How one metal fabricator is transforming with the help of automation
January 11, 2011
Equipment and software upgrades are helping Decimal Engineering, Pompano Beach, Fla., to increase its customer base and, as a result, increase its profits.
Decimal Engineering Inc. is a medium-sized, family-run metal fabricating and contract machining business in Pompano Beach, Fla. At the time of its purchase in 1980 by the Garey family, the operation was contained in 4,000 sq. ft., and nothing was automated. Today highly automated operations fill 40,000 sq. ft. Employment has risen from less than 15 to 85 on two shifts.
The company currently is midway through a transformation from job shop to custom manufacturer. It is a model for what can be accomplished even during a recession with the appropriate technology, effective management, and an innovative business plan.
The business plan targeted customer needs, so the transformation began with the company’s metal fabricating—two-thirds of its revenue. The first step was the purchase of a 2006 Mazak SpaceGear MkII 510 laser flexible manufacturing system (FMS) with automated load/unload. This system runs unattended 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The laser system placed great demands on programmers, so the company had to reassess its long reliance on 2-D CAM. Decimal brought in Planit Solutions’ Radan sheet metal nesting software and Radbend 3-D CAM offline press brake programming (see Figure 1).
Decimal also upgraded its metal cutting operations with a 2007 Mori Seiki AT3200, a nine-axis turning and milling center. It also has a pair of older Kitamura H400 pallet-changing horizontal machining centers. To program them, Decimal opted for Planit Solutions’ Edgecam Pro.
The transformation to custom manufacturer pulled Decimal deeply into product development, “a cultural change” in the words of Kevin Garey, operations vice president. Decimal now has seven full-time engineers who review, design, or redesign customer jobs.
Today management sees this upfront engineering as its biggest value-add and competitive edge. Upfront engineering is indispensable in Decimal’s demanding markets in telecommunications, medical, defense, computers/electrical controls, marine, and automotive.
“Design engineering keeps customers from going somewhere else to save 5 cents a part, or even a dollar a part,” said Mark Garey, engineering manager. “Some of our customers have no in-house engineering, thus relying on us for all their engineering and manufacturing needs.”
Part of the transformation was moving engineering to full 3-D CAD and solid modeling. Decimal brought in SolidWorks® from Dassault Systèmes and upgraded its Autodesk® Mechanical Desktop and AutoCAD® systems to Autodesk Inventor®. So engineers can work closely with programmers, Decimal uses Radan’s Design to Manufacture (DTM) module. DTM imports solid models along with material properties for unfolding.
All this transformation added up to roughly $1.8 million in 2008 and 2009—far more costly than anything the company had ever undertaken before.
Software paybacks were quick and would have been even speedier in a healthy economy, according to older brother Alan Garey, president (see Figure 2).
“Much of these gains were due to immediate reaction times in the shop,” he added, “largely because all punching, laser cutting, and bending are being done in a single CAM environment.”
Previously Decimal used separate CAM packages for each, leading to programming hassles when jobs were shifted among the laser, right-angle shear, and turret punch press. Accommodating the software upgrade schedules of three different providers also proved challenging.
The company has been able to take on more complicated jobs and win new customers as it has gained new capabilities.
“Our new 3-D metal fabricating capabilities allow us to validate customer requirements before making a prototype or releasing a job to the shop floor,” said Alan Garey. “This allows us to reduce our time-to-market lead-times.”
The company’s experience is not a better-faster-cheaper recitation about new technology. It is instead about making informed, thoughtful technology choices, and then meshing, managing, and optimizing that technology.
Decimal’s customers face overcapacity and intense competition, shrinking budgets, and costly working capital. They are squeezing work-in-process (WIP) inventories with just-in-time (JIT) production. As a result, Decimal must meet demands for small quantities, fast reorders, and frequent changes.
“Some JIT customers penalize us for being even one day late,” Kevin Garey noted, “or more than one day early.”
Normal deliveries are two to three weeks, down by half in two years, and the goal is one week. Prototypes are delivered in as little as 24 hours. Fully documented one-off parts for first-article inspections take a few more days.
“Now that the business is so much better managed, due to the new tools and software, on-time delivery performance is up 10 percentage points to 95 percent, and the scrap rate has been cut in half,” Alan Garey said.
Buying an FMS is much easier than using it effectively. FMS operations require CAM software customization, automated programming with verification, process simulation, and standardization of methods with lots of training.
This is especially true for Decimal’s laser, which Decimal has customized extensively, and the turret punch press. They allow for overnight and weekend production without operators on extra shifts. This helps hold down costs on longer part runs and on short-run jobs set up and programmed to run sequentially. Unattended operations are monitored remotely by real-time video links to shop supervisors’ home offices.
FMSs also are complicated to operate.
“Because of this new complexity, we are in the process of transferring the skills of the machinists into our IT [information technology] system and putting those skills in the hands of a person with more of an IT orientation,” Mark Garey said. “Then the computers can take over the repetitive tasks and free our people to concentrate on adding value.”
Fundamental to success in 3-D CAM, automated or not, is simulation—dimensionally accurate, graphical, 3-D representations of the part, its tooling, fixturing, and the work area of the machine. Simulation eliminates the need for wasteful trial runs and time-consuming program tweaks on the shop floor. Simulation is about better programming, not just more throughput (see “Automation addresses skilled-labor shortage”).
“Simulation almost always shows us something we might have missed,” said Dan Sonnenberg, programmer and fabricating shop supervisor.
“Will there be a bend collision? Do we have to change tooling or use a different bend radius? Do we have to purchase a special tool? On the older machines with backlash in the drives,” he added, “simulation helps determine if holding the required tolerances on a job will constrain programming in any way.
“The bend solutions automatically give us the tool selection for jobs in engineering and on the shop floor,” Sonnenberg continued. “In addition to the machine tool work-area simulations, we also get the machine times for estimating.”
With or without simulation, programming machinery is inherently repetitive and can become tedious; that’s when errors may creep in. The most repetitive tasks are being automated by Decimal programmers.
“When we are done programming there should be no machine issues to be resolved on the shop floor,” said Kevin Garey.
“In metal fabricating,” said Alan Garey, “the big factor was an end to manual data input programming, pulling numbers off the customers’ prints and drawings. All that is now done in the engineering office rather than at the machine on the shop floor.”
Part of the transformation is phasing out press brake programming at the machines.
“We now have the option to program our three CNC brakes offline,” said Mark Garey. “Each day we increase the percentage toward that goal.”
The three press brakes are two 2008 Bystronic Beyeler Xpert 150s (150-metric-ton capacity) and an older 440-ton Pullmax.
As programming is moved off the shop floor, “the jobs will be more accurate as the original CAD data is used to create the programs,” said Mark Garey, “and the operator saves 15 to 20 minutes on every new job.”
Decimal already does its flat-sheet programming for punching and laser cutting offline.
While creating a new culture, standardization on the shop floor played a major role.
“Our programming methods have completely changed,” Alan Garey noted. “By standardizing tooling and processes, we were able to decrease average press brake setup times from about two hours to seven minutes.”
With the big investments behind them and the gains being reaped, profit margins have improved significantly, and the company has become more competitive in the current economic environment.
“Managing the business the way we do it now gives us the confidence that any job we accept, we can do,” said Kevin Garey. “If we can manufacture a part with the tools we have, we have the software and systems to get the job done. Basically, when the job goes to the shop floor, the first piece off the machine will be good or darn close to it.”
Alan Garey summed it up: “With the new machine tools and programming systems, this business has gone from feeling like driving a used car to flying a helicopter!”
In transforming Decimal Engineering from a contract parts-maker to custom manufacturer, management is following the well-trod road to automation. The driving force behind this journey is complexity in many forms. This includes complicated parts that replace assemblies of simple parts, complex production systems, and global competition that has done away with simple production and business decisions.
To embrace this complexity successfully, metal fabricators need to determine best practices and embed them in production systems to ensure competitive speed, efficiency, cost containment, and predictability. This dictates automation. In CAM programming, this means capturing what quality-assurance guru W. Edwards Deming called “the one best way” and ensuring its reuse until something better comes along.
Decimal did just this. It put an end to shop floor program edits and workarounds in general. Edits and workarounds slow production and are a major cause of job-to-job inconsistency and process variability. Worse, they are the primary sources of error, human or otherwise.
Another driving force behind the implementation of CAM programming has long been apparent: the severe or worsening shortage of programmers, skilled or otherwise. Moreover, people who do show an aptitude for programming generally are unwilling to accept such challenging work at any price. (The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected a further 15 percent decline in the numbers of operators, tool setters, and machine tenders from 2006 to 2016; those skills are essential for good programmers.)
The paradox in all this for companies like Decimal is that as jobs become more complicated with every passing year, there are fewer people to tackle them. Large numbers of skilled machinists and programmers have retired or are nearing retirement. This is leaving manufacturers with a skilled-labor shortfall.
For Decimal, the best way to use scarce (and costly) skilled workers is to keep them away from repetitive and low-value-added tasks. The company is automating those tasks and freeing its most valued workers for the challenges of winning new business and improving margins.