New autonomous fabrication technology demands more systems thinking

ByPhyllis R. Edwards

May 23, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


graphic of smart manufacturing

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Regular readers of The FABRICATOR know we’re all about best practices at the progressive metal fabricator, those places that continually invest in their people and technology. Over years of reporting, though, I’ve gotten my fair share of horror stories—most of it on background, of course. That said, the difference between the progressive and not-so-progressive organization is becoming starker by the year, especially as technological innovation marches onward.

Considering the stories coming out of those not-so-progressive organizations, no one should be surprised why these fab shops can’t find good people. Imagine it’s your first day on the job. You arrive at the shop, walk to the floor, and look up to see blue haze hanging in the air. (Who needs fume mitigation?) The weld shop’s busy, that’s for sure, but it isn’t pleasant. Your eyes water as you make your way through the shop floor littered with parts. Some might be work-in-process (WIP), others might be destined for the scrap bin, though you really can’t tell which is which. As you learn your job, you realize that nothing is documented, that experienced people keep quiet and don’t share what they know, and that most people clock in, put up with things, and go home. Welcome to the metal fabrication business.

Now imagine the progressive fab shop. The shop isn’t a panacea, and the transition took some work, for sure, but the potential for growth is astounding. Modern software has pushed more creativity away from the machine and toward the computer screen. For cutting, bending, even robotic welding, more programming occurs in the virtual realm. No need to waste valuable machine time on lengthy setups, right? If a machine isn’t producing good parts, it isn’t making money.

And yes, many operators are all too happy not to have to deal with challenging setups. Thing is, for other operators, setups used to be the best part of their day. Setups required creativity and gave them a chance to improve their craft. Now they spend their days producing good part after good part as 3D graphics on the controller spoon-feed them instructions. Where’s the fun in that?

Plenty, as it turns out, and not because it’s fun to stand in front of a press brake all day. It’s because bending good parts is just one thing these ambitious, cross-trained operators do. A floor full of modern machines introduces opportunities for those who think not about single operations but the entire system. As fab shops adopt more automation, more “systems thinkers” will be needed.

Consider a custom metal fabricator with three value streams, or at least three common routings through which the majority of a shop’s product mix flows. One value stream might consist of automated cutting and panel bending, followed by an automated laser welding cell. The precision of upstream processes has mitigated traditional fit-up problems that come with laser welding, precision laser-cut fixtures are developed quickly, and the precision of laser welding itself has eliminated the need for secondary processes like grinding.

The next value stream involves automated cutting and part sorting followed by a bending department full of automatic-tool-change press brakes and a stand-alone panel bender. And the final value stream has a compact laser, press brake, and manual welding—all tailored for low-volume prototyping, quick-turn work, and oddball jobs.

Some operations out there have a version of this layout (though automated part sorting and laser welding aren’t pervasive, at least not yet). A few even have developed ways to automate quoting and order processing, especially when customers have CAD or other drawing files to upload. Disparate jobs with similar due dates that demand the same material are grouped on the same nest, achieving both maximum material utilization and process stability (skeletal integrity, smart tabbing to avoid tip-ups, cut sequences to avoid distortion). The sales and estimating team might focus on complex projects—like when customers have no drawing, just an idea—or be structured in a way to support the value streams (or “mini factories”) on the floor.

Regardless, the entire structure, from the front office to the shop floor value stream, creates an environment full of opportunities for systems thinkers. What’s the best routing for this product? Should it flow through the panel benders or press brake? Or is it a fit for bending and blanking automation?

All this might be just a start, considering emerging robotics technologies that are “decoupled” from the machine or operation. A welding cobot doesn’t always have to weld; a cobot that bends doesn’t always have to bend. A flexible mobile robot can be moved where needed, be it at the de-nesting station after laser cutting or punching, in front of the press brake, or feeding a stamping press or a machining center.

Just imagine the systems thinking this requires. Where does using such automation make sense? Where is it overkill? What does this all mean for part flow and batch sizes, as easy changeovers bring fab shops closer to that single-piece, kit-based part-flow ideal? And what does the resulting increased throughput mean for shop inventory levels in all its forms: raw, WIP, and (if customers demand it) finished goods?

The future fab shop will require broad thinking that’s still rooted in the physical realities of metal cutting, bending, and welding. A shop’s technology and culture will help attract those who will thrive. Still, the environment might not be right for those who like organizational silos and unchanging job descriptions. Modern metal fabrication is just too dynamic for that. But those who love technology and embrace change—lots of change—will feel at home in the progressive fab shop.


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