October 30, 2014 / best practices, Cost Management, cost per cut, LIT, operations metrics, operator training, resource allocation, ROI, strategic planning
As any operations manager can attest, the first step in sustaining a successful metal-cutting operation is having the right tools for the job. However, as technology advances and companies have more metal-cutting options, the choice isn’t as clear-cut as it used to be.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is the choice between a circular saw and band saw blade. Selecting between these two metal-cutting technologies used to be fairly straightforward. In most cases, precision circular saws were used in high production applications, while lower cost band saws were used for higher mix applications. But advancements in blade technologies and saw capabilities have made this decision more complicated. According to an archived article from The Fabricator, “a high-quality band saw may be able to meet or exceed performance expectations that previously were achievable only with a circular cold saw.” And that article was printed more than 5 years ago.
Sensors, carbide-tipped blades, advanced tooth geometries, and bundling capabilities are just some of the features blurring the lines between band saws and circular saws. As a developer of both circular saw blades and band saw blades, LENOX has a unique perspective on the advantages and drawbacks of both technologies. To help managers make the right cutting tool choice for their operation, the LENOX Institute of Technology offers a few guidelines to consider.
Employ Strategy. Selecting the right saws and tooling for an industrial metal cutting environment is both a functional and operational choice. In other words, you should approach it strategically. Functionally speaking, the decision depends on the specific application and type of cutting; operationally, shop floor operators and plant managers need to assess overall business goals by balancing upfront investment and overall costs with cutting efficiency and long-term productivity. The goal is to select a saw and saw blade that match both your cutting needs and business parameters.
Know the Benefits. Both band saws and circular saws offer a wide range of operational benefits. Knowing the main features of each is critical to choosing the best option for your application:
- Precision circular saws are ideal for repetitive, high-speed cutting of certain metals. This includes operations that process high volumes of the same material size, type, and shape or may require a high-quality finish. In terms of material size and type, the sweet spot of circular saws is two- to six-inch pieces of common grades of steel, including carbon steels, alloy steels, tool steels, softer stainless steel, and, in some cases, aluminum materials.
- Band saws are ideal for operations that need more flexibility. Most band saws can cut material ranging in size from a one-inch piece to a six-foot block, depending on the capacity of the saw. An operation could use a band saw to cut a wide range of shapes from solid bars, tubes and pipes, profiles, plates, and blocks. Band saws are effective at cutting a wider range of metal types and grades, and they can provide smooth cuts in tougher metals, such as titanium and nickel-based alloys. This allows operators to switch back and forth between different metals more easily than they could with a circular saw. In addition, band saws are less expensive and are better equipped to handle stacking or bundling for cutting multiple pieces at once.
Know the Drawbacks. Of course, no product is full proof, and there are always some drawbacks. The key is to determine whether or not the benefits out weigh the drawbacks.
- Precision circular saws can be expensive. On average, circular saws will cost $100,000 and up, while a band saw ranges from about $1,000 up to $100,000. With such a significant cost difference, it is no surprise that the market for precision circular saws is fairly small. Circular saws are typically not as effective at cutting hard stainless steels, titanium, nickel alloy, or other difficult-to-cut metals. They also have limited cutting versatility in material size and shape, and they are restricted in their ability to bundle cut.
- Bands saws can increase the chance for variability. While agility and flexibility are key advantages of the band saw, those very traits can also have drawbacks. Cutting a wide range of metals can lead to varied performance, as well as constant equipment upkeep. Operators are more prone to making cutting errors, and blades need to be broken in before use.
Work the Numbers. The only way to make a solid choice is to do a little work. This requires measurement and probably some number crunching. For example, while circular saws are expensive, they can often be worth the investment in the long run. In some applications, they can outpace the production of band saws 3 to 1. Similarly, any potential quality issues associated with a band saw can be addressed by investing in strong training and preventative maintenance (PM) programs. Ultimately, to make the best metal-cutting choices, managers need to weigh the following:
- upfront costs against overall operating and maintenance costs
- long-term productivity of a machine and its intended use
- equipment and blade life, as well as cost per cut
Talk to Suppliers. Don’t be afraid to lean on your suppliers during the decision process. Trusted suppliers should be willing to have an honest discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of their products. Leverage their expertise by asking questions about recent advancements and industry trends. Also, some suppliers may willing to help you run the numbers and measure cost per cut.
For more guidelines, including the pros and cons of different blade technologies, download the white paper, “Selecting the Right Cutting Tools for the Job.“
October 25, 2014 / best practices, blade failure, bottlenecks, Cost Management, LIT, preventative maintenance, productivity, quality, resource allocation, ROI, strategic planning
As discussed in a previous blog post, too many metalworking companies fail to understand the importance of metal-cutting fluids. While they are an added cost and an added step in the forging process, the long-term cost benefits of coolants are worth every dime and every minute spent.
For example, a common misstep among operations managers is to “cheat” on the proper concentration levels of metal-cutting fluids in order to save money. This may reduce coolant costs in the short term, but the high costs of machine wear and tooling replacement make this a poor management choice. As this white paper explains, low coolant levels on a band saw can lead to premature and uneven wear of band wheels, which typically cost a whopping $1,000 each. In addition, early tooling replacement turns productive cutting time into maintenance downtime. This quickly snowballs into lost output, slow delivery, and potential quality issues.
Of course, knowing the importance of using metal-cutting fluids and actually knowing how to properly use them are two different things. Below are some tips to ensure you are properly using metal-cutting fluids in your forging operation:
- Start with a clean machine. As covered in an article from MoldMaking Techonology, proper metalworking fluid management starts with the draining, cleaning, and recharging of the machine. When changing coolants for any reason, clean and disinfect thoroughly with a fluid advised by the supplier of the coolant. The function of the cleaning is to soften dirt and to kill bacteria in the machine, especially on difficult places such as pipes and pumps.
- Understand your needs for cooling vs. lubrication. In machining operations, fluids will provide lubrication both to the equipment and the actual cutting zone. As discussed in this study guide from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), lubrication fluid will absorb and dissipate frictional heat by carrying it away from cutting zone. In situations where tools run very fast, or soft materials, cooling becomes more important than lubrication. Conversely, in applications that require slower tool speeds and harder materials, lubrication needs are more critical.
- Ensure proper fluid prep. Extending the life of your fluids and achieving the best fluid performance starts with proper fluid preparation. Coolant mixtures should be prepared according to manufacturer’s directions, and it is important to closely follow the specifications regarding the recommended diluent water quality, concentrate to water dilution ratio, and additive requirements. When mixing fluids, the Iowa Waste Reduction Center recommends that concentrate and water should always be mixed in a container outside the sump. Although mixing directly in the sump is a quick and easy method of fluid preparation, it can result in incomplete mixing and improper fluid concentration. In addition, experts recommend pouring the water into the mixing container first and then stirring the coolant concentrate into the water. This produces the best oil-in-water emulsion (A helpful way to remember this is by this using the mnemonic, “OIL,” which stands for “Oil In Last.”)
- Monitor fluids regularly. Measure, with a regular frequency, the concentration and quality of your fluids. Testing tools include refractometers, which can quickly determine the total amount of solubles in a solution, or titration kits, which are more extensive and are used to analyze fluid concentration in metal-cutting fluids contaminated with tramp oils. Tests for PH levels and alkalinity can also be useful, as pH readings outside the acceptable range indicate a need for machine cleaning, concentration adjustment, or the addition of biocide.
October 20, 2014 / best practices, Employee Morale, human capital, LIT, maintaining talent, operator training, strategic planning
Machine shops, just like every other segment of the manufacturing industry, are facing a huge challenge that is only going to intensify in the years to come. That challenge is the skills gap, and if you aren’t facing this issue head on just yet, you will be soon.
As stated in a previous blog post, skilled production workers are one of the largest workforce segments facing retirement in the near future, which will have an impact on the number of experienced workers on the shop floor. Meanwhile, the next generation of workers just isn’t interested in pursuing manufacturing careers. Large corporations like GE are trying to change that, but shifting cultural perception isn’t something that happens overnight. This is leaving manufacturers with a small pool of talent from which to choose.
Actively attacking the skills gap may require machine shops to adjust the ways they both hire and maintain talent. In other words, perhaps part of the solution is for managers to change their perception of what makes a good operator or, better yet, what it takes to develop a good operator.
Taking into account the current talent pool, below are some tips on finding and maintaining the next generation of operators:
- Start with Strengths, Not Skills. While the traditional hiring tactics typically start with evaluating an applicant’s skill sets, executives like Tony Staub of Staub Machine Inc. are starting to look at personal attributes such as attitude and communication ability before skills. In a recent article that appeared in Modern Machine Shop, Staub says that the cost of a personal mismatch is often far greater than a missing skill that can be learned later. “If you don’t have a work ethic, I can’t change that,” Staub tells Modern Machine Shop, “but I can teach you how to run and program a lathe.”
- Embrace Generational Traits, Behaviors, and Attitudes. In an article from Manufacturing.net, Dan Campbell, CEO of the staffing and professional recruitment organization Hire Dynamics, suggests that manufacturers embrace generational traits when hiring. For example, Campbell says that “Millennials consistently seek to improve the workplace in terms of how they can apply creativity and empower their own positions and teams.” In response to this tendency, he recommends that employers put Millennial applicants face to face with another peer who is employed by the company. “Have the young employee stress the accomplishments, innovation and benefits of the company and its culture, as well as all the ways the potential hire could immediately start contributing their ideas and innovations to the organization,” Campbell tells Manufacturing.net.
- Encourage “Buy-In” from the Start. While the idea of empowering employees sounds a bit cliché, a growing number of managers are finding that operators who take ownership of their process or work area are truly invaluable. As discussed in the white paper, The Top 5 Operating Challenges Facing Today’s Machine Shop Metal Cutting Operations, employee “buy-in” can positively affect all aspects of an industrial metal-cutting operation, including quality, productivity, and in the end, the bottom line. Similarly, when employees don’t “buy-in” or feel disconnected, those same business areas can be negatively affected. Strategies such as collecting feedback and even investing in continued education are good ways to encourage employee ownership from the start. Operators that feel valued are more likely to value their jobs and their employer.
- Work with Academia. Part of filling the skills and interest gap will require your company to partner with outside sources to make sure that you have access to good talent. In an editorial published earlier this year, Dean Peters, editor at Forge magazine, promotes a collaborative relationship between industry and academia—something he says is already happening within the metalworking sector. According to Peters, there are plenty of technical schools, community colleges, and universities out there that are promoting the manufacturing industry to students. By actively working with these schools, you are not only building a pipeline of skilled employees, but doing your part to promote careers in manufacturing.
October 15, 2014 / best practices, continuous improvement, Cost Management, lean manufacturing, LIT, maintaining talent, quality, ROI, strategic planning, workflow process
In a blog posted earlier this month, we discussed the differences between lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. These are important distinctions for managers to understand as they choose the improvement methodology that aligns best with their resources, staff, and long-term goals.
However, more and more manufacturers are finding that they can gain the best efficiency by incorporating both Six Sigma and lean principles. While lean manufacturing and Six Sigma are different in many ways, they are also synergistic. An article from Industry Week states that companies should consider lean tools and Six Sigma tools as “two drawers in the same toolbox.” In fact, some experts believe that companies that use a combination of lean and Six Sigma will see better, longer term results.
How managers incorporate the two methods is a strategy in itself, and industry leaders have varying opinions on what works best. This roundup article from the American Society of Quality (ASQ) provides insight from several leading managers, each with their own unique spin on how manufacturers can combine lean and Six Sigma tools. Below is input from one ASQ contributor, Randy Kesterson, Senior Vice President of Operations at Curtiss-Wright Flight Systems. According to Kesterson, companies need the following “recipe” in order to successfully use both methodologies together:
- Lotsa lean. Most business processes can benefit from the application of lean tools. The difficulty comes when trying to identify the problem process that will yield the biggest bang for the buck. Deciding where to apply lean is key. Senior management must be involved in project selection.
- A little Common Sense. Consultants won’t be able to charge you for plain old common sense, which should come before Six Sigma. Once the process has been “leaned out,” you should examine it for quality problems. If quality variation is a problem, you should try to apply common sense solutions first. Don’t yield to the temptation to apply Six Sigma tools to every process quality problem. People with colored belts want to use them.
- A dab of Six Sigma. Compared to lean, Six Sigma tools tend to require more data gathering and number crunching. Lean tools are typically more intuitive and team-based. Six Sigma can become ivory tower-like, with knowledge of the tools possessed by only a few technical experts. Most people understand lean tools (i.e., 5S or process mapping) before they grasp Six Sigma tools (i.e., regression analysis). Six Sigma involves powerful tools that can be expensive to use. Use Six Sigma tools selectively.
Of course, this is just one manager’s advice. As the differing opinions of the ASQ roundup article demonstrate, there are a lot of ways companies can attack continuous improvement, whether they choose to use lean manufacturing and Six Sigma tools together, separately, or perhaps not at all. A series of case studies from LIT, for example, shows that there are a host of strategies companies can use to optimize workflows, reduce costs, manage talent, and drive bottom-line ROI.
At the end of the day, a fool-proof recipe for success in today’s market is to embrace change, make a plan, execute, and repeat.
October 15, 2014 / agility, benchmarking, best practices, blade failure, bottlenecks, continuous improvement, Cost Management, customer delivery, LIT, material costs, operations metrics, Output, predictive management, preventative maintenance, productivity, resource allocation, ROI, strategic planning
Reports continue to show that U.S. manufacturing is on the upswing. According to the latest data from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), manufacturing continued to expand in October, and new orders posted growth for the 17th consecutive month. The Fabricated Metal Products sector in particular reported growth in October, with one ISM survey respondent stating that “weakness in commodity prices has been very positive” for business.
All of this good news means that fabricators have a prime opportunity for growth and increased profitability. However, because many companies are already running lean, managers will need to get creative with how they meet increased demand, especially if they can’t afford huge capital expenditures.
Looking for ways to do more with less? Below are three key ways fabricators can increase manufacturing output without breaking the bank:
- Improve Raw Material Use. In a recent Manufacturing.net article, Philip Odette, the CEO of Global Supply Chain Solutions, lists raw materials as the go-to starting point for improving operations. Because of the fluctuating costs surrounding raw materials, Odette says the key is to focus on reducing waste, both in materials and processes. This can mean everything from reducing scrap rates to changing up your material purchasing strategies. Odette admits that there is no “magic bullet” that every manufacturer can use to make gains around raw materials, but he does believe data analytics should be a part of the process. “To improve how well you use your raw materials, you’ll need to collect information on the use at every point in your supply chain and production cycle,” he says in the manufacturing.net article. “Track whichever metric is most important for your manufacturing, such as weight and waste production. If steps in your process require a specific transition, you should make note of these special characteristics, such as temperature throughout, if one step waits for metal to cool.”
- Get the Most Out of Old Equipment. While brand new equipment could certainly increase productivity, the reality is that most companies are still running on tight budgets and old equipment. However, there are strategies that can ensure that your current machinery stays as productive as possible. A recent article from IndustryWeek offers five tips for optimizing aging equipment:
- Identify Trouble Spots. Take an assessment of the factory floor to find machinery that’s either close to failure or not producing as expected.
- Estimate your savings. Once you fully understand the impact of the old equipment on your floor, run some calculations.
- Find your MacGyvers. Seek out specialists who’ve been handling specific types of equipment for years and see what creative ideas they have to boost efficiency.
- Set bounties for difficult challenges. Track each efficiency experiment to get a sense of what may be possible. Then, set bigger targets and attach a bounty to encourage friendly competition among experts.
- Raise the stakes. Engage everyone by creating factory-wide incentives for when targets are met.
- Adopt Smarter, More Predictive Operations Management. In today’s fast-paced market, it may be tempting for managers to fall into “react mode.” However, experts continue to say that proactive operations management strategies offer the best return. Data from LIT’s industry benchmark study, for example, suggests that fabricators and other industrial metal-cutting operations with high machine uptime can benefit from investing in smarter, more predictive operations management approaches. According to the survey results, 67 percent of industrial metal-cutting operations that follow all scheduled and planned maintenance on their machines also report that their job completion rate is trending upward year over year—a meaningful correlation. The implication is that less disruptive, unplanned downtime and more anticipated, planned downtime translates into more jobs being completed on time. By utilizing proactive strategies such as preventative maintenance, operations managers can actually predict issues like machine downtime and blade failure and, as a result, can plan around it.
October 5, 2014 / agility, Cost Management, customer delivery, customer satisfaction metrics, LIT, Output, productivity, resource allocation, strategic planning, value-added services
In today’s competitive landscape, many industries are finding that enhanced customer service is becoming more important than ever. Companies like Amazon are raising the bar on what customers should expect from a service provider, whether that means Sunday deliveries or using the latest technology to improve the purchasing experience.
Not surprisingly, the so-called “Amazon effect” has found its way into the manufacturing world. Supply chain consultant Lisa Anderson says she has seen this first hand with all of her manufacturing and distribution clients. On-time deliveries, she says, are no longer enough. Today’s customers are looking for suppliers that can offer faster lead times and value-added services that will benefit their bottom line. Sound familiar?
In this blog post, Anderson suggests several ways manufacturers can provide Amazon-type service in their own operations. From same-day delivery to collaborative programs, she challenges manufacturers to think outside their service “comfort zone” and consider new ways they can add value to their customer relationships.
This trend has already started to take root among leading service centers. As stated in this white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology, more and more service centers are relying on value-added processing services like sawing, laser cutting, and parts fabrication for a more predictable stream of revenue. These additional services offerings are also helping these companies gain an edge over the competition.
What could this mean for your service center? What services could you add? The answer to those questions will vary based on the needs of your customers, your budget, and simply put, your willingness to change.
To help get your wheels turning, below are examples of three metal service centers that decided to enhance their current services in some way. While each company took a different approach, all three have found that value-added service has been beneficial to both their customers and their business.
- Klein Steel, a service center recently featured in MetalMiner, decided to pursue a national nuclear quality assurance standard called NQA-1. According to the MetalMiner article, this not only helped the company better serve its existing customers, but expanded its geographic footprint. In addition, because the NQA-1 standard goes beyond ISO standards, it has opened doors for the service center to serve the wind, oil, and gas industries as well. You can read the full article here.
- Recently named the 2014 Service Center of the Year by American Metals Market, Berlin Metals LLC literally turned its attention to its customers as a means for differentiation. The company conducts a formal customer satisfaction survey every year and then uses the results to set its improvement objectives and strategies. It also engages in a continuous feedback loop where all customer concerns and accolades are constantly communicated to management and employees. To enhance communication, the company has developed a multidimensional website that serves as an educational resource for its customers, as well as for its employees and suppliers. Berlin’s efforts have more than paid off — the service center’s 2013 survey showed that 98% of respondents would strongly recommend the company and 95% said the service center had earned their support. You can read more about the company and other AMM winners here.
- Churchill Steel Plate Ltd., a service center startup featured here in Modern Metals magazine, is focusing on the strengths it offers as a smaller firm. Jim Stevenson, the company’s president, believes that consolidation within the service center industry has compromised customer service, and his goal is to change that. “We are small, customer oriented, flexible, nimble and able to do things most customers don’t get from larger competitors: Fast delivery and quick response times,” he says in the MM article. “I want to provide a response to customer inquiries in hours, not days.” So far, the strategy has been working. Stevenson tells MM that he is “burning plate in two to three days after receiving an order” and that he is “picking up new customers from all over the country.”