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Digital Disruption in Metalforming is Accelerating

Mcn  Kyp  Metalforming Inc  Aug17 2

Adapting to industry trends can be beneficial

Over the last 20 years, the Internet and digital technology have profoundly disrupted scores of industries, from media and retail to telecommunications and financial services. Several current trends are accelerating the pace of digital change in metal component manufacturing. And, as business owners in other disrupted industries have often discovered too late, the consequences for failing to adapt to technology changes can be perilous.


Today's Trends

Trend one: Today, construction volume is high, and the demand for metal components to support that volume is high as well.

Trend two: At the same time, there is a significant shortage of skilled workers in every aspect of the metalforming business, whether it is in estimating, component manufacturing, installing or some other aspect of the business.

Trend three: The result of high parts demand hindered by the capacity constraints of skilled worker shortages is fueling an acceleration of automation efforts.

In the manufacture of metal component parts, key processes are cutting, bending and roll forming steel. Increased automation of those processes substantially reduces the requirement for skilled labor, increases the output per hour of parts, reduces error and waste and improves part quality. A shorthand for this digital driven automation in manufacturing is "Industry 4.0," a term that originated in Germany but is now fairly widespread. The idea, in part, is to use data, of all kinds, and to integrate that data in ways that optimize everything from job estimation and parts ordering to manufacturing and delivery.



This digitization is already well down the road to full implementation in high-end, high-tech manufacturing, but it is also now evolving quickly in the metalforming industry as well.

Today, we can have a customer on the web input data about all the different parts he needs for a specific job, whether it's trim pieces, wall panels, roof panels, fasteners, insulation, whatever it might be. He can go onto an e-commerce site, fill a shopping cart (including custom trim shapes) and send that information to the manufacturer.

Then, the software can automatically quote back pricing to the customer, and the customer can send the order in from the quote. That information can be automatically sent in for production planning and optimized by the production planning software to where it is queued up most efficiently. The production planning software can automatically send the plans to the machines, and the machines, with much less human intervention, can produce the parts.

All of this is available today. As an example, consider the change that has come to coil processing and slitting, where a coil of sheet metal is slit and cut into various sizes as blanks for trim part production. This was long a slow process where operators had to manually set the slitting knives to the right width and then do their own calculations to figure out the most optimized way to cut the material without creating too much scrap and remnants. Now that data can be fed into a machine that will set its own knives to the proper width and also optimize production to minimize waste. There are also automatic handlers, which will change out coils in less than two minutes, again without an operator's manual intervention.

In the next step in the process, trim formation, there are machines where we can feed the information about shapes and part quantities into the software and have blanks bent up and down and moved, all automatically without operator intervention. In the very near future, there will be robotic devices, loading and unloading the machines, further reducing the manual labor demand.


Keep Costs Down

What does this mean if you are a contractor or installer, a front-end customer for these parts? All of this should go to keeping down the cost of manufacturing and components. And it's about getting material when you need it. The efficiencies of this automation can dramatically shorten the time between order and delivery. But to fully benefit from this evolution (and to stay competitive), front-end customers also need to play in the digital world. Many in the industry still place factory orders by taking a piece of paper and drawing a trim shape on it with dimensions.

To move forward, invest in digital. The technology for gathering, sharing, inputting and processing data is now available from the moment you decide you need "x" until "x" is put on a truck. Over the next 10 years, the business will evolve to integrate every part of the process, from the customer's order all the way to shipment to a job site.

Geoffrey Stone is owner/CEO of MetalForming Inc., Peachtree City, Ga. To learn more, visit