If you are a sheet metal fabricator currently using high-power fiber lasers in your fabrication process, then you already realize the capacity demands that are being imposed on your process chain. At the center of the capacity demand is the high-power fiber laser that not only creates a “pull demand” from front-end business, engineering, and material logistics but also a “push demand” to downstream machines and their processes. Keeping processes streamlined and efficient makes the most of your machine capacities.
The Initial Quote
The business side starts with the request for quote (RFQ) and in turn generating quotes that are both accurate and with a quick turnaround. With each RFQ the material requirements, the parts and or assembly information, and the expected delivery due dates are provided. The key here is to disseminate the bill of materials and the machine routings based on the part information that is provided in either 3D assembly or 2D part files.
Costing takes place once the bill of materials is created and parts are designated for specific machine processes and routings, and the cost of the processes, materials, and overhead are calculated. For this to work efficiently, there needs to be an Enterprise Resource Planning System (ERP) that not only has access to the business side but also to the engineering side (CAD/CAM and MES) where specific machine processes, time estimates, and routings can be determined. With an overall picture of both sides of the costing equation, an accurate bid can be created. Keeping the front-end processes efficient and streamlined helps to eliminate any front-end bottlenecks that will starve downstream processes.
Scheduling with MES
After a bid is won, the parts that are already in the ERP are activated for production, materials are made ready and machine programs are generated by the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) in conjunction with a CAD/CAM system. The MES will also create the scheduling for the job based on the process and machine routings. The MES operates in real-time, meaning any process delays or advancements affect the delivery date in real time. The MES also evaluates the machine availability and the part status in real time and makes scheduling adjustments to all other parts requiring the same processes and machines. The same holds true for hot jobs that are introduced into the MES system. In the case of a hot job that needs to be processed right away, the MES adapts all other jobs and generates new completion dates based on the process times and machines utilized by introducing the hot job.
Within the ERP system is the Material Requirements Planning (MRP) system for allocating and maintaining material inventories as well as the ability to send material orders to suppliers for replenishment. The next step of the logistics lies in the storage and timely delivery of the materials to the machine for processing. Once at the machine, the material handling automation system can load the raw materials and this represents the final step of the pull demand from the Fiber Laser. From the next process which is the sorting and unloading, this now represents the start of the “push demand” cycle.
After cutting, the automated part sorting system can sort the cut parts onto skids and stack them by customer, job assembly, or next machine process, facilitating the orderly separation and grouping of parts. Automatic part sorting as the parts are cut, is the most efficient way to produce parts for downstream processes. Manual sorting of sheets by operators is both inefficient, labor-intensive, and time-consuming. Eliminating the manual sorting process also eliminates another major bottleneck potential in the fabrication process chain.
As a press brake operator or weld cell operator, you are aware of the part volumes that can be produced by even a single high-power fiber laser cutting system. Maintaining a consistent flow of parts to downstream stations is critical for utilizing available machine capacity and not bottlenecking production with an overwhelming “all-at-once” delivery of parts from the laser. Once at the bending and welding stations, not only can automated bending cells be employed but also automated robotic or cobot-assisted welding systems. As most automated fiber laser cutting systems run multiple shifts so must the downstream machines. The beauty of these robotic systems is that they can run in multiple shifts and on weekends with little to no supervision. Part movements can be automated by autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) that basically move part skids from laser cutting to bending to welding and paint stations without forklift material movers.
It is important to understand that even a single high-powered fiber laser can produce the volume of parts that four CO2 laser cutting systems could produce. Additionally, automating the front-end processes of quoting, planning, programming, scheduling, and material automation is critical to the consistent operation of the Fiber laser cutting system and utilizing all of the available machine capacity to its fullest. After the parts are laser cut the next step lies in the efficient movement of the parts to downstream operations. All the while during all of these operations, managers can maintain transparency of their production as it is monitored in real-time by the MES and ERP systems for traceability and process time verifications at each step in the metal fabrication process.
Software is and will continue to be an essential part of metal fabrication process chains as will the automation of these processes. It is no longer about how a single piece of machinery will affect the fabrication process, but how all the machines and supporting software technologies work together to create a cohesive and effective fabrication business solution.
By Frank Arteaga, Regional Director Marketing – Americas
Bystronic Inc., Hoffman Estates, IL