January 28, 2014
The manufacturing sector appears strong for the near term. New technologies are emerging to help make fabricating a more productive exercise. Fabricators have positioned themselves to grow. All appears right in the metal fabricating world.
Bill Ritchie boiled it all down to a bar chart. The president of Tempus Institute, a quick-response manufacturing consultancy in Dayton, Ohio, pointed to it during the closing minutes of his educational session, one of many at the FABTECH® show that took place Nov. 18-21. The chart showed how long it takes a typical order to make it through a custom fabricator, job shop, or really any high-mix, low-volume manufacturer—that is, most of the manufacturing that goes on in the U.S.
The chart wasn’t detailed, but it was comprehensive, starting not with a primary fabrication process like laser cutting or punching, but with front-office work, including initial order entry, purchasing, and engineering. It ended when the customer received the order.
The bar chart showed what took the longest, and compared the touch time (when work was actually performed, be it on the computer screen or in a machine tool) to when it was just sitting in queue. It could be waiting for customer clarification. It could be stuck in the engineer’s inbox. Or it could be waiting its turn for the press brake or for other parts of a subassembly to arrive at a welding cell. In the life of a metal fabricated component, there can be a lot of waiting.
Ritchie’s seminar focused on reducing overall manufacturing cycle time, from the quote to the shipping dock. Unlike so many elements of business, including the increasingly unpredictable global economy, this overall manufacturing cycle time can be analyzed, controlled, perfected, and shortened. This really was what FABTECH was all about.
The show broke records on multiple counts: in attendance, number of exhibitors, and exhibit space. More than 40,000 attended, more than 1,500 companies exhibited, and collectively their booths covered more than 650,000 net square feet (see Figures 1 and 2).
The event showcased all aspects of metal fabrication, welding, stamping, and finishing. It has become a collaborative event, co-sponsored by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International (FMA), American Welding Society, Precision Metalforming Association, Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and Chemical Coaters Association International. Despite having diverse exhibitors and attendees, the industry’s largest annual event has a singular purpose: to help fabricators improve every aspect of their business, shortening the time between taking an order and shipping it.
Popular perception has it that the U.S. is in the middle of a long, slow, weak recovery. Keynote speaker Alan Beaulieu doesn’t see it this way (see Figure 3). The CEO of ITR® Economics International, with U.S. offices in Boscawen, N.H., said the current economic climate isn’t anything to sniff at, really. It’s not as robust as the 1990s, which was fueled by technical leaps in computing, or the 2000s, fueled by an artificial asset bubble.
“This is a normal run rate,” he said. “GDP is at record-high levels, and it’s growing. In fact, this growth isn’t particularly fragile, and you’ll be enthused about the next five years. And you deserve the credit. You now do more with fewer people, and you’ve made the right changes.”
He added that the manufacturing economy will slow slightly during the second half of 2014, with the fabricated metal products sector down a little more than 2 percent. That brief dip, he explained, will come thanks to government’s fight over the debt ceiling and budget early this year. He added that changes put in place by the Affordable Care Act may hamper consumer spending. But come 2015, the economy will continue its growth through 2017.
He added that in the coming years inflation will rear its head, though that head doesn’t have to be ugly. “You’ll have higher interest rates, and with inflation, those interest rates will be pushed higher,” he said. “That just means you need to manage your company differently. And if we did it in the 1970s, we can do it now.
“It comes back to price and purchasing power,” he added. “Borrow as much money as you can get this year and next year. Because you’ll be paying it back with inflated dollars.”
Views on inflation span the gamut over the long term, but few expect inflation in the short term. “We’re not going to see much in the way of inflation soon,” said Chris Kuehl, FMA’s economic analyst who spoke at a business forecast breakfast during the show. “None of the usual drivers are kicking in yet.”
He explained that inflation usually comes from a push from at least one of three areas: rises in commodity prices, especially oil; wage increases; and the money supply. Significant wage increases haven’t been pervasive since the Great Recession. And commodity prices, despite pockets of volatility (potential undersupply of zinc for stainless steel being one), are somewhat stable. The U.S. is set to become the largest oil producer in the world (though that may change if OPEC members stop cutting back production). Thanks to bumper crops in 2013, food prices likely won’t be rising anytime soon either.
The money supply is the elephant in the room, of course. “This is a potential issue,” Kuehl said, “except that we’re not really doing anything with the money. A lot of the money is stuck in the banks. If it ever does start flowing into the economy in a big way, that could be a concern.”
Kuehl added, though, that much of U.S. manufacturing has been pushing onward and preparing for the future, despite the uncertainty that, in a sense, has become the new certainty. Kuehl is also economic analyst for the National Association of Credit Management, and the Credit Managers’ Index he puts together, based on the methodologies behind the PMI™, shows positive times ahead. The CMI in October moved up to 57.3, the highest point since the recession.
Fabricators have been pushing onward by improving everything they can control—from marketing and sales, to engineering, to production. Speed matters, as always, but so do adaptability and agility. A contract fabricator’s customer mix can change on a dime, and technology displayed at FABTECH is helping fabricators meet changing customer needs and freeing persistent constraints.
Punching, Plasma, and Lasers. Mate Precision Tooling showcased its VariBend form tool that can bend tabs and eliminate secondary operations. In some cases, it can bend flanges past 90 degrees. The top punch has an angled profile, slightly resembling a hold-down tool in a panel bender, giving clearance for overbending to compensate for springback.
Wilson Tool previewed its ink-jet tooling, slated for release sometime this year, which allows fabricators to mark parts for identification, as well as to error-proof downstream operations (showing a bend operator the bend line placement, for instance). After the part is processed, the mark can be sprayed with a cleaner and wiped off.
Plasma precision keeps ramping up, with high-density systems able to cut geometries that previously just weren’t practical with the technology. For instance, Kaliburn, now owned by Lincoln Electric) introduced its plasma torch systems that have the ability to cut holes down to 0.75 in. diameter in 1-in.-thick plate. Hypertherm used the show not only to showcase its plasma technology, but also promote its entry into the waterjet cutting arena, with the company’s purchase of Accustream in early 2013.
When it comes to lasers, the high-brightness, 1-micron fiber and disk varieties have fully permeated this market. This year’s show had more machine tool vendors throwing their hat into the solid-state-laser ring—one being MegaFab, which announced its re-entry into the laser cutting market with its 6-kW fiber system.
All the lasers cut extremely fast on thin sheet—a strength the technology has had since these lasers entered the metal fabrication space. But now more than ever, machine tool vendors are showcasing how these lasers can produce quality cuts in thick plate (see Figure 4).
As one product introduction showed, these lasers need not have umpteen kilowatts of power to get the job done. Several years ago Amada began working with photonics company JDSU on a fiber laser project that resulted in a 2-kW system that reportedly produces the power and beam efficiency equivalent to that of a conventional 4-kW fiber laser.
Slated for availability in June, the ENSIS 3015 AJ generates its beam like any fiber laser—but only to a point. The laser light comes from laser diodes that are pumped into an active, double-clad fiber. From here, the beam goes into what JDSU calls its “Variable Beam Control Unit.”
This unit effectively changes the beam’s BPP, or beam parameter product. A lower BPP is closer to a true Gaussian beam profile, with highly focused energy in the center. This can work wonders in gauge material but become problematic when cutting thick sheet. So the beam control unit adjusts the BPP to suit the application.
TRUMPF showcased its TruLaser 5030 with a 5-kW disk laser that uses what the company calls its “BrightLine” fiber function. As the company explained, this allows the laser to cut material up to 1 in. thick. Depending on the material type and thickness, it can achieve cutting speeds up to five times faster than what is possible on a comparable CO2 machine, according to the company.
Over in the tube and pipe realm, Mazak Optonics Corp. introduced a new laser machine, Tube Gear 2D. Available with a 2.5- or 4-kW resonator, the machine is intended for high-speed processing of thin-wall tubular sections in diameters up to 6 in. and lengths up to 21.3 ft.
“It’s intended for cutting material up to 0.25 in. thick,” said Marc Lobit, the company’s marketing manager. “It can unload parts to a rack next to the machine or a bin below the machine, depending on part length.”
The unit is equipped with a triple chuck system to minimize warp and material vibration, which improves accuracy and processing speed. The system’s loader, unloader, and control panel are on one side of the machine to improve efficiency and minimize required floor space. The bundle load/unload system handles lot sizes up to 4.2 tons.
Other emerging laser technologies were on the show floor as well. TeraDiode showcased its high-brightness direct-diode laser. This direct-diode approach uses what the company calls “wavelength beam combining,” or WBC. According to the company, this allows the system to combine the energy from a stack of laser diodes without degrading beam quality.
Exhibitors showcased advances in the CO2 arena too. Alkras displayed several small enclosures that house a kind of CO2 laser that’s different from typical systems. The laser reportedly uses a subsonic transverse flow and radio frequency excitation. Patented technology allowed engineers to shrink the laser power source to a size small enough to fit on the gantry of a cutting table. This eliminates the need for complicated optics between the laser power source and cutting head, and allows the system to be retrofitted onto existing tables. According to the company, cutting speeds can exceed that of conventional solid-state and CO2 laser technologies.
Bending and Forming. Bystronic offers a press brake with voice control activation. Wearing a wireless headset, the operator running a program can say, for instance, “Go to bend No. 6,” and the backgauge will move to the right place for the operator to perform the sixth bend. The voice control can understand accents and different languages, including Spanish.
“Over an eight-hour shift, a press brake operator can walk up to a mile back and forth from the controller,” said Gerrit Gerritsen, bending product manager. “That can take a half hour to an hour. He shouldn’t have to do all that walking.”
Metal forming challenges with high-strength steels and advanced high-strength steels continue to dominate the technology innovations in stamping presses, feeding equipment, tooling, drives, finishing, and controls.
As AHSSs reach tensile strengths upwards of 1,200 MPa while also getting thinner to help automakers achieve the higher fuel standards, press feeding equipment must adjust to feed the thinner material while wrestling with the coil set and crossbow challenges inherent in the ultra-tough steel, according to Jim Ward, COE Press Equipment Corp.
“Normally, equipment would scale up, but now press feed equipment must be stronger without taking up a larger footprint,” Ward said. It must also feed the thin-gauge material with kid gloves.
Larger press capacities and variable-speed presses required for forming or blanking HSSs have led to the proliferation of servo-driven mechanical presses. AIDA, Schuler, Komatsu, Seyi, and Nidec Minster were among the press OEMs exhibiting their servo-driven press capabilities.
Stripping punch dies from AHSS is challenging as well, said Steve Janiszewski of Superior Die Set Corp. This led to the company’s alignment with Strack in offering its Power-Max® cam units with active return, he said. The device uses 10 percent of the press force to strip out the die as an alternative to gas springs.
Bohler-Uddeholm integrates high-performance, low-temperature PVD coatings on its tooling steel to bolster the tooling’s ability to stamp high-strength dual-phase, AHSLA, and stainless steel with reduced tooling damage, tearing, or malformation of the work material.
Environmentally friendly fluid use and handling continue to grow in presence with green lubricants and cleaners, such as those showcased by Metalloid, Tower Oil & Technology, Rock Valley Oil & Chemical, and KSL Lubricants and fluid reclamation and recycling as presented at Eriez, Industrial Innovations, and Closed Loop Recycling.
Technology advancements in the green lubricant field can make a substantial difference in stampers’ bottom lines, according to Steve Lowery of Tower Oil. “VOC-free technology allows metal formers to continue to use vanishing fluids and lessen their environmental impacts,” he said.
Welding and Finishing. The farther parts move downstream, the more expensive manufacturing errors become. People don’t make mistakes maliciously, though. Quite often it’s because they don’t have the right information on hand.
To that end, the computer screen has entered the welding cell. Several companies at the show offered products that help communicate work instructions to ensure welders have the right information for the job at hand. A system called Weld Sequencer from Lincoln Electric shows pictures that describe where welds should go, step by step, how much weld there should be, and makes automatic adjustments to the power source to suit.
(Lincoln, which has been on the acquisition trail during the past few years, announced two more purchases at the show: Robolution GmbH, a robotic welding systems provider in Germany, and Burlington Automation Corp., an Ontario-based provider of 3-D robotic plasma cutting systems.)
For real-time weld monitoring, Miller Electric Mfg. Co. showed its Insight Core™ welding information management software. The Internet-based system allows managers to assess weld productivity and quality, including arc-on time. If a weld is performed outside predetermined amperage and voltage settings, the software can help managers flag the problem immediately.
A lot of times, of course, arc-on time plummets simply because the right tools aren’t available. Also, as a fabricator’s product mix changes, a shop manager may want to move a welding cell to a new area of the plant. To that end, Victor Technologies offered Tweco portable welding carts that have room for the power source (be it GTAW only or a GMAW/SMAW/GTAW combination machine), plus all the tips, tools, wire feed, and cylinders.
Like at every FABTECH, power source technology abounded. As just one example, Fronius introduced its TPS/i, a welding system that, among other things, computes the temperature at the end of the wire electrode instantaneously. From this the power source calculates the necessary energy required to stabilize the arc quickly. The company reports that the system also adjusts the wire feed speed to the actual contact-tip-to-workpiece distance.
After grinding comes cleaning, polishing, and surface finishing—but what if a shop could skip these finishing steps? That’s a question Australian Clive White asked several years ago before launching Ensitech to sell his invention, the TIG Brush®. As White explained, the system uses an electrical power source to heat low-toxicity chemicals, which are applied via a brush to clean and passivate welds (see Figure 5).
The brush is being marketed to those TIG welding stainless steel as a quicker and safer alternative to pickling paste. But as White explained, the cleaning can be applied to any kind of weld. In some applications, if welders deposit the right amount of weld metal in a joint, an operation can clean the weld and skip grinding and polishing altogether.
Automation. Sam Bouchard recalls visiting myriad job shops over the past few years. The president of Robotiq kept noticing many robotic welding cells sitting idle. He heard a common story: The welding robot was purchased for a specific job that ended. Ever since that relatively high-volume order, managers just felt that the robot programming was too involved.
And so Bouchard’s company collaborated with Yaskawa America, Motoman Robotics Div. , to develop a pressure sensor that allows a person to program a robot kinetically by moving the arm along various points of the weld joint (see Figure 6).
According to Chris Anderson, Motoman’s product marketing manager for welding, the concept isn’t new: Motoman offered something similar 20 years ago, but it was a bit unwieldy, requiring a full-sized computer to do the computations. Now all the computations for kinetic programming occur inside a small, robust sensor, just above the welding gun. The control has only a few intuitive buttons and bears an uncanny resemblance to some smartphone interfaces.
Showcasing its cutting automation, ESAB offered plasma cutting that uses a Kuka robot arm to cut pressure piping, including beveled holes for valves and other attachments. The system, which can be scaled up for larger-diameter work, helps eliminate manual layout and hand-torch cutting—still common in many heavy fab and pressure vessel shops.
Bill Kaye, production manager at Holland, Mich.-based Mammoth Inc., an HVAC equipment-maker, knows all about bottlenecks at press brakes. “We had a perceived constraint there,” he said, “so we focused a kaizen event on that, and we actually were able to eliminate that constraint by doing a number of different things that required no investment.” These included some basic 5S as well as material prestaging. “This allowed the operator to focus on keeping that press brake moving up and down.”
So why did Kaye attend FABTECH? He was looking to upgrade those press brakes. The manufacturer had done all it could to improve setup and part flow through the bending area. Now, he said, upgrading is the next step.
This theme was common for many attendees. Either they needed to upgrade, or they were looking to bring additional processes in-house—like show attendee Larry Ranseth. The superintendent at Winnipeg-based Motor Coach Industries said business is picking up, and 2014 may well shape up to be a very strong year. But the company has been experiencing material shortages and late deliveries of fabricated parts. “Some parts are just add-ons and can be added later, but some [late] parts actually just stop the line. It’s still hard to manage. We went through a phase when we outsourced everything. Now we’re bringing work back in and investing money in equipment.
“We have vendors all over the U.S. and China, as well as Turkey,” he added. “It still comes down to the price.”
Attendee John Michel, a manufacturing engineer at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Dallas, said he was at the show looking for titanium welding technology. He was there during a tumultuous time at the storied defense contractor, which is closing plants and laying off several thousand workers. “It’s about decreased government spending,” he said. “It’s getting tougher. We’re continuing to evolve our product. One of the main reasons for closing some plants is to lower our costs to the customer. Where once a project was in two different places, now it’s consolidated into one facility.
“We’re supporting our customers with the best product at the lowest possible price,” he added. “That’s what it’s all about.”
This remains an extraordinarily competitive business, which perhaps is one reason that Beaulieu of ITR Economics International got the response he did during a lunchtime panel discussion on finding skilled labor. The economist asked the audience a poignant question: “How many of you who are in manufacturing would like to see your children go into manufacturing? Raise your hands.”
He paused. “Not too many. I think there are about eight hands.”
Beaulieu didn’t delve into the reasons behind the response, but one may be that this just isn’t the easiest of businesses. Competition is fierce, and it’s difficult to find good people. But good people are indeed out there, and one shop owner who attended the show said his company was making sure it could find them.
“Every time I get together with a group of business leaders, the conversation devolves into a gripe session about the quality of the available workforce,” said John Axelberg, president of South Bend, Ind.-based General Sheet Metal Works. “People have been griping about this for 20 years. So we said, ‘Let’s just do something about it.’ And for us, it has actually gotten better.”
As Axelberg explained, the company organization has been restructured, and training and continuing education have been integrated into the business structure. Each department—including forming (press brake, tube bending, plate rolling, and stamping), profiling (laser cutting and punching), welding and joining, as well as tool and die—has a certified machine-skills instructor on staff. “That person was a top-performing operator who was assessed thoroughly to make sure he has the right profile for teaching,” Axelberg added.
Such an approach, he said, ensures the company will have good people in the pipeline for generations to come, and considering how important metal fabrication is, that’s a very good thing. Just ask Richard Tamor, fabrication superintendent of the pile driving department at Boh Bros. Construction Co. LLC, a heavy fabricator and construction contractor. He was at the show looking for plasma machines and waterjets, two previously outsourced processes that the company hopes to bring in-house.
In 2005, when Katrina hit New Orleans, Tamor’s house, his belongings—everything, really—were gone. Within two days after the storm, some Boh Bros. personnel were back on the job, filling in holes, building temporary dams. “Management got in touch with me about 12 days after the storm,” he said. “And I was back working. I didn’t have a house, but I was working.”
This business really is about good people doing the right thing, the right way, at the right time, against all odds. So many things make their life difficult—but as becomes so evident at every FABTECH, good people and ever-progressing technology will prevail.
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. Print subscriptions are free to qualified persons in North America involved in metal forming and fabricating.