Manufacturing is, and has always been, a perpetually evolving industry. But the rate of change seems to have accelerated in recent years, along with a growth in orders. Keeping pace with increased customer demand has posed challenges for many manufacturers. It just seems like there are not enough fabricators to meet the growing need.
During the pandemic, the trade of the traditional fabricator shrunk dramatically as many decided to retire early or move into new positions that promised wage gains. At the same time, the industry has seen a growing trend toward high individualization and smaller batch sizes. Customers demand individualization of their end products and they want to see the status of their orders in production. This has spurred higher complexity in fabrication along with the need for continuous transparency while reducing batch sizes. Making improvements to individual processes is not enough.
Robots may not have made sense in previous shop floor environments, but recent shifts in production require another look at the potential role of automation in metal fabrication. One notable area where automation has produced gains, particularly for mid-sized manufacturers, is in the cut-bend cycle.
The Impact of Indirect Processes
A study conducted a few years ago by the Fraunhofer Institute and TRUMPF looked at how much time fabricators spend on indirect processes related to organizing and delivering parts to their next step. The study found that nearly 80% of production time is spent on those indirect tasks. This leaves only 20% of production time for value-added tasks—the moneymakers—such as cutting, bending, welding, and assembly. Fabricators looking to increase revenue need to reduce that 80% by automating and optimizing those nonvalue-adding processes.
The industry has seen only limited use of automation. Certainly, fabricators have used storage towers, load/unload systems, and bending automation for several decades. Because of the limited flexibility in existing systems, however, most of that automation use has been limited to high-volume, low-mix work, usually at OEMs or large contract manufacturers with predictable demand and highly standardized products. To date, the industry really hasn’t seen the wide adoption of complex, highly sophisticated automation systems in flexible environments.
Most North American fabricators work in environments with rapid and often extreme demand changes across different machines and work centers. Some orders have cut-only parts; others have parts that are cut and formed; still others require welding. Rapid changes in parts, demand levels, and job routings make it difficult to plan steady, predictable production runs to match customer takt.
Different part geometries, surface requirements, and edge-quality expectations can influence the technology fabricators select to make those parts. For example, a part with louvers and formed features could lend itself to punching. If a customer expects that no oxygen will be introduced into the cut edge during laser cutting, then the job might lend itself to high-powered fiber lasers. Or maybe an order contains parts with complex round-bending features, which could be best produced in a scratch-free panel bending process.