As metal fabricators claim they are unable to find young workers interested in working in metal fabricating for entry-level wages, the machine tool makers have responded by trying to take the “shop knowledge” that is commonly locked in the head of a few experienced shop floor workers and moving that inside the control software. The machines are now smarter, and they are the right fit for many companies with newer workers that typically do not have the metals knowledge or fabricating skills of the workers they are replacing.
All you had to do is walk the floor of FABTECH 2013 in Chicago to notice how far the equipment has evolved. Press brake monitors display simulations of the bending job, so the operator can see step-by-step directions. One press brake actually responded to voice commands, which is perfect for those operators not used to interacting with a computer user interface. Laser cutting machines have automated processing steps such as lens focusing and changeout, allowing for the machine to run multiple material types and thicknesses one after the other. Automated material handling systems feed sheets into cutting or punching equipment, and after the job is done, parts are collected and the skeleton is removed, with the process ready to repeat itself. It’s to the point where one operator can run multiple machines; he pushes a button and moves on to another task.
Those types of technology developments definitely have helped metal fabricators keep productivity levels up while holding the line on labor costs. But they don’t solve all of the metal fabricators’ problems. Metal fabricators are going to need more than simple button-pushers if they want to grow their businesses in the future.
Tomorrow’s successful shops will view themselves more as problem solvers rather than metal part producers. They will have the ability to engage customers in engineering discussions and offer up suggestions about designs for manufacturability in an effort to reduce cost savings. Metal fabricators need employees with knowledge about how parts are made and about the metals from which the parts are made. An employee that simply knows how to follow a bending simulation won’t be of much good in terms of trying to create more value in a metal fabricator-OEM customer relationship.
In a way, metal fabricators are looking for “partners” in new employees they bring into their organizations. It sounds like something a consultant would say, but these types of small businesses rely on everyone contributing at a high level. That only comes when employees are engaged in achieving company goals, and the company, in return, invests in employee growth.
Automated metal fabricating technology will get a company so far. A company full of button-pushers on the shop floor won’t get that shop anywhere other than where it currently is.