There are multiple ways to configure automation in a shop. Manufacturers need to consider several elements in choosing the options that works best to help eliminate bottlenecks.  LVD StrippitClick image to enlargeby Noelle Stapinsky

Cost effective ways of growing with automation in the job shop


Making a significant capital equipment investment during an economic crisis seems counterintuitive. New orders have dried up, the supply chain is inconsistent and consumer spending—the ultimate driver for manufacturing—has dropped. However, many of the conditions that force investment in new technology and automation still exist, and as the economy again starts to grow, they will have an increased impact. Companies still need to improve productivity and the lack of skilled workers—a major issue before the pandemic—has only become more acute. 

Make no mistake, this economic crisis is a doozey. Luckily, the climb back to normalcy is expected to begin in the second half of 2020. And this means that manufacturers will face many of the same issues they struggled with before the pandemic, all while they try to ramp up to meet demand and reclaim their share of the market. This makes an intriguing case for implementing new automation now rather than kicking the decision down the road: speed up the ramp up and ultimately drive future growth for your shop. 

The splintered supply chain and inevitable closure of some shops mean when manufacturers start looking to chip away at pent up demand, they will likely have to patch up some holes in their supply. And a job shop with newly implemented high productivity processes will be better positioned in terms of cost, throughput and delivery times to sweep up these new contracts and potentially lock them in long term.

Investing in the equipment is only the start of this process, however. Any company looking to improve their chances of success needs to integrate their entire operation with a whole-of-company approach to productivity.

Getting started
Experts agree that the top consideration for any job shop considering investing in automation is to look at the big picture—the entire operation and process from start to finish. Far too often shops will look to automation to solve a production bottleneck. And while it may remedy the identified issue, it will likely create other problems with production flow. 

“Step one, even before starting the consultation process, is looking at how the raw material becomes finished parts. Where does it need to go and how can you make the decision about where the parts go automatic? There’s a million different ways for us to configure an automation cell to deliver a specific solution,” says Brendon DiVincenzo, solutions and automation expert for Bystronic Inc. “It’s really important to start chaining the entire production together and look at input and output.”

For example, adding a fiber laser will significantly increase the speed of the cutting process. Besides, there are not a lot of other machines on the market that can replace legacy machines and deliver five times the output in essentially the same footprint. 

“Do a virtual stress test. If a pile of parts is about to get five times bigger, what are you going to do about that? You may be only cutting with the fiber laser on one shift, but now you have to bend and weld on three shifts to keep pace,” says DiVincenzo. “Take a really good hard look at what you’re doing now. How many times do you touch the material before it goes to the cutting process? How many times do you have to change material over on the laser in a shift or a day? How far does a forklift have to travel to get the materials from the racking to the laser? How far does the material have to travel from the laser to the press brake? Moving stuff around is actually slowing you down. It’s non-value added time.”

Markus Zimmermann, director, Smart Factory, TRUMPF, agrees, “It’s very important in our business to look at the floor space and optimize the flow through the facility. You need to look at how you can connect cutting, bending and welding and minimize the logistics in between. That’s important for everyone, OEMs and job shops. They need to optimize all processes and create a deep analysis of the production and the work that each employee has to do.”

Growing the flow
When investing in new automated cells, whether it’s cutting, bending, pressing or punching, there are many solutions and configurations to choose from for high mix, low volume shops. Not only are today’s solutions even more user-friendly—eliminating the need for skilled operators—but even entry level, cost effective solutions can be enhanced with automation along the way. 

It’s important to note that fully automated processes, which work for low mix, high volume OEMs, could compromise the flexibility job shops require. That is why when looking at optimizing the overall flow, shops need to plan ahead for floor space around the work cells. 

“It’s important to us, as a machine manufacturer, that the customer can grow step-by-step,” says Zimmerman. “Normally it’s difficult to do everything in one step. These companies may already have machines and software solutions. The challenge for us is offering products that will grow with the customer and we’re designing them in a way that they’re modular. You can start with a 2D laser cutting machine, and later add a loading or unloading unit, or tower system. After that you can add a docking station where the forklift driver can pick up the parts.”

“It’s never just about the hardware. It’s always a combination of hardware, software and service,” adds Zimmermann. “There are always phases of growth and you need the flexibility to change course if needed.”

Stefan Colle, laser systems product manager, LVD Strippit, says, “for a job shop, an inexpensive load and unload system or a compact storage tower, with a versatile input and output capacity, are options that won’t compromise flexibility.”

Another important aspect is the safety measures an automated loading and offloading system provides. It not only cuts down on labour costs, but Zimmermann says it decreases the potential for accidents in those areas. “It’s getting harder to find labour that want to do those hard jobs. And to be an attractive employer, health and safety plays a key role. With this sort of automation you have an operator controlling the material flow.” 

Colle agrees, “we see that people are struggling with manpower. A lot of customers have great press brake operators, but sooner or later those operators are going to retire and all that experience is gone. So if a customer can find a solution that can do the work and it’s automated, that’s attractive. We’ve worked very hard over the years to find the right price points for these solutions. When developing our machines, we’ve always started from the point that the person who will be operating it has absolutely zero knowledge. We’ve developed intuitive controls that are icon based. If you add automation, the controls will be similar.”

Colle points out that sometimes the person responsible for operating the machine cells isn’t necessarily an operator. “It could be a forklift driver. All he needs to know is how he can bring in the raw material or how he can get the right quantity for the job,” he says. “When a selection is made, it’s controlled by offline programming software. The operator is not the one to define the nomenclature or program. We’re making the controls almost bulletproof.”

Adding an automated material storage tower keeps the materials or finished parts close to the process, and they can be expandable for future capacity needs. “When looking at automation for laser cutting, in particular, if you’re not ready for full automation we can set up a system and tell you what options are available so that you can be planning ahead and place the system properly,” says Phillip Picardat, automation product manager for Amada. “We have a cell with a single load and offload capability that’s expandable to add material storage so you’re not losing floor space. With that, [the area] where those materials were once stored is now freed up.”

Picardat adds, “there can also be an output station for removing parts. We have a part-sorting robot (PSR) that moves parts out of the way so the laser can continue cutting another sheet. This cuts down on labour and those parts can quickly be transferred to the next step of the operation.”

For bending cells or press brakes, there are automated tool changer systems. “Small shops are doing a lot of diverse product lines and dealing with small lots. Tool changes can run between 30 minutes and two hours trying to set up a press brake,” says Picardat. “With an auto tool changer, you’re doing a change over in 2.5 minutes. Companies that were doing three jobs a shift are now able to do 20 to 30.”

What’s more is that operators are no longer touching the tooling. “They don’t have to physically go and get the tooling and set it up. And they don’t need to question how it’s been stored or if it had been dropped in the past,” says Picardat. “When it’s stored in a tool changer it’s pristine. There’s no adjustments needed on the crowning and the tooling isn’t getting worn out.”

Making the Moves
As DiVincenzo previously mentioned, moving materials and finished products around a facility takes manpower, slows operations down and is non-value added time. The next step in optimizing workflow, and what’s going to be the next big thing in automation, is Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). 

“There’s a lot of technology built into these units and they’re fairly simple. They can be interfaced to go to a pallet or machine cell at a certain location and take raw materials or parts to another location,” says DiVincenzo. 

AGVs are already common in many logistics operations and retail direct-to-home delivery, such as Amazon. “In those situations there’s a direct path from point A to B,” says Zimmerman. “In the sheet metal world it’s a little more difficult, but definitely possible. In some operations the forklift is running parallel to production and this is a waste of time. If you can automate parts being moved around the facility, it will optimize the flow. But this is always partnered with a software system such as a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) that’s controlling all of the orders and optimizing process flow.”

The MES interfaces and communicates directly with a company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) and material requirement planning (MRP) systems. “The MES system comes with different modules for logistics, production, etc. that can all
be combined together. It’s all about monitoring to get transparency on productivity, OEE, etc. That’s the starting point. Monitoring and optimizing for the next step,” says Zimmermann. 

The return on investment for adding automation and fine-tuning the manufacturing workflow is clear—increased productivity and throughput, reduced labour costs and a full view of production from order to delivery. Taking the big picture approach and growing the automation allows fabricators to add shifts to increase production and win new mandates. SMT

Elliott Matsuura Canada Inc.

Based in Oakville, Ontario, Elliott Matsuura Canada Inc. has been supplying and supporting quality machine tools to the Canadian metal cutting industry since 1950. Elliott carries a full range of metalworking machinery,

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