METALFORM report: Stampers add value, not labor

April 8, 2008
By: Tim Heston

My brother-in-law and fellow blogger, Chris Walker, is having trouble with his Internet provider, something not too unusual until you consider his locale and his problem. He"s spending a year in Mumbai, India, as part of a fellowship program that helps for-profit humanitarian enterprises find better ways to do business. But back at his apartment, Chris can"t pay his Internet bill. He isn"t broke. He just works all day, and he doesn"t have time to go home and wait for the bill collector to arrive. Yes, a bill collectorno credit cards, no online bill paying, no mailing in a check. Only if you hand over the monthly payment to the collector, in person, can you keep your service. Why? Chris" blog hammers home the point: Labor here is cheap, so why bother making the payment process more efficient?

The labor conundrum was top of mind for many April 1-3 at the Precision Metalforming Association"s Regional METALFORM in Birmingham, Ala., a gathering of industry professionals who, as ever, fight to keep work in North America.

The issue seems to have picked up momentum, said Doug Hogan, director of sales and marketing at nth/works, a metal stamping company with 350 employees working in two Louisville, Ky., facilities. We"re trying to stay ahead of the pricing coming from Asia and India. It"s a threat we deal with every day, with tooling, partseverything. Customers are managing the tools closer than they did 10 years ago, and that"s driving us and our vendors to go to Asia.

According to sources at the show, businesses are being squeezed by labor and insurance costs, as well as the continual surge in metal prices. So how are stampers keeping work stateside? Show attendees and exhibitors said they"re lowering costs by improving efficiency and adding value with, among other things, in-die sensing and secondary operations.

Our biggest challenge has been dealing with steel prices, staying competitive, and managing our costs, said Terry Hansen, president of Ultra Tool & Manufacturing, a metal stamper in Menomonee Falls, Wis. You can"t increase prices; you have to lower your costs.

As for Ultra, Hansen said managers continually refine processes. We"re finding new ways to reduce costs, he said. We"re standardizing, retraining, making sure everyone has all the tools they need, the standard lean stuff. Meanwhile the company has added value by incorporating in-die welding and other secondaries into its processes.

Peter Ulintz, advanced product engineer at Cleveland-based stamper and metal fabricator Anchor Manufacturing Group Inc., pointed out another value by waving a red flagliterally. During the show"s Wednesday morning seminar on advanced high-strength steel (AHSS), he picked up a prop on his podium. See? I"m waving a red flag. They"re coming, and you"d better be ready for them.

Many expect the use of AHSS within North American light vehicles to increase dramatically over the next few years. Generally speaking, Ulintz defined AHSS to include dual-phase steels, transformation-induced plasticity (TRIP) material, as well as complex-phase (CP) steels, martensitic steel, and twinning-induced plasticity (TWIP) steels, among other materials. The metals exhibit high strength as well as formabilityattractive to automakers looking for fuel-efficient vehiclesbut they come with manufacturing challenges. When formed, AHSS microstructures act nothing like those of conventional steel, so companies adopting the material often start from a blank slate.

According to Ulintz, about 9.5 percent of North American light vehicles use such steels today; within eight years, that percentage is expected to jump to 35. How"s that for a red flag?

Some at the show undoubtedly have seen it waving. Consider Dr. Nigel Francis, vice president, vehicle engineering, at show exhibitor MBtech Group. The engineering and consulting company, which acquired Grand Rapids, Mich.-based tool and die specialist Autodie International in 2006, is taking part in the Lightweight Body Project, whose participants also include Daimler AG, Chrysler, and the American Iron and Steel Institute.

A Jekyll and Hyde situation now exists, Francis said. If you look at the weight of an autobody within the past 15 years, it"s been increasing due to safety [regulations], which change from year to year. That directly affects the weight of the vehicle. On one side, you have safety constraints. Consumers want a safe vehicle. But they also want to be able to afford their vehicle. And with rising fuel prices, demand for lighter-weight designs has shifted into high gear. He added that the project has reduced body-in-white weight by 13 percent without affecting structural performance.

David Darling, director of operations at MBtech Autodie LLC, said AHSS steels have significant problems with twist and springback. But through experience in die design and advanced software simulation, the company has made significant progress. Pointing to parts on display in his booth, he said, these were all formed with one hit on bottom, without lubrication, in place, one time, without having to recut [the tools] over and over.

No Internet-service bill collectors here. U.S. stampers simply can"t throw labor at a problem. Judging from last week"s event, they instead use advanced engineering, software, and lean manufacturing that add value and attempt toat least in parttake the high-labor-cost liability out of the equation.

In case you haven"t heard, the Precision Metalforming Association"s METALFORM show will merge with the FABTECH ® Intl. & AWS Welding Show, sponsored by the American Welding Society, Fabricators & Manufacturers Association Intl., and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. For more on this breaking story, click here.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

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