Fabricating For Dummies book cover

Fabricating For Dummies

Kip Hanson
Published: June 13, 2018


Work your way to fabricating success

People have been hammering metal into shields, cookware, and ceremonial headdresses for centuries, and fabrication continues to be a popular and growing industry today. Fabricating For Dummies provides you with all the information you need to begin learning about metalworking, or fill any gaps in your existing knowledge in order to advance your career.

Simply put, there's little out there for light reading on manufacturing. What's available is often quite expensive, so boring it puts you to sleep, or filled with so much technical gobbledygook that one's eyes glaze over within a few pages. This book offers a much-needed alternative, cutting through the jargon and getting right to the heart of what you need to know to take your fab skills to fabulous new heights.

  • Get a glimpse of the day in the life of a fab worker
  • Discover the different alloys, shapes, and sizes of sheet metal
  • Understand welding and joining processes
  • Master the use of press brakes, stamping presses, and turret punches
Whether you want to get your feet wet with waterjets, laser cutters, or hi-definition plasma cutters, there’s something for you inside this hands-on book!

Work your way to fabricating success

People have been hammering metal into shields, cookware, and ceremonial headdresses for centuries, and fabrication continues to be a popular and growing industry today. Fabricating For Dummies provides you with all the information you need to begin learning about metalworking, or fill any gaps in your existing knowledge in order to advance your career.

Simply put, there's little out there for light reading on manufacturing. What's available is often quite expensive, so boring it puts you to sleep, or filled with so much technical gobbledygook that one's eyes glaze over

within a few pages. This book offers a much-needed alternative, cutting through the jargon and getting right to the heart of what you need to know to take your fab skills to fabulous new heights.

  • Get a glimpse of the day in the life of a fab worker
  • Discover the different alloys, shapes, and sizes of sheet metal
  • Understand welding and joining processes
  • Master the use of press brakes, stamping presses, and turret punches
Whether you want to get your feet wet with waterjets, laser cutters, or hi-definition plasma cutters, there’s something for you inside this hands-on book!
Fabricating For Dummies Cheat Sheet

If you ever sat in the back of the classroom making paper airplanes while the teacher droned on about geometry, Babylonian history, or some other equally boring topic, congratulations! You’re a fabricator. The manufacturing technology just mentioned is called folding, but instead of using human fingers, a folding machine uses ones made of super hard and wear-resistant steel. But that’s just the beginning of the differences between manufacturing paper airplanes and the ones used to carry business people to important meetings. Folding machines, like most of the computerized equipment used in fabricating shops today are expensive, highly accurate, faster than a spitball, and more challenging to program than the TV’s remote control. But don’t worry. If you do decide to pursue a good paying, rewarding career as a sheet-metal fabricator, there’s plenty of help available.

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Trades, Tech, & Engineering Careers Articles

10 Ways to Be a Better Fabricator

Manufacturing overall and especially sheet-metal fabrication is a noble, most excellent trade, one that helps to keep our homes warm, our cars safe, our daily chores more enjoyable. Simply put, it’s darned important to modern society. Explore some of the ways you can be successful in your fabrication career.

Change things up to success in manufacturing

As with many things in life, success in manufacturing is about embracing change. Lean manufacturing pundits call this Kaizen, the Japanese word for continuous improvement, while others call it common sense. Either way, continuous improvement means taking small steps forward, fostering employee involvement, and providing metrics with which to measure the efficacy of incremental changes. This is the path by which people and companies alike thrive, no matter what they produce.

Aside from “Kaizen events,” Lean also offers tools such as the DMAIC method (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control), The 5 Whys (repeatedly asking “why” until a root cause is revealed), PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act, which is also known as the Deming Cycle), and others. Call it what you will and use whatever tools are needed, but Lean is a necessary aspect of company and employee growth.

Acceptance of the status quo spreads like a disease in most environments, and manufacturing is no exception — creativity is stymied, all thoughts of continuous improvement quashed. But what’s a creative company or its subset of “let’s move forward” employees to do in the face of a larger workforce that’s afraid of change? Companies should strive for a culture of change, one that builds on the skills and knowledge of existing personnel. This means encouraging employees to constantly search for improvement opportunities. Get them excited about new technologies, and show them the benefits — financial, occupational, and social — of joining the let’s-make-our-company-the-best-it-can-be club. Then turn them loose to do their jobs. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Adopt new technology to become a better fabricator

The best examples of continuous improvement are those that either improve part quality or increase the number of parts completed each day (or both). One way to start this most important of Kaizen changes is by talking to your tooling supplier. These are the guys and gals who spend their days traveling to different shops and get to see firsthand what works and what doesn’t, who attend routine company-sponsored seminars on new manufacturing technologies, and whose paychecks are often dependent on making their customers successful. For example, press-brake crowning systems are a great way to reduce setup time. Wheel tools for turret punch presses and tool coatings, for example, do not require a massive investment and improve productivity. Take a look at this figure for another cool example. Convinced to give the latest widget a try? Don’t do it willy-nilly. Testing any new technology must be done scientifically. No matter how small, document each change and record the results. Keep track of setup and cycle times (something you should be doing anyway) before and after the change. Analyze how the investment improved part quality or tool life and then validate that it will pay for itself in a reasonable time frame. And above all, document, document, document — if not, you or someone else in the shop will end up reinventing the wheel six months from now.

If you’re not receiving regular advice and suggestions on ways to improve your metalworking operations from your tooling supplier, it might be time to look for a new one (or at least a new salesperson). Partnering with these and other industry experts is just one of the many ways to gain the upper hand over your competition, whether it’s the shop down the street or the one overseas.

Market your fabrication business vertically

What’s vertical integration? If you had a stainless-steel DeLorean, you could accelerate to 88 miles per hour and emerge in a simpler past, when machine shops machined parts and fabricating shops bent, formed, and welded them. But for many manufacturing companies, those easier days are over — their customers prefer the economy and convenience of a single source for their production needs, and want suppliers that can provide finished products, even if that means they must master fabricating, machining, painting, testing, and assembly, all under one roof. That’s vertical integration. For original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and their Tier I and Tier II suppliers, this isn’t simply a “one throat to choke” mentality (although that’s certainly part of their motivation). Single-sourcing one’s manufacturing needs to a qualified, multi-talented supplier is smart business. Done properly, it simplifies the procurement process and reduces product lead times. It strengthens the customer–supplier relationship. Engineering teams on each side of the fence are more likely to collaborate, increasing the likelihood of product improvements and cost reductions all around. The moral of the story is simple: The most successful shops are (or soon will be) those that embrace all types of metalworking, as well as supporting processes such as plating, painting, powder coating, and assembly. They have learned to cross the party line and become masters of parts production technologies. This means future metalworking companies will offer bending, forming, stamping, and machining capabilities, assuring cost-effective and on-time delivery of quality products to whatever customer is asking for them.

Shorten setups, increase uptime in fabrication

Shops in the United States, Canada, and Europe are routinely expected to produce small orders of parts with minimal lead time and do so at a competitive price. The result? Setup times are becoming a proportionally larger factor in the “how much does this part cost to produce?” equation. Unfortunately, the ability to set up a job in minutes rather than hours is largely dependent on the type of tooling and software that is used. For example, quick-change tooling can be installed on most any press brake, as can systems that guide even unskilled operators through correct punch and die placement. Similarly, offline programming and simulation software eliminates hours of machine downtime. All are important aspects of setup-time reduction, but be warned. They require sizable investments and no small amount of planning. The same can be said for turret punches, stamping presses, and virtually any other machine tool on the production floor. At the end of the day, setup-time reduction is a technical hurdle that all shops must overcome (assuming they wish to grow and be successful) and should be a top priority for anyone setting up multiple jobs per week. Yet like most continuous improvement efforts, the challenge is as much organizational as it is technical. Quick-change tooling may allow shops to set up a brake in less time than it takes to eat a turkey sandwich, but it’s important to recognize that there are plenty of steps you can take to reduce setup times and make throughput more predictable and do so without spending a dime. Much of this comes down to organization. Take a look at your tooling. Is everything in its assigned place? Look not only at the tooling in the crib (you have a tool crib, right?), but also the tooling that’s actually in the machinery or sitting about on the shop floor (there shouldn’t be much of this). Do all of the tools have a serial number and are they tracked in a TMS? (TMS is short for tool management system.) How about your setup sheets? The work instructions?

Maintain the machine (and tools)

A significant chunk of the organization just discussed involves routine maintenance of tooling and machinery. Here are a number of “best practices” shops should follow if they’re to keep everything in tip-top shape (the figure offers another example):
  • Clean, disassemble, and inspect all tooling for damage and wear after use. Replace worn springs, stripper plates, washers, and so on as appropriate.
  • A small amount of lubricant or rust preventative should be applied periodically to metal surfaces to avoid corrosion.
  • Always use a torque wrench rather than a best guess with your arm to tighten things down.
  • Air and oil filters should be replaced religiously. The same goes for hydraulic fluid.
  • Routinely check back gauges and ram surfaces for parallelism and squareness.
  • Periodically inspect electrical connections and other fasteners for tightness (be sure to use OSHA–approved lockout-tagout procedures).
  • If you don’t have a George on staff (and even if you do), machines should be inspected annually by a factory-certified machine tool technician.

If possible, it’s best if punches, dies, and other tooling are assigned to a specific machine and kept there. This isn’t always feasible, but it does keep the inevitable wear patterns of the locating surfaces matched, providing more consistent results than bouncing tooling all over the shop like a kid without a date at the high school prom.

Lastly, remember that toolholder life is finite. Most experts will tell you that tooling should be replaced every few years, depending on how much action they see (the toolholder, not the experts). They’re not just trying to sell more stuff. Metal fatigues over time, causing problems with part accuracy and tool life. If you have tooling approaching its teen years (and in heavy-use cases, much younger than that), it could be time to send it out for reconditioning, or to the recycler.

Manufacturing is not a dirty word

Ask any shop owner to describe his or her biggest obstacle to company growth and most will tell you the same thing: finding qualified people. For whatever reason, manufacturing has grown less popular as a career choice over the past few decades, despite the increasing demand, better technology, and higher wages. A Google search of manufacturing wages in 2017 reveals that average salaries are approaching $50,000 per year in the United States, substantially more than photographers, medical technicians, fitness trainers, and embalmers. Granted, you don’t get to wear a leotard or make dead people look nice for grieving relatives, but manufacturing is a good-paying, rewarding career that lets you make cool parts and play with robots. For those with an eye toward upward mobility, a fabricating career is a gateway to even more challenging vocations such as machine-tool programming, applications or manufacturing engineering, tool and die design, equipment sales, or even going into business for yourself. Contrary to what the media has been saying, all the manufacturing work hasn’t gone to China. Yes, parts are less expensive to produce in countries with low labor costs, but those companies that have tried sourcing parts based solely on price frequently (and painfully) discover that the old adage, “you get what you pay for” is abundantly true. The result is that many of the products that have gone offshore over recent years are now being re-shored. Procurement people, tired of long lead times and questionable promise dates, are sourcing more parts on this side of the ocean. Quality is difficult to control when parts are made thousands of miles away, with late-night or early-morning meetings to resolve complaints the norm. And consumers recognize that “buying local” is good for them and their neighbors. Long story short, manufacturing is back, whether you work in Milwaukee or Minneapolis, Magnolia or Manhattan Beach.

Forget about what you may have heard. Manufacturing is a high-tech, clean, and lucrative profession. If you’re interested in it and have even a smidgeon of mechanical aptitude, chances are good you can find a shop willing to take you on. If you’re thinking about college but aren’t sure what you want to be when you grow up, skip the philosophy major, the burdensome student loans, and walk, bike, or take an Uber to the nearest technical college. And if you’re already skilled and are looking for a better job, get busy knocking on doors. The manufacturing waters are warm; come on in.

Become certifiable

Perhaps the best way to become one of the qualified people just discussed is to attend vocational school. Working one’s way up the ladder isn’t the worst way to learn a trade, although doing so requires an inquisitive mind, an abundance of patience, and the ability to put up with the hooting and hollering from your coworkers after crashing a machine (not to mention a stern talking-to from the owner).

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) says the average manufacturing worker in the United States earns more than $77,000 annually. That’s pretty good coin, yet fewer than 40 percent of the parents of school-aged children think their kids should pursue a career in manufacturing. Worse, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) says that 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be needed over the next decade, but 2 million will go unfilled due to a shortage of workers. Still think that Bachelor of Fine Arts degree you’ve been pursuing is a good idea?

For those of you who’d rather avoid the trials of learning on the job, there are plenty of training options available. Aside from vocational-technical schools (most of which offer excellent one- to two-year programs), a number of online classes exist:
  • The Society of Manufacturing Engineers has developed its Tooling-U SME series of training materials. These include instructor-led and self-paced classes, on-demand e-books and videos, and industry-recognized certifications to demonstrate achievement.
  • The Fabricators and Manufacturers Association (FMA) offers people an opportunity to earn its Precision Sheet Metal Operator (PSMO) certification, which covers important skills such as laser cutting, punch press operation, metal finishing, and a whole bunch of other stuff I discuss throughout this book.
  • The American Welding Society (AWS) is just one of the organizations providing accreditation in this highly technical trade. Enrollees can pursue certification as a welder, inspector, engineer, radiographer (sort of like an industrial X-ray technician), and more.
  • SolidWorks, a leading developer of CAD software, offers the “Certified SOLIDWORKS Professional Advanced Sheet Metal” (CSWPA-SM) exam to test the ability of those designing sheet-metal components. Similarly, CAD giant Autodesk offers its ACP certification (short for Autodesk Certified Professional). Both are great ways to increase your value to potential employers.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Recognizing that manufacturing cannot succeed without skilled employees, schools across North America, together with machine-tool builders, software and tooling providers, and a host of manufacturing companies have stepped up to the plate, offering money, time, and knowledge in an effort to develop future talent. It’s truly a good time to enter the trades.

You might be the top dog at your shop, but remember this: There’s always more to learn (and other dogs nipping at your heels). Manufacturing is a deep, ever-changing topic, and no one masters all of it, ever. If you’re not taking online classes, attending seminars, or at least reading books and trade publications, you’re falling behind. And saying your company doesn’t pay for it is no excuse. For starters, you’re unlikely to get a job working for someone that will pay for it if you’re going to sit on your hands complaining. Second, there’s plenty of free or almost-free information out there — subscribe to magazines, buy a For Dummies book, or take some night classes on your own dime. Just get learning. You won’t regret it.

Don some cool safety shades when working in manufacturing

The shop floor can be a dangerous place, especially for those not paying attention to what you are doing. Here’s some other things to watch out for:
  • Having your eye scraped by an emergency room doctor to remove tiny bits of metal and the rust rings they created while you were sleeping is a memorable experience. The way to avoid it is clear: Always wear your safety glasses, preferably the dorky-looking ones with side shields. If you’re grinding, wear a face shield. Failure to do so may give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn Braille.
  • Similarly, the bright blue light created by an arc welder might seem very pretty, but looking at it (even a sidelong glance) is another way to damage your eyesight. Always wear top-notch welding goggles, and if you’re around someone who’s welding, shield your eyes or look away.
  • It might not be as strenuous as an afternoon at the gym, but fabricators often need to lift heavy objects such as die sets and heavy workpieces. If you’re not wearing steel-toed boots, you’re asking for trouble. And if you’re wearing flip flops, please go home.
  • Gloves are quite necessary for welding and many other sheet-metal activities, but if you wear them while operating a milling machine or other rotating machinery, you might end up with a resulting injury called degloving (ironic, right?), whereby a large piece of flesh is separated from the surrounding area. Ouch.
  • Speaking of stylish accoutrements, what are you wearing? Are your sleeves rolled up? If not, it’s fairly easy to get one caught in a piece of machinery. That’s true for long hair as well. Guys and gals alike need to keep their hair short, put it in a ponytail, or wear one of those trendy black mesh hairnets.
  • If you’d like to hear the laughter of your grandchildren, the sound of the wind through the pine trees on a winter day, and avoid your spouse having to nag you non-stop to turn down the television, always wear ear protection around metalworking machinery.
A number of other hazards exist. For example, the same jokester who smeared grease on your lunchbox handles is always finding ways to shoot projectiles across the shop floor with his air gun — an extraordinarily bad idea. Compressed air is also quite loud, so be sure to equip your guns with noise-reducing nozzles. Another dumb idea is removing safety guards from equipment, or not locking out the electrical panel before performing preventative maintenance.

Keep your fabricating shop or house in order

Let’s face it — some fabricating shops are just plain dirty. Hunks of scrap metal and grinding dust surround the welding area. Hydraulic fluid drips from the back of the press brake. There’s trash in the aisle, tooling catalogs scattered about the break room, the machinery hasn’t been wiped down in months. What a pigsty!

It’s more than appearances, though. Cleanliness is also about safety. The risks that come with slippery, trash-strewn floors are real, especially around sharp and often heavy workpieces. Air quality is also a concern. Welding and cutting gases should be controlled at all times; paint fumes and powder coating dust must be properly evacuated. Failure to do so may leave shop management wondering someday if they’re partially to blame for Wayne’s lung cancer or Mary Beth’s emphysema.

There are also the machine tools to consider. Good housekeeping goes well beyond filter replacement or checking for axis wear — it means keeping the shop’s expensive and highly accurate equipment cleaner than the antique car you have sitting covered in your garage. And while the employees might not complain (too much) when the shop hits 90 degrees in July or is cold enough that you can see your breath come February, temperature swings are tough on equipment. Keeping the shop at a consistent temperature year-round is less expensive than remaking scrap parts or training new employees, never mind the benefit to its CNC machines. The bottom line is that successful manufacturing companies embrace employee safety, cleanliness, air quality, and all the things that make a shop environment pleasant to work in. Equipment lasts longer. Employee morale is better than in “piggy” workplaces. Visiting customers spread the word to others, “I’ve never seen such a clean shop, they must really be serious about quality,” thereby increasing the likelihood of new business. Dirty, hot, or dangerous shops? There’s really no reason for it. Get sweeping.

Trades, Tech, & Engineering Careers Articles

10 Techie Things to Know About Fabricating

Compared to even a few decades ago, manufacturing of all forms has become decidedly high-tech. Where cranks were once turned and levers pulled, a button is now pushed. And often, the machine controller can take care of that step, too. Machines are getting smarter as well, and more connected than a teenager with an Instagram account. A number of significant trends in manufacturing technology (ten of them, actually) are listed here along with an explanation of why they are important to you and your career as a fabricator, welder, machinist, or wherever the winds of manufacturing take you.

Join the Revolution

Anyone who’s anyone has heard of the Industrial Revolution, even those of us who were kicked in the shin for falling asleep during history class. But it turns out there’s a new revolution underway, one that promises to deliver much more than steam engines and electric lights. It’s called Industry 4.0, and unlike the revolutions of yore, it’s built on something we can’t see or touch: data. That’s because data (some people call it Big Data, because there’s so much of it available) is the main driver behind the Internet of Things, also known as the IoT. If you’ve gone shopping at an electronics store recently, you know that the IoT is bringing us a host of smart devices that promise to change the way each of us functions each day. That’s because our refrigerators can now tell us when we’re out of orange juice and will soon be able to order it for us as well. Our thermostats know our work schedules and automatically kick up the air-conditioning before we step through the front door. Siri knows our favorite brand of toilet paper. Google Home tells you when you forgot to pick up the kids from band practice. Alexa sings an off-key Happy Birthday on command. And self-driving cars? They’re coming, people. What’s all this have to do with fabricating? Simple. All these advanced technologies affect the way we manufacture things, never mind the fact that smart cars, smartphones, smart refrigerators, and smart kiosks at the shopping mall place increasing demands on the folks who make these devices — that is, manufacturers. And just as they do in the kitchen or during the drive to work, the electronic sensors used on the production floor collect data and use it to make the lives of their human masters more efficient.

To manufacturers, the IoT has an extra letter: IIoT. It means the Industrial Internet of Things. What’s the difference? Actually, they’re like peas and carrots. Both rely on sensors embedded in network-capable devices that are able to provide massive amounts of data, information useful for trend-spotting and analytics. And the IoT and IIoT both offer the promise of increased efficiency, reduced costs, and greater product reliability, except that the latter is concerned only with industrial processes. Think self-driving forklifts instead of self-driving cars.

Most machine tools are way smarter than the Internet-capable light bulbs you installed in the living room last month. They’re able to monitor bearing temperatures, vibration, stamping and bending forces, motor loads, and a bunch of other electromechanical and physical characteristics that affect how the machine functions, then report back that information to the server in the front office or a datacenter sitting thousands of miles away. The software sitting on that computer can then analyze and display what’s going on to whoever wants to know. This might be the machine programmer, who can adjust laser power for more efficient cutting. It could be George, the maintenance dude, who needs to know if there’s a problem with a bearing or slide. And then there’s that nosy company accountant, who wants to know what job was worked on and why it was less than profitable. Or it might be the production manager, who needs to be alerted when the machine is idle so she can help out the operator (or yell at him to get back to work).

Cruise the Clouds

The IIoT wouldn’t exist without cloud computing, perhaps the most important leg of the Industry 4.0 stool. If you’ve been roughing it Ted Kaczynski–style in a secluded cabin for the past several years, you might be wondering about this term right now, but anyone with a smartphone or a computer touches the cloud every day. What is it? If you shared embarrassing pictures of your friend’s birthday party on Facebook recently, you used cloud computing. The same is true for subscribers to Shutterfly, Google Drive, and Amazon Prime Video, as well as those sharing three-dimensional (3D) computer-aided design (CAD) models on collaboration sites. Several of them exist and they’re a great way to see what others are doing — just Google “CAD sharing sites” and start surfing. Whatever you do with it, there’s nothing too fancy about the cloud, really. Just stick a bunch of servers in a datacenter (a big temperature- and humidity-controlled room with an awesome Internet connection), set up a secure way for people to access them (firewalls, passwords, encryption, oh my), then hire a bunch of highly-paid computer geeks to play Robot Unicorn Attack while pretending to keep tabs on them. And here you thought the cloud meant those fluffy things that block the sunlight and drop rain at inopportune times.

Go Green

A hunk of ice the size of Delaware fell into the ocean recently. Oceans have become 30 percent more acidic since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Tucson just had the hottest year on record — for the fourth year in a row (as have other parts of the country). And while a sizable number of skeptics continue to believe that global warming is a hoax or at least unproven, few among us would argue with the notion that pollution and wastefulness are bad, and that lowering our collective carbon footprint is a worthy goal. An increasing number of machine-tool builders think so. Not only are their products becoming more energy efficient, but so are their factories — a few of them have been built from the ground up recently with the environment in mind. To shops that are focusing their energies on getting parts out the door, the energy consumed by their computer numerical control (CNC) machines is probably a distant concern; who cares how many kilowatt-hours were used making them, as long as we meet the customer’s delivery date? Still, electricity costs add up, especially for shops with dozens of press brakes and turret punch presses running around the clock. And if the shop maintains a constant air temperature and humidity level at all times (something all machine shops should do), the monthly bill is likely to give even the most spendthrift shop owner indigestion. Perhaps you don’t have the cash right now to replace the shop’s energy hogs with electric press brakes and fiber lasers, but you might think about adding solar power to your building (there’s a lot of room up top). At the very least, keep your existing machines running in tip-top condition, no matter how old they are. Your electricity bill (and your productivity) will thank you.

Get Lighter

Going green also means dealing with new metals and materials. Thanks to government energy mandates the world ’round, automakers and aircraft manufacturers are charged with continuing reductions in fuel consumption and emissions. One of the favorite ways of accomplishing this is by making vehicles lighter. Fabricating shops generally don’t contribute directly to the lightweighting movement, although they definitely feel its effects, and often not in a good way. True, lighter cars use more parts made of easy-to-fabricate aluminum (yeah!), but they also use plenty of parts made of nasty-to-fabricate steel and in some cases superalloys.

But wait. How does a much-heavier-and-more-expensive-than-aluminum metal like dual-phase steel make cars lighter? Easy. Since this and similar alloys are stronger by volume than their traditional car-making counterparts, less of it can be used. A comparable situation is seen on the aerospace side, where an increasing amount of abrasive carbon fiber–based composite materials is used, as well as the usual aerospace suspects: titanium and Inconel, all of which are challenging materials to fabricate.

At the same time, suppliers to these industries are under relentless pressure to reduce costs, improve quality, and decrease lead times. Long story short, fabricators and machine shops alike must continue to improve their processes and adapt to an ever-changing materials landscape as planes, trains, and automobiles become more energy efficient.

Get Lost on the Paper Trail

Since we’re on the sustainability topic, let’s talk about going paperless. Setting aside beautiful forests and clean, breathable air, there are many reasons to do so. This is just as true for manufacturers as it is for the fast-food restaurant across the street. Paper, quite simply, is dumb (except for the paper used to print For Dummies books, that is). Here’s why:
  • Cost avoidance: Here’s the big kahuna. Paper costs money. Not just the price paid for the acres’ worth of dead trees you have lying about, but also the cash spent on printers, toner cartridges, and the IT people to manage it all, not to mention waste disposal and shredding costs. Granted, electronic storage space isn’t free, but it’s much less expensive than the paper alternative.
  • Disaster recovery: The factory burned down last night? Major bummer. Not only do you need to start rebuilding, but the in-process quality documentation, hand-written notes on job routers, marked-up packing slips — all gone. Isn’t it better to digitize all that paper and store it on a backed-up server (or in the cloud) before the fire trucks arrive? Doing so might just save the company.
  • Document security: Most shops consider internal documentation such as part drawings confidential. Even if they don’t, it’s almost certain their customers do. What’s to prevent a disgruntled employee or corporate spy from walking off with reams of valuable information, ready for selling to the highest bidder?
  • Revision control: Regardless of the manufacturing environment, product specifications often change. So, too, do work instructions, quality procedures, shipping dates, and so on. Updating this information is much easier if you don’t have to chase piles of paper across the shop floor.
  • Saving space: Anyone who’s saved job travelers, shipping receipts, copies of invoices, and so on knows one thing: They take up a lot of room. And finding something in all those boxes? It’s going to take a while. Wouldn’t you rather have scanned copies of your important documentation tucked away on a password-protected hard drive (or again, stored in the cloud)?
  • Searching and replacing: The customer just called. She wants to move from Revision A to Revision B on all of her assembly instructions. “Right away, Ms. Jones, no problem,” you say, but come to find out, that document is referenced on every drawing and work instruction in the plant. With paper, you’re looking at weeks of work and a lingering worry that you might not have found everything. The paperless factory? It’s a half-hour job.
If you’re now convinced about the merits of being paperless but are left wondering how to actually go about it, it’s really not all that tough (although be warned, there will be some initial investment). Everyone’s going to need a computer, laptop, or tablet. Maybe not one’s own, but everyone will definitely need access to one. You’ll also need:
  • Document scanners, especially in the shipping and receiving area
  • Software for generating portable document format (PDF) or equivalent files
  • User accounts for the network, and maybe for the enterprise resource planning (ERP) or product data management (PDM) system
And you’ll definitely need some training. Not everyone is as computer savvy as you and me, and without effective employee training followed by a sign-off session agreeing that, “Yes, I get it, now let me go back to work,” some among the team will find ways to take the wheels off the bus. Once you’re done with all that, get rid of the printers, as there are sure to be a few of your team members who simply can’t live without paper — taking them away eliminates any temptation. It also cuts a lot of money from the IT budget (the IT manager might disagree, but it will). Sounds scary? Maybe so, although everyone probably thought the first CNC machine was scary, too.

Cut the Wires

Your paperless journey, not to mention many other aspects of today’s manufacturing landscape, becomes much easier when everything in the company is connected wirelessly. If you don’t already have a wireless network, you can start by hiring a professional to help you design and implement one. Don’t cheap out by picking up a couple of $50 routers from the local office supply store, as there’s no faster way to incite rebellion over the new paperless project than a weak Wi-Fi signal.

View Machines Virtually

This one’s still on the science fiction side of the fence, but just barely. Last year, I bought one of those Google Cardboard virtual reality (VR) devices, the holographic thingy that’s supposed to clip to the front of a smartphone and let you peer inside like it’s some newfangled View-Master, giving the user a chance to ride virtual roller coasters and observe virtual Krakatoa eruptions. Sadly, I never got the darn thing to work. I caught a glimpse of a virtual T-Rex chasing a virtual Triceratops just before the strap broke, whereupon Google Cardboard fell to the ground and the lens shattered. My experience did, however, give me a great idea. What if fabricators could use VR headsets to peer into their machine tools? Maybe they could view work instructions and 3D CAD models, check the status of a stamping operation, edit a program, or stop a process, all from a remote display worn on one’s head and controlled with haptic gloves? It turns out I’m not so crazy. Software providers such as Autodesk and Microsoft are looking at VR-enabled engineering systems. Ford Automotive uses VR to analyze its vehicle designs, and defense system manufacturer BAE Systems uses it to speed product development. Within the past few years, several universities have announced VR-based machine simulation projects, one of which suggests that CNC programs may one day be generated via hand gestures in a virtual reality world. Lastly, a leading workholding company recently announced a VR design solution for use in stamping applications. It might be a good idea to keep a virtual eye on this emerging technology.

Manufacture Additively

Some industry experts consider additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, to be the biggest hype of the century. After all, this now 30-something-year-old technology hasn’t become the dominant parts-making process as many early adopters prognosticated. The big promises have come to naught they say, and it’s unlikely 3D printing will have much of an impact on manufacturing within your lifetime, or in mine. After all, households the world over don’t have 3D printers in their kitchen, ready to whip up an ice cube tray or a cup of cappuccino (although a growing number of homeowners now have 3D printers in their garages and workshops). Auto repair shops aren’t printing up replacement parts as you pull in to the parking lot, and department stores aren’t producing bespoke tennis shoes and bedside tables (yet).

Nor have manufacturers embraced 3D parts printing as many thought they would, preferring instead to make parts the “old-fashioned” way (although an increasing number have purchased printers and are now testing the additive manufacturing waters). But pick up any trade publication or cruise the Internet for manufacturing news and you’ll see that a great deal has changed over the past few years. More than any other manufacturing technology, 3D printing has evolved by leaps and bounds since its inception, especially over the past decade or so. Where 3D printers were once capable of little more than conference room prototypes, there’s now little these machines can’t make, and do so in an increasingly cost-effective manner.

Granted, you won’t be 3D printing garden gnomes for your front lawn anytime soon. And the vast majority of parts for cars and airplanes will continue to be made using conventional techniques, at least until those modes of transportation are obsoleted by something better (teleportation, perhaps). Fasteners, folding chairs, Frisbees, and farm implements — anything very large, very high volume, or very cheap to make will remain, for the foreseeable future at least, firmly in the traditional manufacturing world. What will change is the production of those parts that are difficult or even impossible to produce via subtractive manufacturing processes (that is, machining and fabricating). That’s because additive manufacturing laughs at complexity. Printing parts that resemble spider webs, honeycombs, seashells, and a host of other “organic” shapes is about as difficult as getting greasy hands from a bowl of Movie Theater Butter–flavored microwave popcorn. As proof, check out the part in the figure. Who cares about shapes like these? Why, anyone who wants to make parts that are stronger, lighter-weight, and easier to assemble does. Aircraft-engine manufacturers use 3D printing to reduce part counts in fuel-injector assemblies. Orthopedic surgeons use 3D printers to make patient-specific hip joints and cranial repair plates. Jewelers create custom belly-button rings and automakers prototype aerodynamic body parts with it. And soon, well within your lifetime and mine, people will routinely be printing everything from circuit boards and custom-fit solar cells to apartment buildings and human body parts (the latter is already a reality using 3D bio-printers). For fabricators, this means low-cost fixtures and tooling, gages, prototypes and low-volume production of stamped metal parts, and more. Still think it’s all hype?

Embrace Automation

Shop-floor automation goes beyond a ready-to-serve fleet of droids. There are also automated press-brake tooling systems and flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) that allow press brakes, turret presses, and other fabricating equipment to run unattended for hours or even days at a time. At its core, automation is all about one thing: eliminating waste (something I dig into more deeply in the next section). In the case of material handling systems, waste is measured as machine downtime, but many other tools are available that can be used to eliminate various other forms of waste:
  • Waste in the estimating process: Automated quoting software can eliminate the tedious calculations needed to determine machining time and manufacturing costs.
  • Waste during programming: Semiautomated CAM systems, cloud-based tooling models, and manufacturing simulation software can help avoid crashes once the program has hit the shop floor.
  • Waste during machine setup: Automated measuring equipment and RFID-enabled tooling can transmit important tool data directly to the machine control or relevant software systems. (Check out Figure 16-2 if you don’t believe me.)
  • Waste on the shop floor: Waste that results from operators breaking up skeletons (the leftovers from many sheet metal operations) or moving parts from machine to machine can be avoided by spending a few bucks on automated parts conveyors and material handling systems.
Additionally, there’s the waste of manual shop-floor data collection (eliminated with computers and barcode readers), waste caused by unexpected wear or breakage of fabricating tools (eliminated with tool-life management software and sound process control), waste of time spent measuring parts (eliminated with automated systems such as vision or coordinate measuring machines), waste in parts packaging … you get the idea. Of course, robots and automated material handling systems will always be the big cheeses in any lights-out production environment, but it’s important to recognize that there’s more to the story than those electromechanical golems. Without supporting forms of automation, returns on investment in automated machine tools will be limited. The bottom line is this: Automation of any kind saves time (thus reducing waste). It’s automatic.

Lean Out Your Shop

Taking that waste discussion one step further, let’s talk about all that humans can do to eliminate it, something most experts agree is possible after implementing Lean manufacturing principles. Lean is nothing new. Many say it was invented shortly after World War II, when Japanese industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno, together with coworker Shigeo Shingo, developed the Toyota Production System (TPS). Others say Taiichi simply took Henry Ford’s assembly-line way of thinking to the next logical step. Whatever the case, people have been attempting to increase the efficiency of their manufacturing processes since the days of Eli Whitney and the steam engine, and if you’re to become a valued fabricating citizen, you should attempt to do the same thing. It begins with eliminating the seven deadly sins of waste, which in Lean terminology is called “Muda.” These include:
  • Waiting: Also known as work in process, or WIP, which to a manufacturer means partially completed parts waiting for the next operation.
  • Overproduction: Making too many parts or parts that are too early for the customer’s needs.
  • Rejects: This one’s a no-brainer; scrap or defective parts are bad for everyone involved.
  • Motion: Unnecessary movement of people and machines, like walking too far for tools, and inefficient CNC programs.
  • Processing: More specifically over-processing or fabricating to greater accuracy than required on the drawing.
  • Inventory: Too much material, too little material, or material that is too late all cost a company money.
  • Transport: Moving stuff around needlessly creates the risk of it being lost or damaged.
If you’re looking for an easy way to memorize all of that, just look at the first letter of each word. They spell WORMPIT. Of course, other Muda have been identified since the early days of TPS, most notably Skills (that is, not utilizing the skills each of us hopefully brings to work each day), thus giving us the acronym WORMPITS. The fathers of Lean have all gone to the great factory floor in the sky, but many others have taken the Lean baton and run with it, and today Lean is an all-encompassing system of shop-floor improvement. It includes JIT (just-in-time) delivery of products, SMED (single-minute exchange of die), Kanban (pull-type scheduling), Six Sigma (defect reduction leading to process improvement), DFM (design for manufacturability), and much more.

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Okay, So What Kinds of Machines Are We Talking About for Fabrication?

Back when machine tools were controlled manually, their operators had burly biceps and shoulders like football players from cranking handles and pulling levers all day. Yes, even the men. Today, most machine tools are so easy to operate that even your Great Aunt Sally could do it. That’s because they, like everything else in modern life, are now computerized. All computer numerical control (CNC) equipment has a special “controller” on board that tells a series of “servomotors” how fast and how far to move each of the machine’s “axes” (that’s plural for axis). Granted, it all sounds terribly complex, but once the program is written and the tools in place, it’s actually about as difficult as starting a coffee maker. Here are some of the different types of CNC machine tools you’re likely to run across if you decide to visit a sheet-metal fabricating shop. (And if you don’t have an invitation, just knock on the door. Most fabricators are friendly folk, and they would be more than happy to show off what they do all day.)

  • Press brakes: A kissing cousin to the folding machine mentioned in the earlier paper airplane example, press brakes use tools called “punches and dies” to bend metal into brackets, cabinets, enclosures, and a universe of other parts. If there’s a bend in it, chances are good it was made on a press brake.
  • Laser cutters: When the evil entrepreneur Auric Goldfinger threatened to cut James Bond in half with an industrial laser, the world learned the awesome power of these devices. Yet lasers are good for lots more than slicing up British secret agents. They’re also perfect for the precision cutting of sheet metal, tubing, and more.
  • Punch presses: Remember the paper punch you used to secure your 11th grade thesis paper into its three-ring binder? Punch presses work on the same principle; they drive a sharp tool called a “punch” into or through a piece of metal into a female die shape below. Pretty much any shape is possible, either by punching it directly or “nibbling” away bite-sized pieces.
  • Stampers: Stamping machines are similar to punch presses in that a punch and die set is used to cut holes and slots, form embosses, and cut away parts from sheets of metal. Stampers, however, process big rolls of metal called coils rather than the flat sheets found on punch presses. They can also be used to form parts like the body panels and bumpers hanging off your family grocery getter.
That’s just the tip of the machinery iceberg, too. Ironworkers are the Swiss Army knives of fabricating shops, especially those that work with structural metals like I-beams and U-channels. Shears are used in “blanking” operations, slicing off big hunks of metal for secondary processing on stamping machines and press brakes. And roll formers convince metal to leave its nice, comfortable flat shape to become a rain gutter or piece of architectural steel.