For sheet metal fabricating businesses, more specifically job shops and OEM fabricators, there exists the constant challenge to reduce the cost per manufactured part in order to maintain profit margins and be competitive. The challenge to maintain that competitive position can be met in a few ways: streamlining internal processes, investing in new equipment, investing in new software as well as finding less expensive material resources.
Streamlining internal processes is always a good first start before considering new technology investments because it ensures that the process flow itself is as efficient as possible. Once the process is at its highest efficiency, given the current company infrastructure, then and only then should new technology come into play. At this point, however, the question becomes: What are the shortcomings of the current methodology and how can it be improved?
As business owners address that question, perhaps they will find that the new technology enhances their current process perfectly, or perhaps the technology is so radically advanced that they find it necessary to re-work the entire workflow process.
For example, a business owner could discover after adding one piece of new technology that the pull-demand of that technology now requires that all other supporting technologies, such as software and automation systems, must also be improved to keep up with the workflow demand. Continually evaluating this process can be a daunting task, but it is, nevertheless, an essential aspect of remaining viable and competitive in sheet metal fabricating.
Cluster technology top, conventional plan bottom.
Keeping up with fiber
In the last five years, the adaptation of fiber laser cutting technology has significantly changed the competitive environment in fabrication. If you own fiber laser cutting machines, then you realize that fiber technology has become a real game-changer.
Feed rates are up to 400 percent faster and operating costs have been reduced by more than 50 percent compared to traditional CO2 laser cutting machines. Lower cost coupled with faster processing speeds is a formula for potentially higher profits and a competitive edge. Fabricators also quickly realized the pull-demand of fibers.
Front-end business software systems that process orders into bills of materials and job routings as well as programming systems that provide programs for the laser all need to be able to keep up with increased throughput from the fiber laser. In addition, there is a push-demand created from the fiber laser’s increased throughput.
Increased parts production means that processes, such as material handling, bending, welding and painting, also need to keep pace. Having the right technology in place to keep pace with new large machine investments provides companies with the capability of reducing their cost per part, increasing their profit potential and staying ahead of the competitive curve.
ByOptimizer Cutting Plan (above) – 5 x 10 sheet, 643 parts, 18.2 percent material waste
Conventional Cutting Plan (above) – 5 x 10 sheet, 452 parts, 30 percent material waste
Reducing cost per part
So what are the most important elements related to reducing the cost per part? Ask this question of most fabricators and they will tell you that the majority of part cost is tied directly to the material cost itself followed by the process time it takes to fabricate that part. More than 50 percent of the cost per part is directly related to the material cost and even more like 75 percent in the case of aluminum, stainless or other nickel-based alloys.
So how do you control the cost per part over a long contract when the metals materials market is always fluctuating? As one fabricator said, “You need to buy in bulk when the price is low and hope that it does not sit in inventory for too long.” So really, it’s a cat and mouse game.
But what about nesting and optimization capabilities? How do they come into the equation? According to another fabricator, nesting is incredibly important. “I often have my programmers spend a little extra time manually optimizing the nests even after the software has completed the automatic nesting cycle,” he said. “They are able to squeeze a few more parts on the sheet, and over a long-running job, this can pay off in big savings.”
Certainly, there are many software packages that can provide standard true shape nesting and common line nesting capabilities, but they are typically operating on company PC-based computers that do not have the processing capabilities to facilitate a multi-layer distributed processing optimization algorithm. Complex optimization algorithms can be employed on high-end computer hardware and software systems that make use of sophisticated distributed processing, where complex calculations are performed on multiple computers and then captured onto a central processor for final packing of the optimization.
Not only do the enhanced optimizations produce a better material yield, they also reduce the amount of cutting time required due to the optimized cutting paths. On average, an additional 10 percent material savings and 15 percent savings in processing time can be realized over conventional PC-based algorithms.
Depending on the yearly volume and type of material that is processed through the laser, these savings can represent a significant value to the bottom line of most companies. This new material optimization capability encompasses leading-edge cloud-based technology that enables users to take advantage of high-end computing infrastructure without having to make the direct investment for the infrastructure in-house.
ByOptimizer Cluster Technology
Advantages of the cloud
So what is cloud-based technology? Cloud-based technology platforms are typically comprised of large groups of remote servers, centralized data storage, operating software, databases and complex computing algorithms, all accessible through an online client access subscription. With software as a service (SaaS), the entire infrastructure is already provided and companies need not invest in and maintain additional hardware, software and IT systems.
There is no hardware to maintain, there is no software to install and there are no software updates to perform. All of these tasks are taken care of by the host of the SaaS. With the Bystronic ByOptimizer, for example, which is also cloud-based software, there is only a flat monthly or yearly fee for using the service based on subscription hours for actual cutting time used. Subscribers can upload their orders to the cloud though a client user access portal where they can also monitor usage, history and download their final optimized programs.
During the optimization process, the individual parts are put though a proprietary complex algorithm whereby parts are clustered together to form essentially single-part clusters of parts where nearly all webbing between the parts has been eliminated. ByOptimizer factors in all of the components that are decisive for the cutting job: the geometry of the cut parts, the characteristics of the raw material and the power of the laser.
During this process, a database including more than 300 parameters provides comprehensive information about the material behavior and ideal cutting paths. The result of the optimization process is not only a safe cutting process but it also leaves very little in the way of material waste per sheet and saves on total cutting times.
Technology continues to forge new opportunities for sheet metal fabricators to meet the challenges of an ever increasingly competitive environment. Consistent evaluation of internal processes and utilizing new machine and software technologies to improve manufacturing capabilities is essential to maintain a successful OEM or job shop fabrication business and also to attract new opportunities for future growth.