Fabricating Software: Beyond the Nest

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by Kip Hanson

Shopping for new nesting software? There’s much more to it than maximizing material usage



As manufacturers strive to increase throughput and flexibility, they most often begin by upgrading or expanding their machine tool capabilities. The unforeseen caveat to this approach is that the software that met their needs even a decade ago can begin to feel like a used car. This is especially true for fabricators who’ve expanded beyond traditional punching and laser cutting equipment to abrasive waterjets, punch-laser combos, plasma tables, and tube bending and cutting machines, where an outdated nesting package may quickly eat up any machine tool-based gains and make the people who invested in all this shiny new equipment wonder why they even bothered. 

Keeping current
“Anytime a manufacturer increases their machine capability, it’s very important that there’s a corresponding increase in their software to match those newfound capabilities,” notes Derek Weston, product marketing manager for CAM and controls at Hypertherm Inc. “This is especially true when replacing an OEM software package or even multiple OEM packages, where it’s critical that each of the requirements a shop needs to support are provided within whatever third-party solutions are being evaluated.”

Obviously, one of the chief requirements is robust nesting ability, but as many shops have learned the hard way, nesting a sheet bound for a turret punch is much different than nesting one bound for a laser cutter or combo machine. “Think about the clamps, the beveling, the order in which you process parts on one style of machine vs. another,” says Valter Bonelli, director of product management business systems at SigmaTEK Systems LLC. “With the right nesting software, you can drive and manage all your machine tools from a single platform, even when different machine builders and technologies are involved.”

Parts per nested sheet is important, but less so than the number of good parts per sheet.  Image: HyperthermAssessing the benefits
The stakes are high. Gary Hochstatter, general sales manager for software distributor Shop Data Systems Inc., says one of his sheet metal customers improved material yield by 30 per cent, while a heavy plate fabricator he worked with saved $5,000 per month on material using advanced shape nesting software.

SigmaTEK’s Bonelli is seeing similar results, and says that optimized nesting should offer at least a four per cent overall improvement in material utilization, a figure that at first glance seems like little to brag about until you consider that a four per cent reduction in the shop’s material costs equates to a four per cent increase in profit margin. 

Each of these examples is impressive, but Bonelli is quick to point out that—though important—there’s more to the big picture than raw material savings. “You also need to look at cycle time,” he says. “For example, we worked with a company recently that was able to cut seven minutes from a 30 minute cycle time, just by improving the nest. Now multiply that by 100 sheets, the math when gains like that are achievable across
the entire shop.”

Programming time is also important. Modern nesting software is significantly more automated than its predecessors, so nests are not only more material efficient but require less effort to develop them. One case in point is Autodesk Inc. customer Watchfire Signs LLC, whose senior manufacturing technician claims to have reduced his weekly programming time from a full-time, 50+ hours per week job to less than one hour per day “processing orders.” 

Whichever nesting system requires the least manual intervention and the shortest time to finished part is often the best solution. Image: Shop Data SystemsWhat’s more, modern nesting software standardizes the programming processes, regardless of the machine tool being used. “Whether a fabricator has a laser or a punch or a textile cutter, the workflow is the same,” says Autodesk product specialist and sales executive Dylan MacLean. “This eliminates the silos of tribal knowledge so common in manufacturing, and mitigates risk to the business by making any machine tool programmable by someone who’s been trained on the software.”

Checking the boxes
But what makes nesting software “good” and which is best for your unique requirements? The answer, of course, depends on whom you ask. Each of the companies interviewed for this article offers products that quite simply blow the doors off any pre-Y2K nesting software, and each is happy to share their unique vision and capabilities. That said, all share some basic similarities:

  • Integration: Industry 4.0 is all the rage these days, and nesting software able to seamlessly exchange data with the company’s ERP system, design software, and especially its machine tools is no longer a nice-to-have. Modern nesting software often has ready-made interfaces to a variety of popular CAD and ERP packages, as well as clearly-defined application programming interfaces, or APIs, that make the task of joining disparate systems relatively easy. What’s equally important, however, is a software vendor able to converse in the techno-babble used by computer coders, and continue to support the software and its various interfaces once the coding people have gone home. 
  • Automation: As Autodesk pointed out, automated nesting systems can save countless programming hours while mitigating the risk that a knowledgeable team member will retire or go work for the competition. It also makes it much easier for less skilled workers to get up to speed quickly, an important consideration in today’s experience-starved labour market. Look for functions such as automatic feature recognition, canned cycles for common part features, import and export routines, and the intelligence to properly sequence the multiple fabricating and machining processes available on combo machines. 
  • Flexibility: Speaking of combo machines, chances are good that your shop doesn’t have one…yet. But as punch/laser combos, structural steel drill lines, plasma/waterjet cutters, five axis machines, and other switch-hitters grow in popularity, nesting software able to address their complex processing needs will become an indispensable aspect of shop floor productivity. And even without one of these wonder machines, investing in a single, all-encompassing nesting package will almost surely save time and money for any shop with multiple types of sheet and plate processing equipment. 
  • Material management: Maximum sheet, plate and tube utilization is clearly job one for any nesting utility, but even the best of them will leave behind a remnant or two. How are you going to keep track of these wayward hunks of metal? Vendor claims to the contrary, remnant tracking is poor to non-existent in most ERP systems, so management of this important function typically falls to the nesting software. Assuming your shop cares about its material costs, be sure you find one able to track and utilize each and every piece of material, from the time it lands on the loading dock until the last bit crashes into the scrap bin. 

Optimizing machine movement is just as important as material optimization, especially on very complex sheets. image: SigmanestLastly, whether it’s for word processing or slicing through 18-gauge steel, any software should be easy to use. “Look for software with an eye towards improving productivity,” says Shop Data Systems’ Hochstatter. “Look for something intuitive, that doesn’t require a lot of training—whatever offers the least manual intervention and the shortest time between file import to finished part is usually the best solution.”

Hypertherm’s Weston offers one final observation. “One of the significantly overlooked aspects of nesting software is this: folks tend to focus heavily on how many parts they can get out of a sheet,” he says. “But instead of saying to a potential vendor, ‘here’s a sample part, tell me how many you can nest onto a sheet,’ the question should really be, ‘how many quality parts can I cut out of this nest?’ That’s one of the biggest differentiators between one system and the next, no matter what you’re producing.” SMT

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