If you weren't a part of The FABRICATOR's Technology Summit in early October, you missed a great learning experience. About 50 attendees visited six fabricating operations, two manufacturers of laser equipment, and one systems integrator of custom laser machines. If the event didn't "ignite innovation"—as its tag line suggested—it certainly got some people thinking about how they might change their own operations.
What exactly did attendees see as they traveled around Minnesota's Twin Cities? They got to see everything, from the automated manufacturing processes used to fabricate Hoffman boxes—one of the most recognizable brands in the metal manufacturing industry—at Pentair Technical Products, Minneapolis, to the manufacturing might needed to construct giant grain handlers at Schlagel Inc. in Cambridge, Minn. At those stops and others they saw the latest in automated storage and retrieval systems that feed material to laser cutting machines with no human intervention; specialty laser cutting devices tailored for industries such as medical device and aerospace parts manufacturing; and even a fiber laser that ripped through tubes, cutting shapes in a matter of seconds.
But the biggest takeaways for attendees don't always involve the cutting-edge fabricating equipment. Instead, they might have be a new, simple approach to a fabricating dilemma that frankly hadn't crossed their minds. Here are some examples:
- At Pentair Technical Products, the maintenance team implemented an alert system intended to minimize equipment downtime. When metal fabricating equipment initially goes down, the maintenance technician on duty and assigned to the area is notified. If enough time passes without a response, the maintenance supervisor is then contacted. Finally, someone involved with plant supervision is notified if no maintenance response occurs. This change and associated lean manufacturing principles have helped the company improve its production time—from taking a blank from the turret punch to pulling it off of the finishing line—from two days to four hours.
- Herold Precision Metals, White Bear Township, Minn., ensures that some of its hardware insertion-equipment can be moved easily with a lift truck so that cells can be created as needed. When a company goes through 10 million pieces of hardware a year, it needs the flexibility to move hardware-insertion capability close to one of its 26 press brakes to eliminate extra handling of work-in-process.
- Bermo Inc., Circle Pines, Minn., laser-cuts stainless steel parts using oxygen as an assist gas and has to contend with oxide edges, which are not friendly to paint or powder coating adhesion. Instead of switching to the more expensive nitrogen assist gas, company management decided to invest in a shotblasting chamber. When enough laser parts are collected, they are stacked on a perforated platform and loaded into the shotblaster with a lift truck. Once the shotblaster is up and running, the entire oxide-removal process takes about two minutes, which is much more efficient than the previous tumble method of agitation the company used to prep the metal edges for finishing.
Not so surprisingly, even though the roundtable discussion each morning of the two-day event began with talk about fabricating technology, the topic worked its way back to a different issue: people. How can technology help to get inexperienced workers more productive more quickly? What are the best ways to extract the fabricating experiences of veteran employees so that knowledge doesn't leave the shop when they retire? What are the best ways to let inexperienced workers gain valuable shop floor experience without threatening product quality or on-time deliveries? In the end, the metal fabricating business is still a people business.
And what better way is there to learn than from other people in the business? That's why these and other Fabricators & Manufacturers Association educational events are so valuable. Fabricators are learning from each other as much as they are learning from discussion and seminar leaders.
Fabricators looking for a similar learning experience might want to make plans to attend The FABRICATOR's Leadership Summit, Feb. 27-March 1, 2013, at the Innisbrook Golf & Spa Resort, Palm Harbor, Fla. This event focuses more on best practices related to shop operations and business decisions. Check www.fmanet.org for more details as the event gets closer.
Of course, events such as The FABRICATOR's Technology Summit wouldn't be possible without the courtesy offered by those companies that welcomed us into their facilities: Pentair Technical Products, Prima Power Laserdyne, Schlagel Inc., Cambridge Metals & Plastics, Herold Precision Metals, Bermo Inc., Innovative Laser Technologies Inc., Fedtech, and AltaMar. They recognize the need to support the metal fabricating industry in the face of global competition. That's an easy lesson to learn.