Smart technology is everywhere — our homes, cars, smartphones and offices. Shopping experiences are tailored to our exact interests, fast food restaurants have started using robotics, and manufacturing processes are evolving to reduce errors, simplify processes, minimize product waste and improve efficiency. According to many industry experts, we are experiencing what is known as “Industry 4.0,” a type of fourth Industrial Revolution, due to the fast-moving rate of technological advancements that are transforming manufacturing as we know it.
Smart manufacturing utilizes similar techniques as other smart technology, including powerful processors, user-friendly applications and sometimes cloud storage. You can apply smart manufacturing to an entire shop or fleet or pick and choose which tools and features are most useful in your market. Although much of the current smart manufacturing technology relies on internet connectivity — including the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) — it is more about data and how operators collect, manage and analyze information to make better production decisions.
Smart advancements in the metal fabricating industry are less about what we can do and more about how changes can improve processes and final products. It’s amplifying use and efficiency, solving problems and establishing safer, less wasteful work environments.
That’s not to say there isn’t a creative or ambitious side to all of these advancements. While efficiency is at the forefront, smart manufacturing also opens up an entire world of possibility for metal fabricators. This guide discusses the benefits of smart manufacturing, including emerging CNC automation technologies and other machine automation.
How Does Smart Manufacturing Affect the Metal Fabrication Industry?
One of the easiest ways to understand how smart technology influences the industry is through comparison. Let’s take a look at press brake smart technology, for instance. Before technology evolved and became integral in production, hydraulic and mechanical press brakes required blueprints, hands-on training, manual troubleshooting and manual positioning of the axis and back gauges. Operators were responsible for entering all information, including material type, thickness, designs and angles, then positioning the press brake throughout the production process. Although the process was and remains effective, there are several opportunities for error:
- The operator can enter incorrect information, leading to product waste, damage or injury.
- Repositioning may be off, wasting time and materials.
- The machine may malfunction without apparent cause, costing time and possibly professional service to diagnose and repair it.
- Operator training takes a while to learn and depends on another person showing them how to complete tasks.
Today, smart technology transforms the way tools like the press brake operate. Operators learn everything they need to know about the machine from computer learning software, and built-in guides on the machine make the process more straightforward and eliminate learning curves. Built-in automated sensing can alert operators of data errors or machine malfunction before wasting materials. Angles and lines are more precise, thanks to more sophisticated design equipment. Of course, error is still possible — that’s why the human element will always be necessary for metal fabrication. There must be people to program machines, oversee progress and keep things running efficiently.
Smart manufacturing exists in many mediums across the metal fabrication industry, including:
- 3D printing
- Industrial robotics
- Automated processes
- Connected devices and machines
- Cloud integration
- Condition monitoring
- Artificial intelligence (AI)
The more common smart tools become within the industry, the more affordable and accessible these resources will be for businesses of all sizes.
Reports show that making the change and adopting new technologies into the manufacturing workplace can be beneficial. One survey found that factories that adopt smart technology see a 10% to 12% increase in production output, a percentage that is likely to grow as technologies do. Neglecting to utilize newer, faster and smarter equipment could also mean your business isn’t performing up to its potential. A study found that manufacturing businesses only average about 40% of their production potential because they’re spending so many resources — including time, money and workforce — on slower, more manual processes and administrative tasks.
Automating Machinery With Smart Technology
Automation and robotics are closely linked, as they both refer to a machine that has built-in programming and technology to complete some or all tasks on their own, without the need for an operator to prompt them. Automation can benefit many machinery types. For example, CNC machines are fast and reliable, but when paired with CNC automation technologies, they’re a continuous supply of consistent, quality results.
HOW IT WORKS
Automation for machining operations turns standard equipment into a versatile, self-reliant operation. With it, a machine might automatically detect the type of material it’s processing, including its dimensions, and take the appropriate next steps based on that information without operator input. Because you can program automated machinery with set parameters, automation in CNC machines and other machinery means they also know when to stop or alert users of a possible error.
Manufacturers do not have to replace all existing equipment with industrial automation. Many of your existing tools might be eligible for an upgrade or smart technology add-ons, like data monitoring devices. Alternatively, re-outfitting your set-up with smart technology will make it easier for machines to communicate with one another along the entire production line. Automated machines are available in a range of sizes and capabilities, so factories can usually find what they need, whether they are a large mass-producer or small-scale supplier with an irregular inventory.
THE FUTURE OF SMART MACHINERY
If there is anything to understand about the future of smart machinery, it is that machine automation and intelligent equipment will be a process of integration, not a takeover. Manufacturers will continue to have more options available to them that may improve productivity and efficiency, but many of the industry’s standard equipment and processes will always remain. Industry insiders also confirm that factories need not choose between human or machine — there will always be jobs in metal fabrication that require a human eye and mind. Facilities will likely be split into a variety of direct and indirect manufacturing tasks, with new jobs emerging in areas like machine programming, installation and repair.
As intelligence grows, machines will become more autonomous, though levels of automation and smart features will vary from piece to piece. Some machines and processes will likely be fully intelligent, while others will combine traditional techniques and operator input with smarter technology aiding in the process. Manufacturers will continue to transition to these new technologies, some moving faster than others. Budget and space restraints might stand in the way for some business owners, as well as operator apprehension.
Smart manufacturing will leverage the big data that companies need to make smarter decisions, regardless of the amount of smart technology that business has adapted. It is worth noting that, as smart manufacturing and machine automation becomes more commonplace within the industry, consumers will begin to expect faster, more reliable results. To stay competitive, some metal fabricators might transition to automated machinery and smart-enabled tools sooner, rather than later, to keep on top of trends and meet those end-user expectations.
Benefits of Using Smart Technology and Machine Automation
Smart technology in metal fabrication can take numerous forms — wireless or wired, simple or advanced, a single machine or your entire production line. You can program machines to communicate with one another, with other devices, with operators and vice versa. The more integrated operators and smart machines are, the more efficient your team will be.
Some benefits of smart manufacturing in the metal fabrication industry include:
- Self-monitoring: Self-monitoring machines are primarily hands-off, meaning an operator is not limited to standing at the machine during their entire shift. Instead, operators will aid in production by programming these machines, setting up processes and overseeing results. This minimizes the chance of operator injury.
- Set parameters: When you establish parameters for your automated machines, it enables them to understand what task to complete and when to complete it. They supplement employee efforts by processing complicated instructions with less error, and although there may be the occasional misstep, they enable more efficient processes. Machines also require no training and understand tasks without taking up valuable production time.
- Reliability: When certain smart machines experience an error, they will alert an operator and may even display possible troubleshooting steps or error codes, so you can correct it and minimize downtime.
- Data: As smart technology collects the data from your machinery and processes, you can use it to identify strengths and weaknesses along your production line. You can also get valuable insights toward energy consumption, amount of downtime and how closely you’re adhering to safety compliance regulations. Store this data in the cloud, where it is always accessible — even when away from the facility — and safe from damage caused by natural disasters. Analyze and track patterns and production trends to make educated estimates for costs and profit.
- Production: Merge smart technology into your existing process and identify areas for improvement with targeted training. This will help you bridge gaps in knowledge among employees and cross-train operators whenever applicable. With automated machinery, operators can turn their attention to other tasks without being limited to the same area as the machines since you can operate machines from a central location and have problems diagnosed from off-site, if necessary.
- Transportation: Smart technology inside your facility has immediate, tangible benefits — but what about what happens to your product when you finish fabrication? Smart technology lets you automatically track deliveries and identify any weak points along your transit route. Automated machines can help load and unload materials and process packages quickly. With fewer people involved in the process, shipping is also safer and more predictable. This leads to faster, more reliable shipping and a better experience for your customers.
- Profit: All of these benefits add up to create faster production times with less manual labor needed from operators, as well as better quality products and fewer wasted materials. Smart technology can also help you manage your inventory, so you’re never wasting resources.
OFFER MORE ADVANCED SERVICES
CNC automation, robotics, data collection devices and machine-to-machine communication may allow you to offer more advanced services, such as:
- 3D imaging and printing: 3D printing has come a long way in manufacturing. What started as an interesting approach to product creation has turned into a viable addition to the metal fabrication industry. The list of materials suitable for use with a 3D printer is expanding to include things like powders and resins — even entire buildings made of soil. As far as metal is concerned, new machines can handle steel, titanium, aluminum, gold and more. 3D imaging lets you craft more precise, scalable prototypes and models before finalizing your product. During fabrication, smart robotics have increased agility and automated sensing to make those detailed cuts with minimal waste and less error. Without design restrictions, your facility can offer consumers a more customized product with faster turnaround times than before.
- Tube laser cutting: Tube lasers are automated technology that creates cuts, holes, channels, tubes and shapes in materials with heightened precision and faster production speeds. Because your process will move more quickly, you may see a boost in both profit and quality.
- Self-driving equipment: One part of industrial automation you might not know is available is a relatively recent addition — self-driving material handlers and equipment. These machines save time by performing repetitive back-and-forth tasks that are otherwise a waste of operator talent. Though they are not yet established in the world of metal fabrication, they have helped numerous industrial facilities simplify their productions — and it’s only a matter of time before manufacturers begin applying those benefits to metalwork. If nothing else, metalworking facilities should prepare for an increase in project requests they may receive for this emerging technology.
COMPLETE JOBS MORE EFFICIENTLY
In addition to more streamlined processes and high-quality products, smart manufacturing technology will create a more efficient facility by letting you:
- Optimize energy consumption: Analyze your operational data and gauge your energy usage to establish baseline costs and adjust billing for different products, take steps to reduce your company’s energy consumption or aid in your efforts for a more eco-friendly facility. Track changes over time and see what methods are working and which need continued improvement.
- Automate appointments and parts: One valuable aspect of automation is that these machines often have built-in technology to let you know when something is wrong. Some may even automatically schedule service appointments with pre-programmed contacts or order their own part replacements.
- Adapt to market changes: As the consumer market evolves, so must your business — and that includes adapting to market trends and meeting growing needs. There are no excessive wait times or long training periods to meet these industry changes with smart technology. Instead, machines are updated to reflect production shifts. In many cases, once you have equipped your facility with the latest technology, this means minimal additional equipment purchases.
- Engage in lean manufacturing: Lean manufacturing refers to the process of keeping material waste low, avoiding over- or under-producing products, assigning operators important tasks, utilizing technology in the right way and reducing idle time among workers and machines. Automation and smart manufacturing technology will help you monitor these key areas and adjust processes as needed.
Contact APX York Sheet Metal for Fabrication Services
If you need custom metal fabrication, APX York Sheet Metal can help. We have been utilizing state-of-the-art equipment and technology to craft custom metal fabrication for clients in the electronics, industrial, construction, material handling, OEM manufacturing and alternative energy sectors for more than 70 years. Contact us to request a free quote for your project today.