A new kind of craftsperson for the job shop

December 18, 2007
By: Tim Heston

Dan Andersen graduated in 1992, trained as a robotics technician, only to find himself a few years later at Louis Industries, which at the time specialized in sheet metal cutting; no robotsjust flat-sheet processing, period.

I didn"t grow up running a press brake, running the plasma cutter, running the punch press, he said. But over the years I have worked hand in hand with the operators, without running a press brake [and other machine tools], seeing the difficulties they had. And I feel I"ve become a real craftsman without running a press brake [or other machines] for a significant period of time.

That statement spurs an ongoing debate in industry, one top of mind for many metal fabricators as they struggle to find skilled labor. What defines a skilled person today? What does the shop floor really need?

Consider Andersen"s case. Since joining the Paynesville, Minn., job shop more than a decade ago, he"s seen the company transform itself from a flat-sheet processor to more of a total solution provider (to use some marketing-speak), performing both 2-D cutting and 3-D bending.

Why, a decade ago, did the company specialize in just flat-metal work? As Andersen explained, when it came to bending, you were only as good as your press brake operator. The knowledge was at the press brake. And that talent could be tough to find; if the talent left, a shop lost its competitive edge.

Today that doesn"t have to be the case, he said, if a shop invests in modern equipment. This isn"t to say press brake operators don"t require a healthy dose of fundamentals and proper training. But consider Louis Industries" bending technology: press brakes with laser-based gauges that detect in real-time how far bend angles should go and automatically perform corrections.

With modern equipment, manufacturing is the easy part, Andersen said.

That"s an eyebrow-raising statementbut he added a big caveat. By manufacturing, he means only where the rubber hits the road, where the tool punches, bends, or cuts the part. What"s become increasingly difficult is everything that happens before and after the cutting, punching, and bending. There"s more tweaking offline, at the desktop, and less on the shop floor. Outside the actual making of parts, job shops must obtain good prints, perhaps do some design for manufacturability work, and plan for efficient work flow that moves material to and from ever-more-efficient machine tools.

For more efficient work flow, Louis has integrated pallet loaders and unloaders, achieving lights-out operation for its laser cutting operation. When workers arrive in the morning, they find a stack of flat sheet ready for shipment or the next operationpretty easy and very efficient, but it took a lot of planning, not to mention capital investment, for Louis Industries to get there.

According to Andersen, the really tough problems crop up when the company attempts to make it easier to receive materials and ship products. Here"s where true collaboration enters the picture. Louis Industries has a burgeoning partnership with a major furniture OEM, and teams from each company have visited the other"s shop floor to see if they could squeeze out more efficiency. They saw that the most difficult part was not cutting or bending, but storing and shipping the complex, asymmetrical partsfar more challenging than just stacking flat sheet.

The solution? Each company collaborated and capitalized on their core competencies: Louis Industries employs fabrication experts, while its customer has the design talent. And so Louis" customer designed a special container for finished parts, while Louis fabricated it. Today, because parts are loaded in special shipping containers, the customer receives them a lot faster, and Louis Industries can do more work in less time.

I believe this story says a lot about what kind of talent thrives in metal fabrication today. What we"re seeing, from my perspective, is a convergence of shop floor process knowledge and desktop computing expertise, combined with some basic engineering and logistical know-how. One person in a shop can"t possibly have all the in-depth knowledge he needs to maximize efficiency for every job, so employees at shops like Louis Industries treat customers as partners and capitalize on each other"s expertise.

Put another way, it"s not just about what goes on between the tool and workpiece anymore. And through the years, Andersenwithout spending significant time as an operatorhas come to fit that job description nicely.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

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