A visit to Hannover, Germany, for the world's largest sheet metal manufacturing exhibition reveals a European taste for automation and efficiency
January 13, 2009
EuroBLECH is a celebration more than anything. Most of the booths have plenty of tables and, usually, a bar for customers, distributors, business partners, and friends to swing by, chat, have a drink, and talk about life both in and out of the industry. In fact, unlike shows in North America, a visitor will find materials suppliers—the folks that make the metal sheet, plate, and tube—among the exhibitors. Everyone comes together for this global event.
What does a European metal fabricating and forming tradeshow mean for a U.S. fabricator? Apparently, a whole lot.
"It means everything. It has influenced who we are," said Don Begneaud, speaking about his company, BEGNEAUD Manufacturing, in Lafayette, La.
Begneaud was visiting EuroBLECH 2008 in late October, marking his 20th or so trip to Europe since he started his one-man shop back in the late 1970s. He tries to visit the mammoth trade event, which usually covers more than 900,000 square feet, when it's held in Hanover, Germany, every other year. For him, the trip is no European vacation, but rather a chance to take in the latest technologies that are helping his European counterparts remain competitive in the global marketplace.
BEGNEAUD Manufacturing relies heavily on TRUMPF equipment, and Begneaud found excitement in what he witnessed at the machine tool builder's booth, even if the technology wouldn't immediately be available in the U.S. He pointed out the two cutting heads on the 6-kW TruLaser 7040 new laser cutting machine for more efficient cutting of large lot sizes and the TruBend series 7000 press brake, which had a wealth of ergonomic improvements—such as gas spring-adjusted pedals that allow the height and angle of foot rests to be adjusted and LED lighting in front and behind the beam.
The higher labor rates associated with European workers force many shops to consider automation whenever possible. As a result, automated bending cells—such as this robotic cell with a Warcom press brake and fixed automation attached to an Ermak press brake and a Wila automatic tool changer—were commonplace at EuroBLECH 2008.
But the trip is also about maintaining relationships in the small world that is metal fabricating. In fact, Begneaud welcomed a German citizen to his Lafayette shop in late October as part of a work exchange program he has established with a German metal fabricating company; one of his own employees returned from a five-week stay with the German company in early October.
Those sort of relationships are celebrated at the EuroBLECH event. Most of the booths have plenty of tables and usually a bar for customers, distributors, business partners, and friends to swing by, chat, have a drink, and talk about life both in and out of the industry. In fact, unlike shows in North America, a visitor will find materials suppliers—the folks that make the metal sheet, plate, and tube—among the exhibitors. Everyone comes together for this global event.
EuroBLECH organizers reported that more than 1,500 exhibitors presented their products and services in eight of the fairground's halls—an 8 percent increase from the 2006 show. An increase was also seen in attendance, with an 8 percent increase over the 64,000 who attended the event two years ago.
Plenty has been written about the potential of fiber lasers in manufacturing. Salvagnini introduced its L1Xe fiber laser at the show, and officials reported that the equipment would soon be operating in northern Italian shops before the end of 2008.
While EuroBLECH is dominated by German visitors and exhibitors, a high percentage of international guests can be seen and heard on the show floor. Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Switzerland represent the countries of origin for a majority of international visitors.
Show officials reported that almost 1,400 attendees came from North and South America. More than half of those visitors call the U.S. home.
Despite the many languages spoken at EuroBLECH, most of the attendees share similar concerns. That's what Hypertherm found after conducting a survey of its international customers.
Kat McQuade, Hypertherm's product marketing manager, mechanized, said all fabricators are worried about cut quality, productivity, and cost. For Hypertherm that means enhancing high-definition plasma cutting technologies and developing long-lasting consumables and features such as quick disconnects for its manual tools.
"It used to be cut as fast as you can, but now the philosophy is cut as best as you can," McQuade said.
In fact, Hypertherm was highlighting its HPR400XD® mechanized plasma cutting power source. With its 400 amps of power, the system can cut through 2-in. mild steel, as was demonstrated at EuroBLECH. This same technology made its debut only weeks earlier at the FABTECH® International & AWS Welding Show in Las Vegas. That's one thermal cutting technology for all metal fabricators—no matter what their address.
If you don't have much room for a traditional plasma cutting machine, perhaps this vertical machine will do the trick. The imaQcut equipment, developed in Australia, has approximately a 46-sq.-ft. footprint.
Many times metal fabricating technologies make their debuts in Europe, and it could be several months before they work their way to North America. In some instances, they may never find a home in U.S. shops. In that sense, EuroBLECH is like the Paris or Geneva Auto Shows, where new-vehicle introductions only serve to whet the appetite of U.S. car enthusiasts, who may never get the chance to sit behind the wheels of these European vehicles.
Luckily, metal cutting enthusiasts won't have to wait long to see firsthand the performance of fiber lasers. Of course, this type of laser delivery mechanism has been exhibited in the U.S. at FABTECH, but now a major European machine tool builder is rolling out its own version of the technology.
Salvagnini introduced its L1Xe at the show. A company spokesman said the laser cutting equipment uses 50 percent less power to achieve the same performance as a traditional CO2 laser. Also, because the laser is delivered in telecom-grade fibers, a fabricator doesn't have to worry about adjusting or maintaining resonator mirrors, crystals, fluids, or filters.
The ytterbium diode-pumped fiber laser generates less heat than other laser cutting machines. The result is smaller cooling units—air-cooling units for lower-powered models and water-cooling units for higher-powered versions—and a much smaller footprint for the entire system.
EuroBLECH is a large show, so small material towers didn't fit in. Larger material handling systems, such as this Stopa double tower, loomed high over the show.
This is still an alternative means of cutting metal, the Salvagnini spokesman said. Fiber lasers can cut reflective materials—a necessity for any shop working with aluminum—but still struggles cutting through plastic films, which could cause a problem for jobs that require film to remain on the back of laser-cut parts.
A smaller footprint for today's newer metal fabricating systems is always a concern as shops usually don't have an excessive amount of open space. That's one of the reasons fiber laser cutting equipment might be attractive for some. For those interested in plasma cutting in a smaller footprint, they might want to consider vertical plasma cutting.
Paul McCleary came from Australia to show off his imaQcut vertical plasma cutting table. The table takes up about 46 sq. ft. of space and has a cutting area of 12 ft. by 5 ft. or 8 ft. by 5 ft., depending on customer preference. Because of its design, the equipment actually can be placed against a wall. Sheet metal is loaded onto removable cutting racks and wheeled back into the enclosed cutting area when fabricating is ready to commence.
McCleary said his vertical unit is capable of delivering on all the features that typical horizontal plasma cutting tables have. The equipment comes with PC-based controls and software that includes a basic DXF file postprocessor to generate G code for the machine. The machine also can reach cutting speeds up to 443 FPM.
McCleary said he got the inspiration for his vertical plasma cutter when he decided he needed a larger plasma cutting table than the smaller one he had already made for himself. Upon completing it, he realized it was too large for his garage to accommodate both the table and a car. As a result, he put the table on hinges and leaned it against the wall. One day he mistakenly turned the table on as it hung against the wall, and he responded with creative thoughts instead of sheer panic.
He added that he hopes to show the plasma cutting equipment in North America in 2009.
Inspiration wasn't limited to mechanical minds down under. German engineers have developed something called roboforming, which was shown in the Dieffenbacher System-Automation booth. The project, sponsored by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research and run by the project management agency Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe, hopes to eliminate the need to create expensive tooling for small runs or prototype development.
The process revolves around a control that runs two industrial robots. One robot with a tool mandrel is moved in a circular pattern over the inside surface of a sheet metal blank, which is being supported by the other industrial robot. The blank is clamped at the edges so that the tool mandrel—moving in incremental steps—can change the 2-D blank into a 3-D shape.
What if you didn't need to create forming dies to create 3-D parts out of a blank? That's the idea behind roboforming—one robot holds the tool mandrel and the other robot holds the counterholding tool.
That's just a sampling of some of the new technology developments on display at EuroBLECH. An attendee could have spent days walking the halls and not have time to take it all in.
One U.S. fabricator swung by The FABRICATOR's booth on the last day of the show and admitted that he was using vacation days to attend the show, but also to travel the German countryside.
"I just finally had to come over here and see what this was like," he said.
He didn't identify himself when asked. Maybe he was embarrassed that people might think him a wee bit odd for using his own time to make a work-related trip to a European tradeshow? He should have realized that this wasn't work, but a celebration of metal fabricating. That's something any metal fabricator can appreciate.