
Assembling a small team of people who know where to find all of the information and can compile it is one thing; taking that team away from a normal day’s duties and assigning this task to them is something else altogether.
“When shops are busy and production is the priority, a day’s schedule doesn’t leave extra time for working on the ERP system,” said Chris Schmidt, cofounder of Raylin Manufacturing & Powdercoating, Edmonton, Alberta.
It’s a lot to consider, and nobody said it would be easy. Big manufacturers that sell high-dollar products in large volumes, hundreds of thousands of units, can afford the staffing levels necessary to implement the latest, most capable ERP systems and gather the data needed to support them. For metal fabricators and small manufacturing companies, it’s hard to find the time to do this.
Even if the fabrication shop devotes the time to doing it, this doesn’t mean that such a system would be trouble-free. An ERP system provides good outputs only if it receives good inputs, and good inputs hinge on extremely thorough purchase orders. Even a thorough purchase order accompanied by a comprehensive 3-D CAD drawing needs at least a cursory review for completeness before the order can be processed.
For small to medium-sized companies, a complete and fully functioning ERP system, a modern one with all the bells and whistles, might be a challenge to maintain, but this doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
“If you compare that state of technology 35 years ago to the equipment we have today, nobody could have imagined this,” said Schmidt, referring to the state of digital technology in manufacturing today.
A fabricator that deals in everything from large architectural projects to small retail displays, Raylin relied on the technology of the day when it was founded in 1984, using paper-based prints and manually actuated machines. For a small fabrication shop in that timeframe, making quotes based on 3D CAD drawings, using databases of information to assist with cost estimating, cutting parts on a programmable laser machine, and bending them on a CNC press brake with an automatic tool loader were hard to fathom, yet here we are.
The effort in complementing such a fleet of equipment with an up-to-date database and the latest in ERP would be substantial, to say the least, but the payoff would be substantial, too.
One of the tour participants, Vortex Aquatic Structures Intl. Inc.,Pointe-Claire, Quebec, is a perfect candidate for everything a modern machine tool manufacturer has to offer. A producer of aquatic structures for display and recreation, the company fabricates sheet and tube to build its products. It does some fabrication in-house, for example using saws and drills to fabricate tubing, but it outsources its sheet metal work and its powder coating, said Hana Romdhane, manufacturing engineer.
The company has a successful business model, having installed more than 7,000 systems in 50 countries. Hotels, resorts, and campgrounds install such structures to create family-oriented experiences; municipalities often prefer them to swimming pools for the advantages in cost and safety; and in an era of increasing amounts of online shopping, retail establishments such as shopping malls use them to entice customers to visit.
Romdhane and Vice President of Operations Paolo Taverna are interested in expanding the company’s manufacturing processes to encompass much more, including laser cutting for sheet and tube components, taking over the work that is currently outsourced. They’re well aware of the advantages of laser cutting—more design freedom, closer dimensional tolerances, better fit-up for welding, less reliance on weld fixturing, and ultimately stronger joints.
Still, transitioning from sawing and drilling to using a laser system can be a substantial task. The company’s engineering and manufacturing staff has to consider all of the relevant manufacturing processes, research the capabilities of modern machine tools, create a component flow, develop a new plant layout, create a database to support an ERP system, and so on. That’s behind the scenes, the work the customers don’t see.
What the customers will see is a new way of ordering an aquatic structure, whether it’s for recreation or decoration. The company’s core competency is in designing and customizing aquatic structures. It intends to share this ability with its customers.
“Our goal is to allow our customers to use their own creativity, innovating to design their own,” Taverna said. When all is said and done, rather than selecting a specific Vortex product, or piecing together a system from standard Vortex components, the customers will have a substantial amount of input in developing a one-of-a-kind structure."
Doing that means Vortex needs to develop an interface that guides customers to develop good designs. A tiny play structure at a 500-room hotel is sure to drive away more customers than it attracts, as will one that has too many features for 3-year-olds and too few for 13-year-olds. A proper scale, a good variety of features, the required plumbing, and sufficient strength are necessary from the customers’ perspective, while manufacturability is necessary from Vortex’s perspective. The use of laser cutting machines means that Vortex won’t be hemmed in too much by manufacturing constraints, but of course every process has its limits.
“We want our customers to design unique aquatic structures that we can produce in a lean way,” Romdhane said.
Vortex isn’t starting from scratch. It is well established in its industry, and the company has an organized, coordinated system for outsourcing some of the components, making the rest in-house. And Vortex has a deep well of experience to draw from.
Still, it’s bound to be an interesting case study in a manufacturer reinventing itself—developing new processes, working out part flow, laying out the shop floor, installing and commissioning new machines, establishing a database for its ERP system, and ensuring that all the necessary data is captured, digitized, organized, formatted, and available.
When the system is up and running, it will run at the velocity of manufacturing and be a testimony to the power of Industry 4.0.