Automating the In-Between
- August 3, 2021
It’s extraordinary how things can change in just five years. From severe apprehension and hesitancy around automating even just one part of production to mapping out an entire production flow, fabricators have certainly changed their perspective when it comes to Industry 4.0. Perhaps they invested in laser cutting technology or automated bending or purchased a punch/press combination machine. The shear accuracy and production speed of automation has the majority moving honed in on automating all the laborious tasks that are now blatantly bottlenecks—the material handling in-between automated work cells.
SHOP Metalworking Technology magazine (SMT) engaged top industry experts on how moving to full automation is the new normal for many fabricators.
As more fabricators embrace technology and automation, has the focus shifted to streamlining material handling processes?
Brendon DiVincenzo, Bystronic’s solutions and automation expert: “Absolutely. Increased equipment performance has highlighted the need to compliment faster/better/stronger machines with strategies for maintaining overall velocity through the manufacturing processes—and more importantly, between them. Most fabricators now understand that they must be on a roadmap to the Smart Factory because their competitors are. This means they are looking to take deliberate steps with their investments that not only influence the core manufacturing operations, but can also boost productivity and profitability of in-house value chains. Minimizing material touch points and making operation and production data more visible is a top priority for investment dollars.”
Michael Schlueter, TRUMPF’s TruConnect Specialist for Flexible Fab systems: “The focus is increasingly shifting to the overall pathway through the factory from order intake to delivery.
Due to highly productive machines, labour shortages and increasing indirect costs, TRUMPF experiences a steady growth in automation and smart factory solution sales. Automation systems include material handling machines to load, unload, and sort parts directly at the laser, punch, combination and bending machines as well as storage and logistic centers to handle material and parts between process steps.
Matthew Fowles, LVD Co. group marketing manager:
Moving to Industry 4.0 is fundamentally about leveraging data to optimize production flow. Shops are increasingly working with small batches, complex parts, short lead times and tight margins. And this past year added stressors as a result of the global pandemic. Now more than ever, it’s important to look at the entire process flow and ask yourself: Where can I gain time? How can I reduce the number of times each part is touched? How can I reduce hidden time like tooling calculations, prep and set-up time? Making the machines faster can only shorten the process time by a minimal percentage, but reducing hidden time can make a much more substantial and significant reduction to the overall process flow.
Smart Factory is now a key term. What are some important considerations for shops looking into smarter material handling solutions?
Adria Haines, Bystronic Inc.’s regional head of smart factory solutions: “For a factory to be smart it has to be digital. Digital information, whether it’s generated by a machine control or input by a human at a workcenter, needs integrated software systems to provide visibility of production. It also allows for systems to carryout processes automatically, even robotically. In the case of a “smart” material handling system, this allows for materials to be right where they need to be when they should.
Schlueter: “To make a factory ‘smart’ requires investments in various areas that can be done for any size shop and is typically realized in a phased investment. These areas include smart machines, automation and material handling solutions and a comprehensive Manufacturing Execution System (MES) to monitor and control the interacting systems. The investment is determined by which area offers the best ROI and gains for the customer. If the machine centers are already automated, the investment in MES Software or into AGV’s may be the next best step.”
Roman Dequidt, LVD Co.’s CADMAN sales manager: “It’s critical that the machine control and software work together and share data and that this happens behind the scenes, without effort from the machine operator. From this wealth of data, you can make informed decision about your production process.”
How flexible are today’s storage systems in terms of future expansion?
DiVincenzo: “Aside from having extremely dense storage capabilities compared to traditional racks, storage systems have two main benefits: consistency and visibility. A material storage tower connected to a load/unload unit offers a fast, safe material changeover at any time of the day, as many times in a day as is required, adhering to the planned schedule in a dynamic and fast-paced environment.
Typical storage towers hold three or five tonnes per location. The Bystronic storage solutions are configurable in height to maximize vertical space utilization, and we offer a truly expandable Automatic Storage and Retrieval Warehouse System capable of fully connecting multiple manufacturing operations.”
Schlueter: “TRUMPF Solutions include two types of storage and logistic centers— TruStore and Large Storage Systems—to directly connect machines to raw material supply and for part handling between cutting and bending machines. These systems are called Integrated Cutting and Bending (ICB) Systems. When parts exit the integrated cells, TRUMPF’s Track and Trace follows parts and jobs similarly to a GPS through the production. For automated part handling TRUMPF offers AGV’s. All systems report live data back into the TruTops Fab MES System, which manages and controls the flow of parts.”
What does a scalable solution look like for shops that are continuously growing?
DiVincenzo: “Businesses often grow and evolve in a direction that is different than what they originally thought. Bystronic offers several pathways for growth with our equipment offerings. On the cutting automation side, a load/unload system can be purchased that is capable of adding sorting automation or tower storage in a later phase. Sorting automation as an add-on later could be used to maximize labour efficiency on a large contract, or tower storage as an add-on could be added to make full use of a lightly manned shift as demand for laser capacity increases. On the bending side, we have press brakes that are retrofittable with robotic part handling to handle high volume runs that may not have been in the business case at time of purchase, or a robotic tool changer for a higher mix environment to minimize setup times and costs to maximize margin on small runs.”
Fowles: We offer a range of modular (scalable) automation solutions from a simple load-assist unit for a stand-alone laser-cutting machine to our flexible automation system for loading/unloading and part picking to our customized warehousing system that feeds multiple lasers or a robotic bending cell. Our Tower Automation System (TAS) and Warehouse Automation System offer 32 different configurations that is highly customizable and is also retrofittable. Most fabricators implementing automation make the complete installation in one step. However, there is the flexibility to order an “automation ready” stand-alone machine and then add modular automation components at a later stage. You may choose to install a “base” automation system such as adding a load/unload to a laser-cutting machine and then expand that at later date. Modularity gives you flexibility, which enables you to balance the cost versus the benefit.”
As the industry rapidly embraces Industry 4.0, what are some of the current trends you’re seeing in the fabrication industry today?
Dequidt: “We notice a clear trend towards software with custom configurations. In the past, custom solutions were written by third-party software vendors that were hired by the customer. The completely custom software solutions of the past were expensive to develop and implement and as they matured, there were often problems with continuity—the small software house that developed the software is bought out or changes hands, and people (and their knowledge) leave. That’s why a standardized open interface is important and why it’s what fabricators are moving to.
Haines: “The biggest driver for the fabrication industry to embrace Industry 4.0 and the importance of digitalization has been economical. Fabricators are realizing that software systems allow them to quote quickly and more accurately, increase production and survive fluctuating material costs. Having digital data allows businesses to monitor trends and see key metrics from masses of data in minutes, allowing them to identify areas where automation is needed.” SMT