News center
Our products are easy to use, convenient and safe

Metal fabrication industry's great technological transition, cultural balance

May 11, 2023

Nuthawut Somsuk / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Regarding advancing technology in metal fabrication, I’ve noticed a kind of uncomfortable awe of late. Technology drives the industry forward, yet what does it do to the value of employees and the company culture?

A few shop managers (speaking on background) have told me that they sometimes hesitate to invest in the latest and greatest when they have existing talent on the floor. They don't want to introduce drastic change to a department that's working just fine. But there's a principle involved as well. Long-time shop managers grew up on fab shop floors where you just couldn't produce a good part if you didn't know what you were doing. They don't want jobs on the shop floor to become mindless work.

After older employees retire, I pay a return visit to find new operators and new machines with plenty of bells and whistles, including automated nesting, offline bend simulation, and automatic tool change (ATC). And they’re processing parts faster than ever before. Is it mindless work? Let's be honest—it can be, especially for simple parts. But the new technology is just so much faster, so much better, they just can't get by without investing, even if all the skilled people in the world were available (and, of course, they’re not).

A complex staged bending setup, with various toolsets placed strategically across the ATC press brake bed, is a perfect example. It could be tailored to process a family of parts or one complex part, but either way, it would have taken even the most experienced bending guru some significant time to set up. Now, bending software automates the process, choosing various parts from different jobs from the schedule to optimize flow through the forming department. And the series of jobs is unique and likely won't be run again in the same way or in the same order.

The same thing goes for, say, nesting on the punch press. I recall sitting next to a longtime punch press operator and programmer. He showed me a static nest he had developed, complete with nesting under the clamps (that is, the clamps repositioned to allow the punch to access more material, increasing material yield). He had perfected it over weeks and months, altering the punch sequence to minimize distortion, optimize microtabbing, and minimize the web widths, leaving a sparse yet still stable skeleton at the end of the punching cycle. I have to admit, he had created an elegant solution, almost a work of art.

Thing is, that static nest comprised a group of parts for just one customer. A year later, that customer pulled its business, and the entire shop reexamined its flow strategy. Sure, static nests saved material, but they also made punching and laser cutting less flexible. Why spend so much time on a nest that won't be seen again? Why not dynamically nest automatically, achieve "good enough" material yield, and produce on demand so that blanks spend minimal time as work-in-process (WIP) inventory before heading down to the next workstation?

What about that punching guru who scrutinized programs and created works of art at the nesting station? He retired the year before.

Similar scenarios are even occurring in the manual welding arena. I talked with one shop that recently adopted hand laser welding. The process, which uses a 1-µm-wavelength fiber laser, required safety precautions, including a light-tight welding booth and some unique personal protective equipment. Still, the results were stunning. The shop owner got out his phone and showed me a picture of a clean fillet weld requiring no postprocessing whatsoever. Who made that weld? Someone who hadn't picked up any kind of welding torch before. It was her third or fourth coupon after about a half-hour of practice. Imagine the reaction of someone who's wielded a gas tungsten arc welding torch for decades.

Implementing new technology accelerates fabrication, but it also eliminates operational mysteries and standardizes how a fabricator gets things done. It's a kind of insurance. What if Joe, a key employee with technical expertise to run certain jobs, gets hit by a bus? Well, procedures are documented and software handles much of the programming and operational intricacies. And with some processes, like hand laser welding, there's less of a learning curve. That's great, but again, what about those who’ve worked to perfect a manual process for decades? What happens to shop culture?

I see two trajectories, one that improves shop culture and another that kills it. The one that kills it lowers the bar for entry-level employees. Machine operation is simpler, so operators learn quickly, which can be great for productivity, but they’re never really given the opportunity to learn more. It's efficient, but it also means that shop floor operators become totally expendable. They push buttons and work like the devil to meet productivity targets, yet really aren't taught about process fundamentals or even basic machine maintenance. Chillers aren't inspected. Slats aren't cleaned. Tools aren't sharpened regularly or predictably. Press brakes are abused or set up incorrectly. Machines crash, and the shop becomes utterly reliant on machine maintenance techs who might take a while to arrive. In short, it's not a pleasant place to work.

The other trajectory doesn't lower the bar for entry-level employees, just changes it. The entire order-to-ship cycle becomes much more collaborative. Teamwork and cross-training are a given; just because someone stands in front of a machine doesn't mean he can't be taught to program it offline. Knowledge isn't "shifted" away from the shop floor but instead spread throughout the company.

People focus on the velocity of work through the plant and the inevitable bottlenecks—but never on the speed of cutting, bending, welding, or powder coating in isolation. Their job performance hinges not on how many parts per hour they produce but on the improvement ideas they develop and how they help everyone around them. People enjoy an ever-changing, dynamic workday.

Most important, the shop employs fewer people but pays each person much, much more. That's OK, though, because rapid workflow has increased throughput, and sales per employee has skyrocketed. Sure, each person may be receiving way beyond the "market-dictated" wage, but their pay is based on the real value they provide.

Admittedly, that second trajectory is a bit idealistic, assuming shops can find engaged people who show up and want to make the world better for everyone. The reality is likely between the extremes. Some might not engage—just come in, do their jobs, and leave—but the vast majority show up to work with good people and solve customer problems. As livings go, that's not too bad.