Japanese metal fabrication: Manufacturing on a bedrock of data

Japanese metal fabricators automate and collaborate to compete and thrive

The FABRICATOR October 2008
October 14, 2008
By: Tim Heston

Overseas, metal fabricators have many of the same issues as those stateside, including lack of skilled labor and outsourcing to low-labor-cost countries. In Japan, fabricators tackle those issues by taking automation to new levels.

Japanese metal fabrication

I first noticed the houses in Shibayama Machi, southwest of Tokyo. Many in Japan live in extended families, and driving through communities I saw houses coupled, two to a plat, one house older than the other. The parents raise their children in the newer house; the grandparents reside in the older one. The grandparents pass, the family remodels (and often improves) the old home, and the grown grandchildren move in. Thus, the cycle continues, with growth and rebirth on the same plat for generations.

Rick Pawell, a manager at Amada's verification and proposal planning department at the company's Japan headquarters, related this on the way to visit a Japanese manufacturer. Throughout the year Amada is inviting media representatives from around the world to see the equipment-maker's home country and get a taste of Japanese metal fabrication. In late JulyThe FABRICATOR paid a visit.

The taste couldn't be summed up better than in those housing plats. By refurbishing and new construction, the family continually reinvents itself while staying rooted in ancestral history. The same could be said of Japanese metal fabricators. OEMs and suppliers work closely on new-product development; equipment suppliers stay in close contact with customers, following them down the continuous-improvement path. Improvement happens together, never alone. And always, companies stay perennially rooted in what Pawell referred to as the"quality mindset."

Manufacturing, Japan's economic engine, isn't perfect, of course. The country can fall into a downturn like every other economy (and, at this writing, the country was moving close to one). All the same, many companies do business within tight supply chains in which everyone--fabricators, their customers, and suppliers--works together to build up, tear down, and build up again better than before.

Data Buttresses a Business

Although Hidetsugu Masuda's business may be in a secluded patch of wilderness, the company--KantoSeiko Co. Ltd. Group--is anything but isolated. The main conference room is lined with photos showing visits from customers, suppliers, and other fabricators. The company president revels as a tour guide; he treats it as a chance to espouse his wisdom, build relationships, and learn from others.

The company's manufacturing campus spans almost 110,000 square feet, with separate facilities dotting an uneven, hilltop landscape above Shibayama Machi, southwest of Tokyo. The location, at the end of a harrowingly steep, winding road, seems mystifying until you consider the company history. Masuda's father founded the company in Fujinomiya, near the foot of Mount Fuji, as a metal stamping firm.

But stamping's noisy, and noise pollution is taken seriously. Japan has a population roughly a third of the U.S.'s packed into a land mass less than the size of California, so space comes at a premium. More than that, a corporate office might sit next to a small residence, which sits next to a convenience store, adjacent to a cemetery, next to a factory. The arrangement creates a multipurpose community where people live, shop, and work. But it comes with certain restrictions, including noise.

So Masuda's father moved up a hill, away from populated areas, and there his company remains. Masuda has carried the business into a different incarnation, transforming it from metal stamping--a higher-volume business that, like in the U.S., has shrunk significantly over past decades--to sheet metal fabrication.

The business is part job shop, part design engineering firm, part OEM. Like a fair number of Japanese metal fabricators, KantoSeiko has built a business around the Japanese metal cutting machine tool builders. Japan builds more machining and turning centers than any other country, and KantoSeiko, as a job shop, partners with those builders to meet worldwide demand. Among other things, the company fabricates enclosures for Makino machining centers, as well as components for automatic-tool-change (ATC) magazines.

As a design firm, the company doesn't just receive a print, give an estimate, and start a job. The supply chain's tighter than that. KantoSeiko works off a general concept from Makino and designs those machine covers from the ground up. This isn't really design for manufacturability (DFM), but instead a comprehensive design and engineering service. It makes the whole process more efficient for everyone. Kanto's design engineers know the company's manufacturing capability, so in a sense there's no need for DFM; from the start, products are made with KantoSeiko's manufacturing in mind.

Laser cutting software KantoSeiko

Figure 1 A worker at KantoSeiko accesses a program for a laser cutting operation.

Masuda calls his company an"assistant-maker." His employees don't just make parts and ship them away; they design and integrate parts into a larger product.

Finally, as an OEM, KantoSeiko designs and manufactures hydraulic pump assemblies, which it sells to various industrial users, including machine tool manufacturers.

The business structure isn't foreign to U.S. fabricators. Many North American job shop owners strive for the diversity of having both a product line and a mix of contract work. But drilling down deeper into KantoSeiko's business, I saw technology that isn't common stateside--at least not yet.

The company employs more than 80 people, 20 of whom work in the sheet metal cutting and bending operation. Masuda estimates that without the automation he uses, he'd need 60 to achieve the same throughput as 20 do today (see Figure 1).

Much of the automation is plainly visible. Automatic storage and retrieval systems, for instance, take material to and from laser cutting, punching, and punch-laser combination machines. Eight engineers work in a room above, programming both cutting and bending operations offline.

Those engineers, if the job calls for it, design parts from the ground up, working off detailed data from the customer. From the SolidWorks® model, the engineers use Amada SheetWorks software to unfold the drawings and augment the CAD data with bend-line radius and other fabrication-specific information. If the customer forwards a 2-D CAD file, particularly for a complex part, the company can convert it to 3-D CAD and, again, augment the original file with bend radius information and other important fabrication data.

"Now the files are ready, from 2-D CAD or 3-D CAD, for the CAM process, and these servers here are doing these processes," explained Pawell, pointing to two stacks of computers on the wall on one side of the room. One set of processors crunch numbers and produce optimal dynamic nests for the punch, laser, and punch-laser combination machines; another set works on the bending programs.

Adjacent to these servers sits a computer terminal with a map of shop floor operations. KantoSeiko runs Amada's vFactory, which monitors machine status and jobs. A yellow press brake icon means that machine is powered on but not running. One machine is gray; it's down and, in fact, is being replaced (concrete contractors were there the day of our visit preparing the floor for a new machine).

Amada's Pawell pointed to one engineer designing a Makino machining center cover."He's working in SolidWorks. They can perform the [part] design here so they can be easily manufactured on [KantoSeiko's] equipment. Then they go into the CAM process to prepare setup information, so they can reduce the setup time on the machine, to keep those machines moving and adding value. Then the company can monitor the results using vFactory software, which gets the signal from the machine as to what activity the machine is doing and to which part. All of this is connected to the CAD and order-control system, like MRP software. They need to ship four units to Makino on such and such a day, and [the software] will drive the schedule, and then they can see the results of the machines to match the schedule.

"So KantoSeiko is very well-integrated," Pawell continued,"and ultimately, it ties the company closer with the customer."

Robotic press brake conveyor

Figure 2 In its new facility, Yamaichi has a robotic press brake with a conveyor and pick-and-place system that takes material to and from the robot.

The company has many modern machines, but also has a few older press brakes. Pawell pointed to one of them that had a laptop computer mounted next to it. The brake doesn't have a modern controller with network connectivity, but it does have operators who can read instructions from a laptop, which has modern control software installed."This means he can get some of the benefit of the newer software and apply it to the old machine. The program was done offline, and the setup information is right here on this laptop."

How Few Can Run a Factory?

When Masakazu Watanabe led us to his company's recent shop floor expansion, the several-thousand-square-foot area had double the employees it usually has working there.

There were four.

Yamaichi Co. Ltd., a metal fabricator in Fujinomiya, serves customers in commercial ventilation and other sectors. It employs 27 and has 16,500 sq. ft. of manufacturing space. The 2-year-old expansion makes up about a third of this total, but the equipment inside increased company sales by 50 percent. And Watanabe, the company president, didn't need to hire any more workers to accomplish it.

Inside the new section are a manual press brake; a robotic press brake with an automated material handling conveyor and pick-and-place system that takes parts to and from the robot (see Figure 2); and a combination punch-plasma machine with an extensive sheet handling system--an Amada MARS Automated Warehouse with eight towers, each 10 shelves high—meaning the system can run all weekend unattended.

Usually the space employs two people during the day shift, one to run the manual brake and the other to monitor the automation, check programs (both bending and cutting are programmed offline), and ensure both systems have enough material for unattended operation overnight.

Amada's Pawell boiled down Watanabe's personnel needs for the new facility:"Here, he has two press brakes running, one automated and one stand-alone, and a blanking machine. You need to feed the equipment with programs and material, then take away the finished goods." For Yamaichi, he added, two people working one shift a day can manage this 24/7 operation.

During our visit, two additional employees happened to be there shaking microtabbed parts out of sheets. These parts weren't coming from the new cutting system but instead from an older laser cutting machine in the adjacent facility.

The new facility has an Amada EML3510NT punch-laser system with a"TK," or take-out, feature."Generally, you micro-tab those parts in the sheet, so you can remove the sheet and shake them loose," Pawell explained."The TK system removes the parts from the sheet and stacks them, so when the sheet is finished, the manual [shaking] operation isn't necessary. We'll laser-cut the perimeter as part of final processing, and with suction cups or electromagnets we'll pick up that part and remove it from the sheet. It's stacked, ready for the next operation, and because there are no tabs, there's no edge conditioning required before going on to bending."

Watanabe's father launched Yamaichi 40 years ago as a stamping company, though like KantoSeiko it transitioned to sheet metal fabrication because of decreasing demands for high volumes (though he still has six smaller stamping presses on the floor). When he started helping his father with the business in the early 1990s, average lot sizes were between 300 and 400. Today they're between 20 and 30. This brings up a concept that, according to sources, may be counterintuitive to some stateside but is seen as conventional in Japan.

Welding robot at Tokai Kogyo

Figure 3 A welding robot, one among 38, works on a radiator frame at Tokai Kogyo.

Through years of decreasing lot sizes, Yamaichi has adopted more automation.

This happens, sources said, because of automation's ability to maximize throughput regardless of volume. Offline programming and shop floor monitoring software mean everyone knows where parts are and when they're expected for completion. Most important, setups are reduced to near nil, which reduces time between runs. This all in turn helps shops adapt to ever-fluctuating demand.

No Stranger to JIT

Mitsuaki Ohta, president of Hadano-based Tokai Kogyo Co. Ltd., knows about adapting to changing demands. His company makes radiator components that end up in the off-road equipment of Komatsu and others. Like in the U.S., construction equipment manufacturing in Japan is experiencing boom times as the emerging BRIC economies furiously strive to build first-world infrastructures.

Tokai Kogyo delivers to its principal customer four times a day, and every order can be different, adjusting just-in-time to customer demand. Nearly 100 percent of orders are repeat work, but this doesn't make things easy. The shop processes about 500 tons of material a month, but everything is delivered in kits that require lot sizes of only about 20 parts. And handling all this through cutting and bending is a mere 12 employees. About 40 additional employees carry products through 38 OTC Daihen robotic welding cells in a nearby building (see Figure 3). (The robots sit on two floors, with larger parts processed on the bottom floor, smaller ones on the top floor. more evidence showing that in Japan space comes at a premium.) The company's total head count—fabrication, welding, parts washing, assembly, and administration—is 110.

Material handling towers line the walls next to laser cutting centers (see Figure 4). Glance at the work-in-progress on the floor (and there's not much), and you won't see paper travelers. Instead, you'll see a number marked on the top piece.

The company uses vFactory as well as software called WILL, which includes modules for order shipment, estimation, and other functions. As Pawell explained,"WILL is a sales order tool that connects people with time to a sales order. vFactory connects machinery and time. So now [managers are] able to track their time, people, and machines—the three primary assets of the company."

A few punch presses aside, Tokai Kogyo's cutting and bending machines all have modern controls, and many tie in directly to the plant's overall software system. That means workers can punch in the number marked on the top piece, obtain setup information as well as the part program, and start the run.

Ohta explained that the company experiences 98 percent uptime with its current laser machines, which run 24/7. However, he has plans to acquire an even newer laser system: the Amada LCF1NT series laser with adaptive optics (which can cut both thin and thick material) and process monitoring that ensures, among other things, clean finishes on tight corners and other difficult geometries. He estimated the system will improve the company's throughput by 40 percent.

Shortly after he explained this, we observed a press brake worker using a protractor to measure a long, narrow part."Because this part is long and narrow, it's hard to get it square," explained Pawell."This doesn't have the NC side gauge that's available on the newer machines." With such gauging, the operator wouldn't have to measure every part.

This begs the question: Why invest in a new laser machine with an old press brake slowing things down? Pawell gave two answers. First, the brake sits among many other press brakes that do not require such manual intervention, so the bottleneck isn't major. Second, investing in a new laser will increase throughput so dramatically, it will allow the business to expand and compete on another level. No one can afford to purchase new machines for an entire fabrication operation. It happens incrementally."So when you automate, you focus on the big problem first," Pawell explained."Once you solved that, you move to the next biggest bottleneck."

Fabrication shop floor Tohkai Kogyo

Figure 4 The fabrication shop floor at Tohkai Kogyo features cutting centers with automated material handling, press brakes, and, in the back, an area for prototype development. This shop floor-with few operators-processes 500 tons of material a month.

Increasing throughput is the goal, so why invest in a modern press brake when the current bank of lasers is running at full capacity? A new brake would increase that worker's efficiency, but he may have to sit and wait for material, because the lasers can't feed cut parts to those brakes any faster.

Doing Better and Enjoying Life

At the entrance of KantoSeiko's secluded hilltop campus is a sign carved in stone that complements the natural surroundings (see Figure 5). Below the company logo is etched a sage comment:

Those who cannot enjoy the job cannot enjoy life. There is no place in the world for those who don't try to improve themselves.

KantoSeiko's Masuda explained that the saying drives his company culture. That said, he recognizes both the positive and negative effects modern equipment can have on the workplace. Automation can breed a lackadaisical culture. Computers now do what was previously hands-on work. Where's the individual craftsmanship? What motivates people toward continuous improvement?

Masuda said that he knows the heart of his operation lies in that drive toward quality craftsmanship, so he's set up a special room that, at first glance, looks like a museum of metal fabrication. There he has a decades-old manual press brake alongside other manual cutting tools, even a forging area where workers shape metal by hammering on an anvil.

Workers make some practical products here; during our tour, a half-finished delivery hand truck, fabricated with manual machines, sat on the floor. But more than that, Masuda said the room instills a quality mindset.

Pawell expanded on this:"Here employees use [these manual tools], they fail, and then improve through trying again. They can then transport this back to the job, where they have numerous modern tools to help them toward continuous improvement, but they always keep that quality mindset in the back of their minds."

Put another way, like the Japanese extended family, the drive toward quality goes on for generations—and without it fabricators aren't likely to succeed, no matter what equipment they have on the floor.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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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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