FABTECH 2016: Closing the loop for manufacturing perfection

Focusing on the big picture at metal fabrication’s largest North American event

The FABRICATOR January 2017
January 6, 2017

More than 31,000 attendees came to the Las Vegas Convention Center for FABTECH® 2016. As always, new technologies didn’t disappoint. Exhibitors, conference speakers, and attendees all talked about positive changes ahead, about “closing the loop” to make their manufacturing organization one cohesive, determined unit, ready to compete.

When more than 31,100 people arrived at the Las Vegas Convention Center for FABTECH® 2016, Nov. 16-18, they came to the show after an unexpected election result and at least the potential for big changes ahead. Regardless how those changes may affect business conditions in the years ahead, many attendees, exhibitors, and speakers touched on a common theme: the need to close the loop—between technology, processes, and people, up and down the supply chain—to compete.

“You’ll see a closed-loop manufacturing process, from CAD to printing to materials development,” said Steve Immel, Americas business development manager, Materialise USA, in Plymouth, Mich., during an additive manufacturing panel discussion. “There will be a continuous work flow, and everything will be refined.”

Many exhibitors (among more than 1,500 at the show) talked about “closing the loop” when touting equipment benefits, with all-the-time-accessible data as a job flows from the loading dock to the shipping dock. Conference speakers spoke of it when talking about value-stream mapping and process improvement. Others talked about it when describing interpersonal relationships between managers and their direct reports.

“Closing the loop,” like so many business buzz phrases, has a meaning that depends a lot on the context. Still, most at the show used it in a holistic way. Many used the phrase to describe making the entire organization, be it a custom fabricator, stamper, or the fabrication department at an OEM, act as one cohesive, determined unit.

As for determination, FABTECH’s famous keynote speaker, who presented just before the show opening on Nov. 16, had something to say. “Determination gives you that mental edge. Determination turns us into winners.”

He should know. He’s Sugar Ray Leonard.

About the Economy

2016 turned out to be a tougher-than-expected year for many shops, depending on the fabricator’s location and customer mix, but many show attendees were optimistic for the year ahead.

“2017 looks very positive for us,” said Farid Currimbhoy, senior vice president of Winsted, Minn.-based Millerbernd Systems. “We’re here to check out the equipment that will allow us to handle the work.”

The show occurred just a week after the election, when the industry was still absorbing a Trump win. There were some big unknowns at the time, like how continental (Mexico, U.S., Canada) and global trade would be affected.

“If you have a position on trade, now is the time to voice it,” said Ned Monroe, senior vice president of external relations at the National Association of Manufacturers, during a postelection panel discussion.

Hundreds gather before the show opening to hear FABTECH’s keynote address from Sugar Ray Leonard.

But many, including those on the postelection panel, pointed to areas of positive change, particularly when it comes to regulation.

Panelists said that, with interest rates set to rise, the economy soon may see inflation ramp up, though not dramatically. At the same time, a strong dollar may hurt export-oriented industries, including agriculture.

Although the rising dollar is an economic headwind, panelists agreed that manufacturing will benefit from plenty of tailwind, including regulatory reform, potential infrastructure spending, and, not least, changes to corporate taxes.

“Tax reform has to be on everybody’s mind,” said Monroe.

Omar Nashashibi, partner at The Franklin Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, mentioned that the industry could witness significant regulatory reductions in the years ahead, but not all of the changes will come during the early days of the administration. Some regulations are, for instance, the result of lawsuits, and so will take time to change. He added that in the years ahead, OSHA may start taking a different approach as well, being “more cooperative as opposed to punitive.”

When it comes to infrastructure spending, some moves in the stock market, some of which occurred during FABTECH itself, pointed to optimism. Caterpillar stock, for instance, had significant gains.

It’s no secret the U.S. has an aging infrastructure. Everything needs updating, from wastewater treatment to airport and seaport. “It gets back to the same question,” said Chris Kuehl, economic analyst for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International® (FMA). “Where’s the money going to come from?” There has been talk about funds coming from repatriation of corporate profits from overseas, but most agree that won’t be enough to meet the need.

At FMA’s annual economic forecast breakfast during the show, Kuehl pointed out that “we may see more inflation than we’ve seen in years,” adding that a little inflation can be a good thing, simply because it spurs spending. Several factors will be driving this, Kuehl explained, including rising wages. Baby boomers are retiring, unemployment continues to fall, and companies are poaching talent and offering higher pay.

About Technology

Like every year, technology introductions at FABTECH 2016 didn’t disappoint. Attendees who walked the show floor could foresee versions of the future of metal fabrication. How this business actually evolves will depend on the economy and market forces, but exhibitors and speakers certainly gave attendees plenty of options on how to shape that future. Here’s one potential future, as painted by the technology on display and talked about at the show.

You sit at the table with a customer’s design engineer and discuss manufacturing options for a new product launch. The customer has already sent you files that you downloaded directly to your 3-D printing machines, which you use for prototyping.

Bill Gaskin (far left), president of the Precision Metalforming Association, moderates a post election panel discussion with (left to right) Chris Kuehl, economic analyst for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International; Ned Monroe, senior vice president of external relations at the National Association of Manufacturers; and Omar Nashashibi, partner at The Franklin Partnership LLP.

You’re primarily a sheet metal fabrication and stamping operation, but you do have a machining department; though now it’s really not so much “machining” as an “additive manufacturing” department. You have numerous powder-bed fusion and directed-energy-deposition machines, thanks to the cost coming down dramatically in recent years.

“You will see prices [for additive manufacturing] go down,” predicted GE’s Center for Additive Technology Advancement Manager Jennifer Cipolla, during the show’s panel discussion on additive technology. “Process throughput will increase, making it more competitive for more industries.”

The show had its share of additive technologies, including those introduced by Cincinnati Incorporated (www.e-ci.com), which continued to show its presence in the emerging niche. The company exhibited its 3-D printing systems capable of producing both large and small parts.

With prototyping complete and design parameters set, your job launches into production, with real-time job data accessible via cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Numerous software providers at the show exhibited their web-based platforms and described a world in which, instead of carrying around large job packets, shop supervisors and operators refer to touchscreen tablets for the latest job information, retrieved by scanning a bar code attached to the next batch of parts.

In the future the majority of communications in the fab shop may be replaced by tailored industrial messaging applications. At the show, for instance, IGear introduced a messaging platform, called Sqeaks, that notifies those in a group about production status updates, preventive maintenance reminders, or anything else judged noteworthy about the production process (www.igearonline.com).

Squeaks was integrated with a Komatsu (www.komatsupress.com) servo stamping press and a welding cell at Genesis Systems Group (www.gen esis-systems.com). The equipment “squeaked,” as IGear’s senior executive Mark Doyle called it, updates to a monitor in the Komatsu booth and to Doyle’s Apple watch. Updates included warnings when welding wire was running low and production information, such as strokes per minute.

Job sequencing matters, too, and modern software will dive deep into the data to find the best schedule for the due dates at hand. For instance, some software products, such as those exhibited by Bystronic (www.bystronicusa.com), can help shops automatically schedule jobs not only in laser cutting, but now also at the press brake, based on real-time machine utilization and tool usage information.

Once production is launched and the first order is released to the floor, your future fab shop has plenty of options. Some higher-volume orders may be stamped, of course. The show had plenty of press technology on display, including a new BLISS press, which is now being manufactured in the U.S. by Schuler.

For orders that flow through fabrication, blanks may be fed to a staging area near the laser or to an automated material handling tower. Modern towers have become modular building blocks, able to adapt to current customer demand.

For instance, at the show Amada (www.amada.com) introduced an automated material handling system, set up in the booth feeding a 9-kW fiber laser. The modular system can grow and change with the shop.

A collaborative robot from Universal Robots automates the inspection of a complicated part.

Lasers have become highly customizable tools, tailored for the job mix and material’s absorption and reflectivity characteristics. Solid-state lasers now dominate, with advanced optics now able to handle seriously high cutting powers. Some machines use fiber lasers with the ability to change beam diameters, allowing efficient cutting of different material thicknesses. Others use another type of solid-state laser called the direct-diode laser, a technology that now has the beam quality required for conventional laser cutting.

At the show, Mazak Optonics (www.mazakop tonics.com) introduced flat-sheet as well as tube cutting machines that use a high-brightness direct-diode laser that, the company says, offers faster cutting speeds and improved cut quality in many applications. As its name implies, a direct-diode laser gets its energy from the laser diodes “directly” and manipulates the energy to ensure the laser has the beam quality needed for laser cutting.

Teradiode (www.teradiode.com) had its high-brightness direct-diode laser on display at the show as well, and the company continues its collaboration with various parties, including Panasonic Factory Solutions (www.panasonicfa.com), which displayed Teradiode’s solid-state lasers in robotic laser welding applications.

Solid-state lasers, without the beam-delivery complications of CO2 lasers, also integrate well with other technologies, including punching. At the show, TRUMPF (www.us.trumpf.com) introduced a punch/laser combination system that departs from a traditional machine design, including a new approach to aligning the upper and lower punch tooling. A fabricator can purchase the system as a punch press, then add a solid-state cutting laser to the system, either with the initial purchase or later—whatever makes business sense. The drive system can move both the punching head and the laser head in the Y direction while the sheet moves in the opposite direction, allowing the system to accelerate faster in the Y axis. Before a laser job starts, a safety enclosure rises.

When the job moves on to bending, the options abound. Small parts may move to a small press brake that’s not only fast but also partially automated.

Accurpress (www.accurpress.com) introduced a press brake with a robotic backgauge. It not only acts as a backgauge, but can also flip and rotate small parts. Operators may need to handle parts through certain bending steps, but for many steps, including those that otherwise would require the operator to handle parts very close to pinch points, the backgauge automates the bend sequence.

Some press brakes now display 3-D models not only on the controller, but on the ram of the press brake itself. At the latest FABTECH, for instance, MC Machinery Systems (www.mcmachinery.com) displayed a press brake that displays 3-D models, bending simulation, and tooling location on the face of the machine.

On other brakes, setup personnel wear augmented reality (AR) headsets that show them exactly where each tool should go and in what orientation. For instance, SafanDarley (www.safandarley.com) introduced its brake that works with a Microsoft HoloLens, through which the operator can see setup as well as bend sequence information.

Other parts of this job may benefit from kit-based part flow—that is, instead of dozens or hundreds, an operator bends three of this, six of that, and so on. Here is where press brakes offering automatic tool change fill a need. They use robotic and mechanized systems that change and manipulate punches and dies between short-run jobs. At the show, companies like Amada, Bystronic, and LVD (www.lvdgroup.com) demonstrated different versions of the technology.

Some portions of the job—say, parts with edge flanges—may be routed to other forming technologies, including folding and panel bending, which excel at various part geometries, including many that might be difficult for an operator to manipulate in front of a press brake.

More than 31,000 attended the latest FABTECH®, setting the stage for what may be a robust 2017 for many in metal fabrication.

In its booth, Salvagnini (www.salvagnini.com) showed its panel bending technology as well as its cellular concept in which different parts are fed on a conveyor to one operator, who handles both a panel bender and a press brake. The operator scans the part bar code, which brings up the program at the right machine. The press brake also offers the company’s own approach to automatic tool changing, which includes an adjustable bottom V die.

After bending, the job reaches welding, joining, and finishing. In the future shop, welding machines talk directly to cloud-based systems. The systems allow companies to analyze welding and cutting efficiency and quality and, most important, help fabricators catch a welding problem before it occurs. At FABTECH some companies, including ESAB (www.esabna.com), demonstrated the potential of such cloud-based data-collection systems.

Connectivity in welding automation also is becoming important. For example, Miller (www.millerwelds.com) demonstrated its automation integration capability with power sources designed to work with various robot brands.

Some critical components in a job may undergo an entirely different technology, such as a metal additive manufacturing process that deposits layers of filler metal to print metal parts that previously would have undergone multiple processing steps. Wolf Robotics (www.wolfrobotics.com), a Lincoln Electric Co., demonstrated its advancements in this area with its Robotic Big Area Additive Manufacturing (R-BAAM) system.

When portions of the job reach the quality department, they arrive in an area with a few quality technicians—but few spend the day measuring components manually. Instead, collaborative robots, which don’t require traditional guarding and feature intuitive programming, scan complicated components and automatically feed quality data to the production system, comparing the finished part with the original 3-D drawing and, ultimately, closing the manufacturing loop from art to part.

At FABTECH, collaborative robotics stepped up its presence, demonstrating its applicability in bending, light assembly, and, most notably, inspection. For instance, Universal Robots (www.universal-robots.com) demonstrated a collaborative robot system, made with software from 3D Infotech (www.3dinfotech.com) and hardware from Faro (www.faro.com). The collaborative robotic system moved around a complicated piece, automating the tedious job of taking multiple data points.

About the Future

Like at previous shows, FABTECH 2016 showcased just how advanced manufacturing has become. But the show and conference also covered another critical piece to success: effective management. What good is all that technology if employees don’t show up when they should, aren’t engaged, and don’t respect or connect with their managers?

“If you say someone has a bad attitude, what does that mean, exactly?”

Liz Weber of Weber Business Services (www.wbsllc.com), Greencastle, Pa., asked this poignant question during her morning seminar at the FABTECH conference. She didn’t generalize certain employee behavior but instead broke the problem down by describing how different management and communication styles help as well as hurt employee engagement. “If your team views you as passive, they will work around you. If your team views you as aggressive, they will avoid you. And if your team views you as passive-aggressive, they will avoid you,” she said. “But if your team views you as assertive, they will trust you … Minimize the drama. Be intentional. Do your job. And don’t be a dramatic leader.”

Mike Osterling of Osterling Consulting (www.mosterling.com), La Mesa, Calif., gave a seminar on value-stream mapping, both in the front office and on the shop floor. Many, he said, know about the nuts and bolts of VSM, but few concentrate on the most significant benefits of the process. It helps mitigate the “silo effect,” with different departments not communicating or even working toward competing or contradictory goals. Most important, it helps everyone focus on the big picture.

Installed on an Accurpress brake, a backgauge doubles as a manipulator that can orient a small part for the majority of bends in a sequence.

“The big value of VSM is on the company culture,” he said, “and creating that compelling need to actually change something. When we do VSM right, we see a major shift on how people in an organization think.”

The future fab shop, aiming to close the loop from art to part, will likely call for such shifts in thinking. In fact, changing how people think—about the economy, about implementing technology, and about developing new processes and managing people—is really what FABTECH is all about.

FABTECH® 2017 will take place Nov. 6-9 at McCormick Place in Chicago. For more information, visit www.fabtechexpo.com. The event is sponsored by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International® (www.fmanet.org), the Precision Metalforming Association (www.pma.org), SME (www.sme.org), the American Welding Society (www.aws.org), and the Chemical Coaters Association International (www.ccaiweb.com).

FABTECH welcomed about 1,500 companies that exhibited over 575,000 net square feet. Attendees also had access to more than 100 educational sessions.

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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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