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Beyond automation

When automation and Industry 4.0 unite, manufacturers gain competitiveness while opening the door to even greater possibilities

The fabrication industry is facing increasing cost pressure, especially with labor costs and difficulties in finding qualified personnel. On top of that, ergonomic factors are playing an increasingly important role in today’s manufacturing environment. To remain competitive, automation has become a necessity.

Automation solutions ensure lean direct processes, but beyond the physical automation systems and devices – and maybe even more importantly – there are additional leverages to boost productivity and avoid waste in today’s indirect processes. These technologies provide for smart connections and real-time, touchless information exchanges between systems. Creating a bigger picture of the manufacturing environment, they also open the door to new possibilities.

It’s important for manufacturers to be able to invest in automation in phases, such as purchasing a machine in phase one and adding loading and unloading capabilities in phase two.

Lean direct processes

The ultimate goal with automation systems is to maximize uptime. Money is earned by adding value and that is only achieved when the laser beam is on, the punch head is in contact with the sheet or the press brake is completing a bend. Automation increases the productive time of the machine and subsequently, fabricators increase their capacity while reducing the hourly cost of machine processing.

When the fixed costs (i.e., the machine investment, reflected in depreciation) can be distributed across a larger number of hours or parts, manufacturers also gain the freedom to be more competitive in pricing or to increase their margins. In many cases, having the right setup of machines and automation can even significantly reduce the number of overall machines required to achieve the same or even higher output. This is a common goal for people with commercial and technical responsibilities and can be achieved, for example, by suddenly running 24/7 production instead of two shifts on weekdays with only unattended overnight runs.

A second major goal of automation is to increase flexibility. The trend of smaller batch sizes has made this more challenging. Machines need to process a larger variety of parts in a given period of time – and often a wider range of material types, as well. Maintaining stock is not ideal as it negatively impacts the work in progress. It also increases capital lockup and the risk that those finished parts never sell.

Achieving higher flexibility means dealing with high variety and low volumes. Quick changes on the parts end require quick changes on the raw material end – and this is the ideal situation for automation and storage systems. The fewer the manual interactions with the part, the easier it becomes to achieve low costs per part.

While the machine is producing job A, the automation prepares the material for job B. It also stores unused raw material from job A, thereby increasing machine uptime and productivity. While a storage system does not add value directly to the parts, it enables fabricators to stack material vertically, save valuable floor space and efficiently organize inventory. With the right solution, it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate forklifts.

A lean approach aims to keep stock levels to a minimum while immediate access to common raw materials enables quick reaction to the demands of the market. This can be important as quick delivery is often a decisive factor for gaining new business. Making decisions with flexibility in mind is the best way to position a shop for future needs and expansion.

Manufacturers can customize their automation setups based on variety of process characteristics, such as material flow, production volumes, material types, batch sizes and more.

Automation concepts and philosophies
Automation concepts for sheet metal cutting vary based mainly on material flow, process chain, production volume, shift-models, material types, part geometries, part size, and thickness and batch sizes. Concepts that address these factors and enable flexible sheet metal production fall into the following categories:

  • Loading and unloading of a single machine: The device loads a single machine from a stack of raw material and unloads the finished sheets into a separate stack.
  • Small to medium autonomous cells: One or two machines are connected to automated devices for loading, unloading and potentially sorting. A storage tower unit supplies the machines with raw material and can later be used to store cut sheets. The system functions as an autonomous production cell.
  • Large raw material storage units: Machines are connected to a large storage system that supplies each machine with raw material. The material flows only in one direction – from the storage unit to the machine to additional processes. Typically, this concept is highly efficient if the storage unit is installed close to a wall and if the machines are connected to one side of the unit.
  • Logistic centers: Machines are connected to a large storage system that handles raw material and semi-finished goods automatically between various processing steps. The storage unit serves as a logistic system and is usually located in the center of the production. Machines are typically connected to both sides, allowing for material flow in various directions, and a buffer function for production purposes is also possible. The key to this structure is overall process control and monitoring.

Whether an autonomous cell or a logistic center, the variety of ways in which a laser can be automated are shown in the examples above.

Combinations of these arrangements are possible and make financial sense depending on a company’s structure. With an understanding of what is available, remember also that the best automation equipment is modular and allows a fabricator to invest in phases. A machine can be purchased and installed in phase one while automation for loading and unloading can be added in a second phase.

Because this automation is typically priced to start at about 30 percent of the machine cost, a relatively low investment can have a big impact. A storage tower can be implemented later. Although the strategy might change, it’s wise to have a final system in mind and to plan for it from the beginning. This minimizes unnecessary and often costly changes to the shop floor foundation, machines and their placement within a facility.

Lean indirect processes

When manufacturers look thoroughly into their order processing chain, they are often surprised by how many steps and touches it takes to process even a single order. The typical process chain always looks simple at first, but consider how much time it takes just to turn a customer inquiry into an order confirmation – and then think how much time it takes to take an order confirmation through the process of programming the parts, assigning machines and distributing the necessary information along the shop floor.

When evaluated in detail, fabricators often find that the indirect processes take more time than the direct processes on the shop floor. In fact, a recent study in the sheet metal industry indicated that the time ratio between direct and indirect processes is often 40:60 – so, more indirect processing time is required than direct.

This imbalance may not have a huge impact with large orders and larger batch sizes, but because the time required to answer the phone, quote the job, confirm the order and program a single part is not much different whether the customer requires 10 or 1,000 parts, small batch sizes can quickly become costly to manufacture. Simply stated, indirect processes are not easily scalable with part quantity. The leverage for improvements on the indirect processing is huge – and early adopters will be the ones that remain competitive. Others will need to follow if they, too, want to be competitive.

Preparing a smart factory

The manufacturing industry is strongly pushing toward Industry 4.0. As the smart factory approaches, machines and systems will communicate, exchange relevant information and optimize this network automatically. Machines already have Wi-Fi connections to link with software systems and various devices that ensure higher uptimes and eliminate time wasted by complex processes. The key is to have the relevant information available where it is required, and without delays.

Industry 4.0 goes beyond the vertical chain within a single factory – and even beyond optimizing a network of plants. If the steel supplier automatically knows a minimum stock level of a certain standard material has been reached or will be reached in two days, or the shipping service immediately is alerted when an order is ready for pickup, significant time is saved. Axoom, an independent business platform, was founded with the goal of facilitating easy horizontal connections between industries and services to avoid waste.


Automation and Industry 4.0 come together with the goal of facilitating easy horizontal connections between industries and services to avoid waste.

TruConnect from Trumpf is one example of how the smart factory is taking shape. A variety and combination of software and hardware solutions create transparency on all processes, job scheduling and production as it automatically occurs. It considers a larger amount of factors and focuses on the core competency of manufacturers: processing orders and parts efficiently. In addition, familiar processes, such as single part identification, which is already a big topic in the industry from tracking production parts to long-term part identification, will become even more important in the future.

Single part identification – tracking production parts and long-term part identification – is becoming an important aspect of achieving Industry 4.0.

Creating awareness of the current situation is always a first step. Identify where inefficiencies are hiding and just how big they are. This will provide a good indication of where to start.

Solutions vary from taking the low-hanging fruit with a simple change in the programming system to going the whole nine yards by reorganizing and connecting all manufacturing processes to one system. It can be beneficial to phase in the measures over time, however, as new and exciting solutions are released every month. Ultimately, having the right partner to help sort through them all and make smart choices will be key.

Trumpf Inc.