February 12, 2009
Bobcat determined that the nesting software on its laser cutting systems didn't maximize the capabilities of the machines. After the company decided to purchase new nesting software, programmers outlined what capabilities they wanted. The company purchased ProNest® from MTC Software, Lockport, N.Y. The company has gained positive returns from the new software, which enables more control of process specifications.
When a company uses 20 million pounds of steel each month, it leads to plenty of opportunities to look for cost savings.
Bobcat Co., West Fargo, N.D., a maker of construction and farm equipment, is a heavy metal user. It manufactures loaders at its 700,000-square- foot plant in Gwinner, N.D., and consumes that huge monthly meal of hot-rolled steel coils—ranging in size from 12 gauge to 1⁄2 inch—to produce the units.
With the increase in metal prices in 2008 and a corresponding reduction in its build rate, Bobcat took several steps to promote cost savings:
Those steps made a huge impact, but Bobcat management learned that there was still room for improvement. When it came to actually processing the steel, the shop floor didn't have the software tools to maximize manufacturing efficiency.
Bobcat determined that the nesting software on its laser cutting systems didn't take full advantage of the capabilities of the machines. Programmers didn't believe that they could fully control programming specifications or actual output.
"It was difficult to make the changes we wanted to make," Claeys said. "We would know what the machine wanted, but we had to figure out what to change in the software to do that; also, there was some decrypting and deciphering to do once we knew what to change in the program. For example, a nesting area or the size of a hole was a surface area dimension, but it was metric, and it was about half [the size], versus being based on the hole diameter."
After the company decided to purchase new nesting software, programmers outlined which capabilities they wanted. An intuitive user interface was a must because it would allow operators to learn the program quickly. The software also needed to have a good job processing flow from the CAD file to the finishing of the nest. In addition, Bobcat wanted the program to make files and reports available to laser operators to help them optimize use of time and materials.
"They need to have it be pretty self-explanatory because we don't necessarily maintain the same operators for long periods of time," Claeys said. "They switch out and change departments."
The company purchased ProNest® from MTC Software, Lockport, N.Y., after it had a chance to try out a full version of the program. Implementation went quickly, and within hours operators were trained and using the software with their own cutting techniques, specifically configured to optimize productivity of the lasers. Programmers used the company's standard PC equipment to implement the software, completing a network installation across six network client workstations, allowing concurrent use by two users. They then trained five operators on how to use the program. Adjustments and fine-tuning followed.
The software transition went smoothly, except when it came time for Bobcat to implement the network licensing. This process required that software key codes be placed directly on a server. The server could be accessed only by the company's IT department, and all IT personnel were tied up with other projects at the time. The company was working to eliminate glitches and time wasted caused by the individual downloads with fixed licenses that it was using. With many different people using the program, the licenses were cumbersome to handle; sets of two USB dongles, which are computer security devices, had to be transferred from computer to computer, as well as a matching key code.
Bobcat programmers had a few software change requests and questions that were quickly resolved through online correspondence between Bobcat and the software provider.
"MTC did everything it could and was online most of the time with us," said Eric Deyle, manufacturing engineer technician. "If we have a problem with something like common-line cutting, I call [an adviser from MTC], and within minutes we're logged on figuring it out or doing training. It's faster than having to take out a manual and figure it out ourselves."
Bobcat has gained positive returns from the new software. It enables common-line cutting, which allows more parts to be cut on one sheet and helps reduce processing time. The programmers also were able to utilize their lasers' Sprintlas feature, which helped reduce pierce travel time and wear on the machines' contactors. A feature on TRUMPF lasers, Sprintlas allows the resonator to keep the beam on between pierces in a nest.
Claeys and Deyle said the program was easy for the operators to learn. The intuitive user interface was especially helpful because it simplified use and training, as well as sped up the process of learning the program. The interface includes a simple layout, as well as advanced parameters that the program applies on-the-fly.
"Training the workers [during the prototype phase] only took half an hour," Deyle said. "The program is pretty basic. You have a DXF or drawing file, you bring it in, you drag it down, and you set your parts and lead-ins."
The new software provides Deyle with a process parameter spreadsheet for each laser. If a problem arises during cutting, he can change parameters from his office.
According to Deyle, the new program enables much more control over process specifications.
"If we want to change a cutting technique, all we have to do is go into the spreadsheet, boom, done," Deyle said. "On our other program, we had to go in and change each setting. It was a lot more time-consuming, and you never knew what you were getting until you [saw the results]."
Throughout this process, Bobcat learned how important it is for a software provider to be readily available to help solve problems during cutting—an approach that just wasn't possible with the company's previous software provider, Claeys explained. It was possible for the company to lose hours or days of production and programming time while waiting for an adviser.
"They were very helpful, but a lot of times the people who needed to answer the questions were overseas, so we were always off by 12 hours," he said. "If we wanted a problem fixed, we had to call them at home or wait until the next day to get an answer. Then we wouldn't be at work [when they tried to call us]. We went back and forth, and if we had a major issue that couldn't be done over the phone, they would have to come in and do it instead of doing it in a Web meeting."
Bobcat also learned the benefits of using a nesting program that is modular. This allows the company to purchase customized software that fits its specific needs, and it doesn't have to buy an entire software package with features it doesn't need.
That's a message that doesn't weigh heavily on Bobcat's efforts to seek out shop floor efficiencies.
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