Sheetmetal software: Nothing soft about it

Developers look to help fabricators solve the problems they face

The FABRICATOR November 2003
July 11, 2006
By: Kevin Cole

Software continues to evolve to better serve its users, and during recent times, sheet metal fabricators have been trying to get the most out of their systems. Such things as nesting, ERP, communications networks, and CAD/CAM are all making bounds to do more and take better advantage of technology advancements.

Faced with a number of economic snafus, U.S. fabricators are examining every possibility for increasing production and lowering costs. One such area of contemplation is software.

According to Shawn E. Thompson, CAD/CAM Business Manager for Strippit/LVD, fabricators have had to reduce and restructure their resources, cut operating expenses, seek out new customers in a competitive marketplace, diversify into new markets in which they have less expertise, rationalize excess capacity and delay capital investments, and postpone or cancel planned upgrades and improvements. He also pointed out that fabricators are facing tremendous economic pressure from global competition and a technology evolution that has not slowed down to wait for manufacturing.

"Fabricators are expected to provide the same products at the same quality (and often in less time) for less money," said Michael Boggs, sales manager for Striker Systems. "To compete in this increasingly global marketplace, fabricators continually look for methods to decrease their cost of production."

Martin Bailey, group marketing manager for JETCAM International Holdings Ltd. said, "As market forces drive fabricators to become more competitive, machine tool prices may prove prohibitively high for the small or suffering business. So they turn to their existing systems to see where additional enhancements can be made. Instead of investing in new machinery, more customers are evaluating where software can add additional benefit to their existing machine tools."

Figure 1
Depending on the amount of material used, saving even a few percent of materials from the scrap bin can mean a significant monetary saving for a company.

Nesting software presents an opportunity for savings. "In a metal fabrication shop, raw material ranges from 30 to 50 percent of operational costs. Therefore, waste reduction, which is directly tied to raw material, will allow users to realize tremendous savings," said Ben TerreBlanche, president of Sigmatek Corp. "Improving nests by only 5 percent and minimizing the amount of raw material needed to complete a job can have a major impact on an organization (see Figure 1)."

Rich Hanson, senior regional sales manager for the JobBOSS Software Division of Exact Software North America, said software can assist fabricators who are being pushed toward lean manufacturing, "What's happened in the fabrication industry, just like in other industries, is that the big shops are now becoming leaner and requiring quicker turnaround, smaller run quantities, and higher quality."

Thompson added that CAD/CAM can help those fabricators looking to become more efficient with their production. "The biggest opportunity, for fabricators, to address these challenges lies in speed and flexibility," he said. "Fabricators who can quickly adapt to smaller lot sizes, short turn-around, and new products for new markets will survive and, perhaps, even thrive in this challenging climate."

Addressing the Challenges

While identifying the issues may not be the most difficult thing to do today, addressing them may be a much larger challenge.

Compatibility. One software issue is CAD system compatibility, according to Mike Zordan, vice president of sales for Metalsoft Inc., and Applied Production President Joe Bucalo. "It just isn't cost effective to own one of each CAD program, yet the CAD vendors don't truly offer file translations so that the shops can accept the file and know that they have the correct data. Many hours are lost converting files and checking the CAD model," explained Bucalo.

Several companies said they were focusing on compatibility issues. Bucalo said that although his company is in the CAM business and not the CAD industry, it works with many of the CAD programs and often assists customers in converting files. "Our support staff uses e-mail to receive the customer's file, translate it to the required format, and e-mail it back to the customer," he explained.

Zordan said his company is focusing on tighter integration to popular CAD products, such as SolidWorks, SolidEdge, Catia V5, Pro-E, and it will be adding OLE integration to AutoCAD Inventor by the end of this year.

"Having the ability to import DXF, DWG, CADL, IGES, HPGL, and directly unfold and import Solid Edge and Solid Works files allows the user to quickly import geometry and create a part," added TerreBlanche.

Maximizing the Material. Nesting software is another area that people are searching for savings. Many companies offer nesting software that maximizes automation of nesting processes for such equipment as punching and laser machines. Companies such as MetalSoft and Sigmatek focus in on nesting algorithms and motion optimization to create the tightest part nesting&—saving materials, which, in turn, saves money (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Superior nesting algorithms, motion optimization, and nesting parts within parts create the tightest part nesting and save materials, which, in turn, saves money.

"We allow users to nest parts within parts," TerreBlanche said. "Without this ability, inside contours of geometries will become waste."

More With Less. Reducing production costs is a broad subject involving many aspects of manufacturing, but one thing is certain, the more that can be done with the same number of employees, the more the company will benefit.

"It used to be that when shops were really busy and they started to get swamped in the office, they just threw more people at it. They didn't have time to rethink their processes and procedures," said Hanson. "Then at some point, the overhead became very high. When shops and businesses got slower, staffs were pared down to the 'doers' or key people that drive the business. Now as business picks up, the big question becomes how do we make those doers more efficient?"

"ERP production control software provides companies the ability to streamline all areas of the fabrication processes and maintain control with less people," said Zordan. The goal of minimizing front-end overhead is only possible when a system removes duplication of input and provides real-time information that will allow quick responses that affect the shop floor dynamic at any given moment."

"Fabricators are seeking lights out automation when it comes to programming CNC turret punch presses and lasers. The software industry can achieve this in certain situations. However, the type of fabrication equipment, current manufacturing processes, and the constraints of other supporting systems, limits others. The software industry is responding to the market demand for automation, but as with all advancements in technology it will start with those organizations best positioned to take advantage of it," said Boggs. "Striker Systems recognized this trend early on and allocated development resources accordingly. Our current long-range software development map revolves around full automation of the CNC programming process."

Another method being taken by software producers is to try to supplement expertise with informational databases.

"Strippit/LVD's CADMAN® product line uses a database driven approach to all fabricating steps from design and 3-D unfolding, to bend sequencing, punch selection, nesting, and laser cutting," said Thompson. "This way, a fabricator's expertise on things like bend allowance, punch and die selection, and cutting parameters are already known and a CNC program can be output almost immediately, without having to consider how to fabricate a part every time."

"We develop solutions that exploit the capabilities of CNC machine tools in order for them to operate unattended, or at minium, lightly manned," said Brian Dockter, president of Ncell Systems Inc. "This gives users 24/7 capabilities and ultimately frees up time for activities that add value."

Quality. This is another area software is making grounds to aid fabricators. For instance, companies like MetalSoft offer in-process vision inspection software for flat parts to ensure no additional cost is added by way of defects.

Although quality is vital to success, it is more difficult to accept if it affects a company's ability to meet deadlines. On that note, there is an increase in modularity amongst software programs.

"We have recently repackaged our entire product range to make it more modular," said JETCAM's Bailey. "Now most customers can simply purchase an additional module, such as free form nesting to gain improvements in machine cycle time and material utilization. In tests we are finding that this upgrade can pay for itself usually within months, if not weeks."

"In the past, everyone thought of quality as making a good part," said Hanson. "But today, it's the comprehensive practice of instilling quality in your entire company that ultimately generates a good part. Quality impacts a lot of areas. It used to impact the shop, the machines, the material, and shipping to the customer, but now it affects areas within the whole manufacturing environment.

"These areas force you to document your procedures, force you to track your document management system throughout the company, force you to track the quantitative cost of quality and report that to the accounting department and track it financially," he continued. "Then you also have to report your quality measurements, which involves shop floor and quality information."

"The key is an integrated quality system, so that quality is integrated with your shop floor control," he added.

Increased Communications. This integrated software means better across-the-board communication.

"By integrating the whole shop floor, costing, documentation management, and job visibility, you have everybody on the same page using a total system that addresses all parts of the business and gives visibility throughout the company, so everyone's looking at the same data," said Hanson.

"Metalsoft has expanded the integration of our ERP system and our CAD/CAM/nesting products to provide an answer for quoting and producing jobs efficiently and accurately by bridging the gap between estimating, engineering, and production," said Zordan.

"On the computer side, we've pushed networking capabilities further into the shop floor with wireless communications, allowing shop floor personnel to be aware of changes immediately," said Dockter. "We've also expanded communication capabilities within the networked environment of the factory floor, allowing machine tools to be viewed as an application on the network, in the same manner that an ERP application is utilized."

Even controllers are working toward greater communication, according to Chris Anderson, Motoman's market segment manager of welding. "Robot controllers are developing higher end communications like EtherNet," he said. "This is going to increase the amount of information available from the factory floor. The factory is not highly networked when compared to the office environment. Networking the office environment has increased productivity because it allows individual staff members to share information easily. Wireless networks have come down in prices and help to interconnect machines to the plant's network."

What's New?

So, with all of the motion in the sheet metal software industry, what is new today and what can be expected down the road? Much of the advancements will be focused in the same areas that software developers have been focusing on for the past several years.

We have a new open interfaced remote control processing module that allows our CAD/CAM software to be programmed remotely from literally any other application," said Bailey. "The sheer openness of the module means that it is extremely easy for a company to automate the creation of complex nests and NC code."

"The sheet metal industry has been developing machines that run unattended. Software will begin to follow the same path," said Bucalo. "The decisions being made by CNC programmers will be built into databases and the programming function automated. We already see this in the laser/nesting area where nested patterns are created in realtime as they are needed at the machine tool. Operator/programmer intervention is minimized down to selecting the parts to be nested from a database, but all of the work to nest and program is done automatically."

"We will be addressing several areas that currently hinder automation, specifically in the area of more intelligent application and control of tooling information," said Boggs. "We will also be advancing our current reporting system, giving the customer greater control over the type of information to be reported, the format, and from where it can be accessed. The longer-term development plan is a continuation toward full automation of CNC programming."

Zordan predicted that the future will hold stronger integration of machines directly to PC networks, greater use of CAD data as the driver for manufacturing process and estimating, machines providing more capability to minimize initial and repeat set-up, new tools that allow in process inspection across all fabricating processes, and new bending processes that will be CAD driven minimizing the need for experienced set-up personnel.

"Continual advancements in computer, operating system, and networking technologies make sharing of database expertise more and more pervasive, especially to networkable PC-based CNC machines," said Thompson. "In the short term, fabricators can expect to see programming of CNC machine tools become easier and faster. In the long term, they will see this become more and more automated."

Dan Deanovic, director of development, JobBOSS said, "[We will] see more of an emphasis on technology designed to communicate with other technology and through the Internet. The mission critical software users will ultimately rely on will use data more fully, will integrate with their other systems, and will last for a decade or more because it is made to exploit the power of the Internet and to move forward with the times."

Dockter said the future will bring more Web-enabled applications in which users will be able to create, schedule, monitor, view and, if necessary, change production from anywhere.

Kevin Cole

Contributing Writer

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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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