Manufacturing evolution in the job shop

Contract manufacturer figures out how to accomplish more with less

The FABRICATOR October 2006
October 10, 2006

Gardner Manufacturing, Horicon, Wis., needed automation and flexibility to keep up with more challenging customer demands. The contract manufacturer found its answer with two laser cutting devices with automated material handling and three new press brakes capable of precision bending.

Because of their press brakes' dynamic crowning and springback compensation technology, Gardner Manufacturing operators can bend long parts without worrying about the material bowing or twisting.

Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age—each period in civilization's history has led to some form of advancement. The Lean Age is no different.

The Lean Age of Manufacturing begot an advancement of its own: a concept of producing more with less—that is, less waste, less overhead, and in less time. For job shops, this means they must run faster, work more efficiently, and turn orders around more quickly than ever before.

Gardner Manufacturing Inc., a 101-person contract manufacturer in Horicon, Wis., has been enlightened to this lesson in recent years. As its customers adopted lean practices, Gardner took action and evolved into an efficient facility with fewer machine tools, fewer operators, and shorter lead-times that was still able to service its primary client base in the Midwest and other customers around the world. This willingness to change has helped the company grow since its inception more than 70 years ago.

Making Change

Three years ago Gardner operated a stand-alone laser cutting system, two shears, and five turret punch presses during two 10-hour shifts, seven days per week. The company started this schedule when a large customer was in need of increased capacity and several others were seeking more just-in-time deliveries. Lot sizes grew smaller, and lead-times grew likewise. The shop's existing systems struggled to keep pace with demand.

The time crunch in which jobs had to be processed emerged as a problem, and it was exacerbated by the length of setup time needed for each job. The shorter the run, the more actual processing time was consumed by programming and setup.

Times were changing, but demands weren't. Customers now wanted topnotch service and fast turnaround—sometimes less than five days—with excellent quality and competitive price. Gardner needed to consider a new approach.

Additional shifts meant an increase in overhead. The rising costs of labor and materials weren't going to recede anytime soon.

At this point James Powers, Gardner's managing supervisor, began a search for technology that offered speed and flexibility and also removed the operator from the equation as much as possible.

"We asked ourselves, "What will be the payback? Will we gain some efficiency and recover the investment that we have made—and if so, how long will this take?'" Powers said.

Adapting to Change

These questions resulted in the purchase of a new laser cutting system in 2001: the Bystar 3015 with a 4,000-W resonator, rotary axis, shuttle table, and 32-shelf Bystore material storage tower.

"Our team had calculated that this system would eliminate our need for our existing laser, for one shear, and for three of our five turret punch presses," Powers said.

Soon after installation, the laser cutting equipment was running unattended during shifts. Obviously, fewer operators were needed for the new equipment, but it came as a surprise that the new installation had a smaller footprint than the equipment it had replaced. The liberated floor space enabled the company to keep a larger variety of materials on hand—sometimes more than 75 different sizes and varieties of mild steel, zinc-coated steel, stainless steel, and aluminum—which helped the company to expand its offerings to customers and to shorten turnaround times. Powers estimated that the laser cutting system with storage tower paid for itself in less than two years.

Customers were pleased and demand soon outgrew capacity. Gardner added a second laser, a 4,400-W Byspeed 3015 with a BytransCross material handling system, in 2005. This time the laser installation coincided with the introduction of the first of three Bystronic Beyeler PR series press brakes.

The second laser with automation helped the contract manufacturer reduce its outsourcing, increase its quality control, and add more value. The Byspeed, with its ability to cut flat sheet metal more quickly than its predecessors, enabled Gardner to devote more time to the processing of thicker materials, tubes, and profiles on the Bystar.

Software provides equipment operators with a complete picture of what is being cut and what is slated to be cut. Gardner Manufacturing has found further efficiencies because the same software used to program parts for the laser can be used for the press brakes as well.

"We are still seeing growth, but it is a more manageable type of growth," explained Bob Pitz, Gardner's general manager.

After installation of the new laser cutting equipment, the company accommodated a 30 percent increase in new jobs between April and late December. Pitz called the expansion "unprecedented."

Since then Gardner has seen jobs increase another 20 percent without the need to hire additional personnel.

"There is no question that these systems have helped us tremendously in handling spikes of growth in our business," Pitz said.

"As compared to our job flow when we used mainly turret punch presses, there is no comparison in productivity," Powers added. "First we had to set up the turret with material and tooling and then get the machine programmed. After processing, we would then have to break it down and remove the material by hand. With the lasers, we walk into work the next morning and the parts are finished and ready to go."

The laser's Bystore storage tower and the BytransCross material handling system have helped Gardner add more production time while curbing its overhead.

"We went from turrets to lasers, and the move helped us greatly in implementing lights-out manufacturing. Suddenly we were able to cut parts 24/7," Pitz said.

Braking for Change

The press brakes that Gardner purchased—two Bystronic Beyeler PR series 200-ton press brakes and one PR series 150-ton machine, all with six-axis backgauges—also have made a large impact on the shop floor.

"We bought the first press brake as a kind of trial because the advanced technology was new to us. We used precision tooling on our existing mechanical brake presses and had very limited success," Powers said.

Powers explained that with precision tooling his operators were able to set up multiple bend stations on each of the 200-ton units' 13.5-foot bed length when needed. This allowed the user to reduce setup time. In some instances, this meant a fivefold time savings as the user could bend one part with four to five setups preconfigured on the machine.

"With our older brakes," Powers said, "the amount of time it took you to bend a part was tied directly into how long it would take to set up the press brake. Anytime an operator is setting up a brake, they are not bending parts, and that costs the company money."

With compressed lot sizes, this can add up to a lot of nonproduction time.

"Often we process only one to five parts per run. This means that minimizing setup time is critical to profitability," Powers said.

Gardner Manufacturing management estimates that its Bystar 3015 laser with material storage tower, purchased in 2001, made it possible to get rid of the company's old laser, one shear, and three of five turret punch presses.

The new press brakes also proved useful with awkward material. Dean Ravanelli, a Gardner engineer, explained that when bending long material, such as a 12- to 14-ft.-long part, on the company's previous press brakes, the long parts would often bow or twist. With the new press brakes' Pressure Reference bending technology, which provides dynamic crowning and springback compensation, these parts are formed correctly on the first try much more often, according to Ravanelli.

"Our part repeatability is better than ever, and parts require minimal finishing and welding," Ravanelli said. "When bends on a part do not match up, you have a tendency to use more weld to close the gap. This means not only more time for welding and spot welding, but for polishing as well."

Nearly all of Gardner's manufactured products are sent to the PR series press brakes for bending, Ravanelli said. In doing so, the company has achieved a 30 percent increase in its bending productivity.

Changing Viewpoints

Gardner's technology investments should set it up to address any other changes that may be on the horizon.

"Our overall throughput, from laser to brake to weld, has been streamlined considerably. That tells me we are doing something right," Powers said.

Luckily, the Lean Age of Manufacturing doesn't necessarily mean a lean bottom line.

Newfound Efficiencies
     Gardner Manufacturing Inc., Horicon, Wis., has discovered one benefit of having one vendor supply its cutting and bending technology: Instead of programming a part for each manufacturing process, it needs to be imported only once into Bystronic's Bysoft software. From there, the part can be cut on the laser and then bent on the press brakes.
     James Powers, Gardner's managing supervisor, said that a streamlined process flow now exists on the shop floor. The engineering department programs parts into the Bysoft software, and when the job is released to the shop, operators know exactly what they need to process the part.
     "Everyone is much more efficient," he said. "Our laser and press brake operators, for example, are doing what we actually are paying them to do—make parts, rather than write and edit programs."
     For each part that is processed, the drawing is saved in the software. Should an operator in one of the downstream processes make an error on a part, the part can be rerun instantly by simply calling up the plan, nesting the required replacement part, and running the job.

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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