What is the Role of Automation in Metal Fabrication?

The fabricators are investing in automation in order to fill the gap in metal fabrication.

Fremont, CA: There has been a lot of discussions about how to fill the skill gap in metal fabrication. Can it be minimized by getting trade schools to their students better in the skills required, or should companies do a better job reaching out to millennials or attracting women might help fulfill the gap? There is another way to close the skill gap in metal fabrication, which is automation.

No One Way

Few shops are gleaming showrooms of the high-tech software and machinery, a shining example of what the Industry 4.0 can be. Others are using the age-old equipment and still rely solely on paper prints. The U.S. manufacturers thrive on serving customers with ever-changing demands, and that’s true in most cases—but not all. 

Another driver behind these kinds of differences in automation strategies is from the different shop cultures in this industry, developed by owners, managers, and the floor’s talent. A shop with less talented press brake operators might opt to stay with the equipment they are most comfortable with. But what if the shop appoints new brake operators and perhaps tackles a new customer base with other expectations? If it has the funds, the shop may decide to upgrade.

Hypothetical one-stop

The shop has few N.C. equipment as well. Programmers take the paper drawings and plot the X and Y coordinates for each hole they require to punch. As they get into sophisticated geometries, like nibbling an arc, they use trigonometry to determine the intermediate path’s coordinates, the middle course, and the endpoint. CAD/CAM, a user-friendly machine control, more process automation to ease machine setup and operation, controls that can download programs directly from a network, offline bend programming, simulation, and robotic welding cells simulated and programmed offline. All of it is designed to handle a high product mix. Then come fiber lasers and the associated material handling automation. Immense towers make for a robust live inventory, always tracked and able to be retrieved at a moment’s notice.

That’s one path of automation, though again, which approach a shop takes depends on the circumstance. Even so, what makes this automation scenario so exciting is its potential future. Considering how rapidly technologies like additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are changing, technological advancement takes on not a linear curve but a logarithmic one, with more significant leaps being made year after year. The difference between the fabrication tech of 1970 and 2020—50 years—might be less than the difference between the shop of today and 30 or even just 20 years from now.

See also: Top Manufacturing Automation Solution Companies