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Welcome to the official blog of the International Society of Automation (ISA).

This blog covers numerous topics on industrial automation such as operations & management, continuous & batch processing, connectivity, manufacturing & machine control, and Industry 4.0.

The material and information contained on this website is for general information purposes only. ISA blog posts may be authored by ISA staff and guest authors from the automation community. Views and opinions expressed by a guest author are solely their own, and do not necessarily represent those of ISA. Posts made by guest authors have been subject to peer review.

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Streamlining Operations in Metal Fabrication

A designer drafts an industrial blueprint for improving water treatment engineering. They give this to fabricators, who bend and warp the product until it is ready for installation. These processes are intricate and time consuming, but innovation strives to streamline operations with automation. These are the most notable shifts bringing the sector into Industry 4.0.

How to Start the Process

Embracing automation in metal fabrication requires preparation before implementation. The workplace culture and workforce must gradually ease into new operations, and the transition is more seamless when there is buy in from the team. To help make this possible, managers should reinforce the organization’s values and how they align with what automation could deliver, and promise that tech resources will not replace humans.

This is critical for a healthy working relationship and a positive attitude for continued modernization while overcoming worker shortages in the industry. Subsequent tools should elicit excitement and not anxiety within operators. Experts foresee metal fabrication to have 400,000 vacancies in 2024, so corporations must assess how automation supplements and provides opportunities.

Affirming safety is another priority. Staff will work alongside automation tools, forging some of the world’s most necessary infrastructure, including towers, stairs, guardrails, conveyors and countless other societal essentials. People need to know what safety protocols and precautions are in place to work with these tools securely and validate that what automation and workers produce together is as secure as it can be.

After discussing the digital transformation with employees and management, metal fabricators must outline their objectives. What do they want to streamline or what vertical are they expanding? The plan must be comprehensive yet honed to maintain practicality.

For example, alternative and renewable energy generation is a hot topic at corporate and legislative levels alike. Investing in remote-operated robotics to expedite the assembly of solar modules with precision may improve the product’s quality and longevity for enhanced customer experiences and sustainability. What about instituting automation to apply coats to steel auto parts to reduce complaints about corrosion? Manufacturers are encouraged to think creatively about how automation technologies can help meet their business goals. 

Where Automation Works Best

The three main types of metal fabrication are laser cutting, welding and computer numerical control (CNC) forming. Each style and related processes — like palletizing or formation — require installation costs weighed against implementation resistance, returns and potential pain points from its assimilation. Additionally, each adoption will require remapping workflows because installations are not typically a one-to-one replacement in size and output processing.

The safest optimization options with automation are forming, welding and machine loading. These are low cost and high impact with how many bottlenecks and frustrations they could alleviate for technicians and machines alike. Press brakes, punchers, panel benders and fiber laser cutters are a few choices. Many are straightforward to program and operate, reducing friction between employees and new technologies.

The changes only matter if accompanied by data collection. Performance requires regular auditing to validate automation is acting according to expectations. A schedule will prevent reinforcement of inaccurate training in the workforce while providing a faster return on investment.

Advantages of Automation Use on the Floor

Digital transformation may impact the type of ductwork fabricators create. For example, spiral ductwork machines only produce 30% of U.S. volume, whereas the other 70% is the more traditional rectangular shape.

Case studies show the benefits of embracing new tech while transitioning to a more spiral-focused output, which heightens HVAC efficiency and durability because spiral variants are less prone to leaks and joint concerns. 

This could improve a brand’s overall quality and make profits more dependable. Peace of mind is invaluable, particularly during the aforementioned labor shortage crisis. Relying on automation technologies and digital transformation has been shown to increase:

  • Safety awareness
  • Productivity and efficiency
  • Digital literacy
  • Upskilling potential
  • Competitive advantage
  • Adaptability
  • Quality consistency

Automation also directly supports sustainability initiatives in metalworking environments. Reducing the potential human error is crucial when specific shaping actions render the metal irreversibly changed. Machines with higher accuracy eliminate waste from defective products.

A well-programmed CNC machine may generate a more complex shape and design easily without the learning curve of manual effort. Employees don't lose jobs in this scenario; rather, they shift to maintaining and programming the machinery as automation professionals. 

What Other Tools Are Available

Advanced robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things all have a role to play in streamlining metal fabrication. The equipment may execute fine cuts or throw heavy sheets onto pallets for easy delivery on autonomous vehicles to fleet drivers. Equipment that creates metal products is the first place organizations go when streamlining, but transportation, inventory and communication tools put other integral processes on autopilot.

Inventory management is a constant battle with mismatched sizes and shapes of pieces. Racks and pallets line shops and mills until they pile in an unsightly fashion. Parts may get damaged or misplaced in the scramble, leading to inaccurate management and unhappy clientele. Automated inventory systems provide visibility and reimagine a space better suited for housing complex metalwork. These automatic systems could include:

  • Autonomous guided vehicles for safe product movement along programmed routes.
  • Conveyors and cranes in automated storage and retrieval systems.
  • Rollers in flow rack systems that organize based on the first-in-first-out methodology.
  • Carousels with rotating cylindrical storage or conventional bins for warehouses.
  • Drones and crewless aerial vehicles for monitoring shelving.

Not all automation is an advanced piece of equipment — a toggled setting in a database to prompt business partners is equally valuable. Machinists obtain priceless insights from data that precisely visualize measurements, have CAD integration and allow workflow planning.

Client and shop management software is also a subtle yet global way to smooth out operations. Communicating with international supply chains and clients requires transparency and promptness, and automating reminders and notifications is crucial to prevent unnecessary communication-related stopgaps. Several options include ProShop ERP, SYSPRO and Epicor Kinetic.

Metal Fabrication of the Future

Industry 5.0 is already happening, which will drastically improve on the ideas from 4.0. Automation will reach new leagues of interoperability, convenience and intelligence as programs and machines expand their service offering to help workforces. Companies ignoring these assets will suffer competitive and revenue losses soon, as fabricators leveraging them will constantly meet deliverables, sign new clients and expand service potential.

Ellie Gabel
Ellie Gabel
Ellie is a freelance writer who also works as an associate editor for Revolutionized.com. She covers the latest innovations in the tech and science space for an audience of industry professionals

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