Handling the rush

STAMPING Journal May/June 2003
May 29, 2003
By: Lincoln Brunner

Think delicate: an antique vase, velvet gloves, the sweet sound of string music. Then imagine a typical stamping operation: bam-bam, metal on metal, all day long.

Photo courtesy of Hanna Steel Corp., Fairfield, Ala.

Think delicate: an antique vase, velvet gloves, the sweet sound of string music.

Then imagine a typical stamping operation: bam-bam, metal on metal, all day long.

OK, now put those two together. Voil—you've got the bull-polishing-the-fine-china mentality of a prefinished-metal stamping operation. As customers demand flawless surfaces and production schedules demand speed and power, stampers are playing a game that requires high-tech material handling coupled with high productivity.

Image Really Is Everything

"Appearance is really where it's driven," said Travis Blose, manager of technical support at Apollo Metals, Bethlehem, Pa., a manufacturer of electroplated, enameled, and painted metals for appliances and other products. "Most of our business is aimed at the decorative market, and a real key to most of our product is appearance."

Gary Edwards knows exactly where Blose is coming from.

Edwards, operations manager at Ameriform Manufacturing Inc., Carrollton, Ky., said his company, which serves the appearance-obsessed household appliance market, has been using a robotic material handling system for a little more than a year to feed parts into its progressive die systems. The system's grippers help the large stamping and roll forming shop—about 30 presses and 28 roll forming stations—stay ahead of the game by keeping surface quality up and labor time down.

"It eliminates a lot of handling and makes us a lot more competitive," said Edwards, whose shop stamps prepainted aluminum for washer and dryer control panels, as well as aluminum and steel for other applications. "It takes a lot of man-hours out.

"The parts that we are feeding into the stamping press [are of] a prefinished material, and it also has a lot of decorative work done to it," he added. "The decorative trim is very cosmetic, and it has to be very much flaw-free."

Figure 1
Quality assurance personnel continuously monitor paint film thickness with electronic measuring devices to help ensure a consistent appearance.

And because the prefinished-metal stamping market thrives on appearance, many customers are checking out products for their looks as well as durability (see Figure 1), said Linda Foster, sales manager for Arvinyl Metal Laminates Corp., Corona, Calif. The company laminates aluminum and steel with PVC that is up to 10 mils thick, and stampers are knocking on her company's door to find a material that can offer a warm appearance while lasting longer than some painted surfaces might.

They're also pushing for price—coatings and films with the same appearance that look like more expensive finishes at roughly half the cost.

"Everyone is very price-sensitive," Foster said. "All of our customers come and are asking, 'How can we get a price reduction?' We're addressing issues like that all the time."

Figure 2
Many steel coatings are applied with polyurethane applicator rolls to ensure a uniform dry film thickness.

Preapplied coatings are capturing the fancy of many stamping shops because they can help to reduce secondary operations (see Figure 2).

"The theory is, they stamp it and ship it, and they're finished with it," said Rick Luft, vice president at Clad-Rex, Franklin Park, Ill., a service center that produces vinyl-laminated and prepainted metals. Clad-Rex's vinyl-coated metals can be seen on non-stainless steel drinking fountains, medical equipment, and bus interiors, among other products that suffer a lot of public use.

Edwards said the control panels his shop produces for washers and dryers have so many graphics and multiple contours that precoating the panels before they're stamped is a great way to save time, provided you have a pliable paint that doesn't crack.

"It's much easier to buy it in a prepainted coil and then paint the graphics on the blanks and run them through a progressive die to do the forming," Edwards said.

Do It Right Now

Of course, stamping prefinished metal in 2003 is not the same business it was even 10 years ago. With plant consolidations and business growth bringing more operations to certain facilities, companies can do one of two things—invest in more equipment or simplify the production process with a precoated product that reduces postproduction painting.

Hanna Steel Corp., Fairfield, Ala., has aimed to meet customer demand for the latter with coil that is precoated with a primer that acts as a lubricant and also reduces the amount of postfabrication painting needed. It also offers stampers coil that is precoated with a dry lubricant.

"Sometimes we can help out with material alternatives," said Misty Cox, marketing manager for Hanna Steel. "With markets becoming so competitive, they have to find ways to [cut costs]. Certainly, becoming more efficient in their processes is one of those ways to do it."

Times also have changed for the bottom line. Shops look back fondly on the days when their customers were not so loath to stack up a little inventory now and then.

"Customers do not want to maintain inventory; they just want to produce a just-in-time product," Edwards said. "It becomes very tricky to keep customers satisfied, because there are no lead-times to speak of."

These days nobody wants to be the banker, said Jim Grossinger, operations manager at L.C.S. Co. in St. Paul, a stamper of precoated material for electric motor applications. That makes dealing with short lead-times and keeping reliable vendors in the proverbial stable a must.

"Everybody's in the same boat in this industry," Grossinger said. "Lead-times are an issue. Nobody wants inventory, and everybody wants quick turn time. That's just the nature of the beast."

Grossinger's shop stamps electrical steel precoated with C4 or C5 antistick ceramic finishes. But the operation also depends on outside vendors to anneal, paint, and plate its metal. The whole push to cut lead-times truly comes to a head when one of those vendors makes a late delivery or simply fouls up a batch of parts—putting L.C.S. back at square one.

"We've weeded out a few vendors the past couple of years," he said. "It is tough. We've eliminated them completely and had nothing but good luck since."

Another business-side issue facing suppliers is a problem plaguing manufacturers of all stripes—shorter and shorter part runs. Luft said stampers of the vinyl-coated material that he sells are asking him for a variety of finishes, and they're asking for it in smaller quantities than vinyl manufacturers want to produce on a custom basis.

"The stamper is looking for new colors and textures and a bigger variety, but the jobs are not all strong enough to support minimum vinyl manufacturing runs," Luft said. "There's a conflict in what is available in short runs versus what the fabricator is trying to start with."

And if they're not trying to do shorter runs, they're trying to run with shorter staffs to stay competitive, Edwards explained. Of course, having access to technology that enables you to use fewer people is important.

"That is key—using the very latest technology to be more competitive and be less labor-intensive," Edwards said. "You have to focus on that to eliminate those extra hands needed to produce the final product."

Why? Two words, according to Luft: foreign competition.

"The hardest part of our area is people bringing parts in from China," said Luft, who noted that among the many U.S. companies that once manufactured rolled and stamped metal picture frames, only one remains. "That's been disastrous for our industry. The jobs I've lost as a company, I've lost overseas. Stampers are trying to find cost-effective ways to compete with China."

Lincoln Brunner is a freelance writer based in Stevens Point, Wis.

STAMPING Journal acknowledges the following sources used in preparing this article:

Ameriform Manufacturing Inc., P.O. Box 345, Milton Road, Highway 36, Carrollton, KY 41008, 502-732-4473, www.ameriform.com.

Apollo Metals Ltd., 1001 14th Ave., Bethlehem, PA 18018-0045, 800-338-0199, www.corusspecialstrip.com/apollo/home/index.html.

Arvinyl Metal Laminates Corp., 233 N. Sherman Ave., Corona, CA 91720-1844, 909-371-7800.Clad-Rex Inc., 11500 W. King St., Franklin Park, IL 60131, 800-397-7373.

Hanna Steel Corp., 3812-T Commerce Ave., Fairfield, AL 35064, 205-783-8300, www.hannasteel.com.

L.C.S. Co., 1482 Sibley Memorial Hwy., St. Paul, MN 55120, 651-452-1155, www.lcscompany.com.

Lincoln Brunner

Contributing Writer

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STAMPING Journal is the only industrial publication dedicated solely to serving the needs of the metal stamping market. In 1987 the American Metal Stamping Association broadened its horizons and renamed itself and its publication, known then as Metal Stamping.

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