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3 Ways Fabricators and Manufacturers Can Galvanize Their Business

“The needs never stop. The technologies never stop. The ideas never stop,” says Bob Sipp, Technical Council Director for FMA, or Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International.

He’s talking specifically about the demand on the metals industry to stay afloat in a constantly moving global marketplace. One where advances in technology and the expectation of growth for the future has laid the framework for persistent and rapid change.

“It used to be that we would get a new metallurgical type of steel maybe once every year, or once every quarter at best. Now it seems like every morning when I get up, the industry press is reporting that someone has invented a new metallurgical realm of carbon steel,” says Sipp, who started his metals career in 1972 and currently heads up marketing and sales for Leveltek International, the company that invented the stretch leveling process for metals.

The industry isn’t moving at breakneck speeds just for the heck of it.

In auto, for example, increasing demand for higher mileage and lower weight vehicles capable of maintaining or exceeding safety ratings is driving the push for more.

But it’s not just automotive that’s putting on the pressure – everyone from the aircraft industry to railway oil tank manufacturers are searching for better ways to achieve more with less.

In a world where the stakes are sky-high and the pace is more frenetic than ever before, how can businesses large and small galvanize themselves against the future?

Luckily, there are more resources available now than in any time in the industry’s history. Below, we deep dive into three tips for how to keep your business at the top of its game.

1. Make Friends with Technology

Today, laser cutting metal, a technique that’s barely 30 years old, is ubiquitous. With a world population of over 60,000 machines, it’s safe to say that lasers are here to stay – well, at least until they’re replaced by the next big thing.

“Using lasers and wet-jet cutters forgoes the need for hard tooling, and they’re replacing stamping in a lot of parts-manufacturing processes,” says Sipp.

When we look at the automobile industry, it’s not hard to understand how and why these new technologies gained such widespread adoption in a relatively short span of time.

Consider the old method of stamping parts out to build the components of a car. To do this, you would have needed a tool and die set, many of which cost millions of dollars. But what happens when the part changes?

“Once a fabricator buys a set that stamps a particular part for this year’s BMW and then next year’s BMW looks a little different, all of the hard tooling needs to be remade, even though there might only be a minor change,” Sipp explains. “With a laser, when you need to change the parts you’re making, you can do it in 10-20 minutes on a laptop.”

Secondarily, laser and wet-jet cutting is more efficient at minimizing scrap because both techniques are able to nest parts far more exactly than a high-speed stamping press.

“Let’s say you have a profile of the part that creates scrap in the range of 40% with a stamp,” Sipp says. “With a laser, you can reduce your scrap from 40% down to 5-10%, so instead of going out the door with a train car of scrap, you’re going out with only a pick up truck. Those are tremendous cost savings.”

If you haven’t invested in one of these machines, you may be wondering about the difference in laser cutting versus wet-jet cutting, and which tool is right for you.

Essentially, both tools achieve similar results, though wet-jet cutting is used on metals that may be sensitive to heat.

Sipp adds that lasers also tend to cut faster and the upfront cost of a laser is usually lower than a water jet. Still, deciding on which one is better suited to you will depend on your specific application.

2. Educate Your Team

Ok, so the installers just armed you with the latest and greatest laser cutter. Now what?

Sipp says that all laser manufacturers have the capacity to train your team when you purchase one of their machines.

Because of the market share they hold, it’s likely that you’ve got your hands on either a TRUMPF laser, or an AMADA one, both companies with dedicated resources to make sure you’re up to speed on how to use your new tools.

In most cases, major manufacturers will send someone out to train your team, or you’ll have the option of shipping your employees off to be trained at one of their dedicated schools.

But the education doesn’t – and shouldn’t – end there. In fact, Sipps says that FMA maintains strong connections with laser manufacturers, the Laser Institute of America (LIA) and other relevant third parties that partner with FMA to produce conferences about laser applications each year.

At these events, attendees tour facilities, hear about necessary safety codes, and receive instruction on the use of the machines, productivity and capacity. There may also be sessions around software to learn how to properly program the lasers.

However, even if you’re familiar with how to use these tools, Sipp says that it’s equally important for both new and existing employees to take advantage of the trainings, as things are growing fast and furious:

“In my opinion, it seems like if we look at what a laser could be used for a year ago and then ratchet the time ahead 12 months, suddenly lasers can be used in 5 or 10 new applications and on new materials. For that reason, it’s important to have as many tentacles out there connecting your company to organizations like FMA, manufacturers like the TRUMPFs of the world, as well as metal producers like ArcelorMittal.”

For some application specific tools, it may be necessary to bring in additional people with technical backgrounds, though Sipp acknowledges that smaller fabricators may not be able to sustain a full-time staff in this area.

“In those cases,” he advises, “fabricators should lean more heavily on outside expertise.”

Those who are uncertain where to ask for help needn’t look far. In fact, FMA was founded in 1970 as a way to help connect metal fabricators and equipment manufacturers. With over 2,300 members under their umbrella, the company organizes technology councils, education programs and networking events.

Their efforts even reach beyond the four walls of the industry and out into the community with scholarships to students, and events like “Manufacturing Day,” an opportunity for the public to tour thousands of US plants as a way to bring more awareness to American manufacturing.

3. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Not Even For a Minute

As you’ve realized by now, technology isn’t standing still, even for a moment. In many scenarios, it’s even outpacing how quickly we can train – and in some cases, the need to train.

“At Leveltek, we have an electronically controlled machine that stretches metal with a lot of force. It knows to grab and pull, but how does it know when to stop pulling?” Sipp asks. “That’s all measured by sensors and programming in the machine, which eliminates the need to train someone how to tell the machines what to do.”

But Sipp says while you may not need 10 pounds of training for every 10 pounds of technology, what is needed is vision alignment:

“In the past, we’ve seen things through the lens of punching and stamping, and we’re now looking at laser and wet-jet cutting, which requires a new set of glasses. It’s up to us to go and get the new prescription.”

With the speed and development of material types, sizes, shapes and different parts, it’s impossible to keep wearing those rusty, outdated glasses and expect to be successful in this worldwide economy.

Instead, constantly seeking out educational opportunities, and pioneering a culture of growth and innovation could be the ultimate drivers of success down the line.

“There will never be another time in history where someone coming into the plant will be able to say, ‘I’m going to run this stamping machine for the next 30 years, and then I’m going to retire,’” says Sipp.

Instead, he believes the path to prosperity is paved with curiosity and an open mind.

“We all need to have an open mind about coming into work every day and asking, ‘How can we do things better than we did them yesterday?’ and then be open minded to embrace whatever it takes to accomplish that,” he advises.

How can you start to figure out what needs to change?

Sipp says attending the meetings FMA hosts, visiting other plants, listening and engaging with presentations about how technology looks and how it feels will help you walk away with new ideas that allow you to keep building tomorrow.

“We also need to remember that we’re a global market now,” he warns. “If we don’t do it here in the US, somebody as close as Mexico will do it, or someone as far away as China will do it, and they’re just one flight away from delivering their parts to your door if you don’t keep up with the pace.”

For more information on how to connect with FMA, visit their website at fmanet.org.

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