January 10, 2013
More than 26,000 people affiliated with the metal fabricating industry showed up at FABTECH® 2012 in Las Vegas in mid-November not to lose money, but to learn about new technologies and processes that could help them reduce production costs and put more of their money back into their own pockets.
It was a brisk morning for Las Vegas in November, but Shorty Salzbrun, a veteran of Alaskan winters, could have been wearing shorts. The owner of Shorty’s Shop, a four-person operation just outside Bethel, Alaska, specializes in fabricating and welding residential water systems. About 400 miles west of Anchorage and accessible only by boat or airplane, Bethel doesn’t have a municipal water system. Instead, each house has tanks for fresh water and sewage, and Shorty’s Shop fabricates, repairs, and maintains them. The shop’s workers also build or weld anything else that’s needed—and in Bethel, Alaska, that’s a lot.
Kenneth Gerhart stood outside the Las Vegas Convention Center with Whirlpool on the mind, as well as Electrolux and other appliance-makers around the world. The competition is fierce, and as a manufacturing engineer at GE Appliances & Lighting in Louisville, Ky., Gerhart needs to find ways to get ahead.
“We’re looking to see how we can go from art to part faster,” Gerhart said. “We want to shorten the amount of time it takes to go from the initial concept to the production floor.”
Both Gerhart and Salzbrun were among the throngs of people waiting to enter the exhibit halls at FABTECH®. Show attendance belied the darker mood of the U.S. economy during the fourth quarter. The election had just been decided, and results did not please a business community craving certainty and an end to the battle between the White House and Capitol Hill.
Despite this, the show drew more than 15,000 attendees on the first day alone—a record. Between Nov. 13 and 15, almost 26,000 people walked the more than 450,000 net square feet of floor space, where more than 1,200 exhibitors showed their wares. The event has grown into one of the world’s major manufacturing expositions, sponsored by a group of collaborating organizations: the American Welding Society (AWS), the Chemical Coaters Association Intl. (CCAI), the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association Intl. (FMA), the Precision Metalforming Association, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME).
Gerhart and Salzbrun are examples of how diverse the show’s attendee base has become, and how far they will travel to visit the exhibit halls. They come from the smallest job shop in the wilds of Alaska as well as from the largest welding, metal stamping, and assembly factories. They may hunt for a small ironworker, a new welding power source, or an automated blanking or stamping line. Still, all essentially want the same thing: a way to produce a product or service faster, better, and for less money.
Mike Clark, a maintenance coordinator from Lenexa, Kan., works for an organization that, like so many since the recession, has been through some tumultuous times, but is now emerging strong. The company, which produces components for ventilation and air movement systems, was purchased by Systemair in 2009, and this year it is moving ahead with new products and improvement initiatives.
“We’re introducing new product lines and bringing in different lines of business,” Clark said. “And we’re trying to operate smarter and better.”
This has become a common postrecession story. The survivors went through hard times, but they are emerging stronger (and often larger) than ever. Not only have their operations improved, but they also have been successful in diversifying while remaining true to their core competencies.
Don Haiker’s employer exemplifies this. The quality assurance manager works for Commercial Metal Forming in Orange, Calif., which produces end caps for pressure vessels and tanks. “We don’t have trouble finding people, because we have extremely low turnover,” he said. “Most people tend to be lifers. We’re a good company to work for, and we have had few layoffs.”
How has the 50-person shop avoided significant layoffs, especially in recent years? “It’s our niche. We’re one of the few large tank fabricators west of the Rockies,” Haiker said.
The fabricator’s work ends up in tanks and pressure vessels used in oil and petrochemical, water filtration, food and agriculture, and other industries. End caps are the company’s niche; the tanks and pressure vessels those end caps go on give the company market diversity.
Scott Malkasian also knows his core competency and the importance of market diversity. The owner of Worcester, Mass.-based MicroArc does something that’s the polar opposite of large tank fabrication: He welds on the microscopic scale. He pointed to his handiwork on display at the show, including a figurine barely larger than the tip of a fingernail.
His eight-person shop performs micro-GTAW and micro-laser welding. “It’s utterly different from conventional arc welding,” Malkasian said. “We use wire that’s as small as three thousandths of an inch.”
The shop got its start repairing tool and dies for plastic injection molding, but today serves industries like medical devices and defense. It turns out that many markets need a craftsperson who can weld in the microscopic realm, wielding a filler wire that’s as thin as human hair.
Of course, show attendees aren’t ignoring the broader uncertainties going into 2013. Tyrous Ward, CEO of Cumming, Ga.-based contract fabricator Accufab Inc., said that although business has remained strong, work levels had softened a bit by the fourth quarter. “For 2013, there are a lot of unanswered questions that a lot of people can’t answer,” he said. “I’ve talked with quite a few of our customers, and many of them are in industries that are heavily regulated. Unless some ideas come through that give relief to the customers we’re selling to, they may be cutting back.”
Gary Conner, president of Lean Enterprise Training (www.lean1mfg.com), Newport, Ore., spoke to a roomful of fabricators. His and other sessions on lean manufacturing were among the best-attended during FABTECH’s educational conference.
Conner recalled one manufacturer that had identified several value streams and was well down the road of continuous improvement, but something was missing. The engineers and schedulers who sent work orders to that value stream happened to sit on the other side of the factory. “They started to ask, ‘Why is our production planner way over here? Why is engineering over there? Why can’t they be right next to the manufacturing line?’” So they moved, and open communication ensued.
During another conference seminar, Dick Kallage, principal at KDC & Associates (www.kdcconsul tants.com), Barrington, Ill., described how such communication can reduce or eliminate one of the most problematic areas in a high-mix, low-volume metal fabrication shop: “information waste.”
Reducing that information waste has been an emerging technology trend for years, and it continued unabated during FABTECH. As just one example, Alex Soffritti took out his iPad® and started drawing. The president of Davi Inc. (www.davi.com) in Dallas, home base for the Italian plate roll machine manufacturer’s North American operations, showed iRol®, an iPad app.
Say a fabricator meets with a customer to discuss a potential plate rolling job. The fabricator can sketch the job directly on the iPad, then enter specific parameters, including exact radius geometries and material type based on the print. “Then, based on the machines available at the plant, the fabricator can check if the part can actually be made,” Soffritti said.
This occurs not after the job has been accepted, but instead during the initial conversations with the fabricator’s customer. The goal: A job that can’t be rolled should never make it to the shop floor. Instead, any problems or design tweaks should be addressed on the front end, virtually.
Beyond Soffritti’s iPad, the show floor was chockful of touchscreens, especially on machine controls. Their implications are especially profound on press brakes. Such controls use 3-D graphics to identify and animate which tools are needed for the setup, as well as the exact bend sequence and material orientation.
These controls connect with shopwide software. As just one example, representatives at Bystronic’s (www.bystronic.com) booth showed the 3-D capabilities of its touchscreen control. This in turn is connected to BySoft enterprise software. Such software makes use of translators, so it can communicate with various machine brands.
What was once a harbinger has come true: If a company is in the machine tool business, it is also, directly and/or via close industry partnerships, in the software business.
Automation is becoming more prominent than ever, even in the high-mix, low-volume job shop. “On every new piece of equipment we buy, we make sure it’s as automated as possible,” said Jerry Ward, vice president of Metcam, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based contract fabricator.
One of the most challenging areas for automation, though, has been in the press brake department. If a shop has a blanket order or consistent product of sufficient volume, a robotic press brake can work. But when it comes to high-mix, low-volume operations, many fabricators say they have found that a human operator is far more flexible and efficient than an articulating robot arm.
Changeover does take time and expertise—but what if such changeover were automated on a manual CNC brake? This year Amada (www.ama da.com) and LVD Strippit (www.lvdgroup.com) introduced manual CNC press brakes featuring an automatic tool changer that can remove, insert, and position punches and dies.
While each system takes its own approach, they accomplish the same goal: Operators can bend short runs of parts, while the time between jobs plummets. The bending changeover—one of the most time-consuming activities in the bending department—has become automated, no articulating-arm robot required.
The solid-state laser has come of age in sheet metal cutting. Many major machine tool vendors now offer fiber technology. Higher powers are hitting the market, and eye-popping speeds are becoming the norm.
Now the constraint is the machine itself: How quickly can the head travel between the cuts? This matters particularly if a nest has numerous small parts. In these cases, machine tool manufacturers have integrated linear drives and new ways to move the cutting head, all of which attempt to take full advantage of the fiber laser’s high cutting speed.
The laser, be it solid-state or CO2, is perfectly suited for high-product-mix production. If given the right sheet size, it can cut profiles and leave a sparse skeleton. In part, advanced nesting engines make this possible. At the show, SigmaTEK (www.sigma nest.com), for instance, released its latest nesting engine that shortens nest-generation time to seconds, according to the company.
Still, if a sheet isn’t the right size, scrap will result. This is where James Ward, general sales manager at Coe Press Equipment (www.cpec.com), Sterling Heights, Mich., sees a trend. Instead of contract fabricators and job shops purchasing cut metal from a service center, shops may decide to integrate a cut-to-length line of their own. This way, a fabricator can cut just what it needs for every job.
Such technology points to the ideal in high-product-mix manufacturing: a flexible machine that can produce just what a fabricator needs, no more and no less, and change over quickly. These days many machines are helping shops achieve this ideal, be it by cutting with a laser or programming the press brake offline and (more recently) even using a brake with an automatic tool changer. Farther downstream, if fabricators aren’t reclaiming powder, even coating lines can be changed over in a few minutes.
But between grinding and painting is a process that remains a challenge for high-mix shops, be they a fabricator or a custom powder coater: parts cleaning. How many cleaning stages will a part need? What are the space requirements? It’s hard to know if you don’t know what’s coming in the door.
To this end, Mankato, Minn.-based Associated Finishing Inc.—itself a custom coater—developed its own modular washing station that can be built for a certain job, then reconfigured for another job by adding or taking away components. The organization launched Pretreatment Equipment Manufacturing Inc. (PEM) to market the product (www.spraywand.com).
“This way, you can start with, say, a two-stage washer for cleaning and rinsing,” said Ted Schreyer of PEM. “Then, if you want to go to a three-stage process—say, clean, rise, and phosphate—you add another module.”
Chris Kuehl, economic analyst for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, was in top form at FABTECH’s Economic Forecast breakfast, aptly expressing what was top of mind for many business leaders in late 2012. “Will the good men and women of Congress stop behaving like kindergartners and get organized?”
Despite the mess inside the Beltway, he said, other factors bode well for the manufacturing business in 2013. “The average age of a car is now 10.9 years old,” Kuehl said, adding that lending standards are starting to loosen since the credit crunch, “so it’s now relatively easy to get a car loan.”
Another encouraging factor is the shift in domestic oil production. More domestic oil production brings demand for manufacturing, and attendees at FABTECH are happy to help.
“The U.S. is on track to be the world’s largest oil producer by 2020,” Kuehl said. Although Saudi Arabia could produce more oil, it won’t, because it wants to stabilize prices. Oil remains a globally traded product, of course, so events affecting supply anywhere can still change prices. “But thanks to developments in the Montana region, we are a serious oil player,” Kuehl explained.
Relative to those at the 2011 show, Las Vegas attendees and exhibitors seemed to have a more positive view of things to come. After all, they survived the worst recession in a generation, and that itself may build confidence for business owners moving forward. Some consumer markets may be slowing, but manufacturers have a plan of action.
During the State of the Industry keynote panel, Patrick J. Thompson, president of Trans-Matic Manufacturing Co., a Holland, Mich., stamper, described current business conditions and the company’s strategy for the year ahead.
“We just finished three solid years of good growth, and we’re starting to see things slow down.” This slowdown, though, may be mitigated by the company’s stamping plant in Suzhou, China, which was set up to serve the local Chinese market. “That market is still growing and is quite strong for us,” Thompson said, attributing much of the growth to the emerging middle class in China.
Another panelist, Rick Taylor, president and CEO of Jay Industries, Mansfield, Ohio, saw his company transform since 2009. At that time its metal fabrication business focused solely on the automotive sector. Today that makes up only 60 percent of the business, while remaining revenue comes from the agricultural equipment market. “The agricultural business is growing,” he said, “and we have a strong backlog in new orders. So from my perspective, the next 18 months should be pretty steady, unless something really blows up in Washington.”
Panelist Gregg Simpson, president of Ohio Laser LLC, Plain City, Ohio, summed up a typical attitude in this business. He’s a realist and he’s all too aware of economic uncertainty, but he also knows he’s more productive than ever, thanks in large part to the technologies on display at the show.
“I feel that there are a lot of good things going on underneath [the surface]. There are a few challenges out there, but we feel that some of the technologies we put in place in 2012 have positioned us to grow.”
For information about FABTECH, which returns to Chicago Nov. 18-21, visit www.fabtechexpo.com.
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.