September 5, 2016 / best practices, continuous improvement, Cost Management, industry news, LIT, ROI, strategic planning, supplier relationships
The manufacturing industry is experiencing a roller coaster market, making it difficult for metal service centers to know when to grow or scale production. As reported in here in IndustryWeek, the Institute for Supply Management’s index recently registered the steepest manufacturing drop since January 2014. The August index dropped to 49.4, marking the first contraction for U.S. manufacturing in six months. New orders in August also declined 7.8% compared to July—the first drop since December 2015—according to the August 2016 Manufacturing ISM Report on Business.
In addition, data from the Metal Service Center Institute (MSCI) shows that U.S. service center steel shipments in July declined by 15.2% compared to July 2015, while shipments of aluminum decreased by 14.8%. In response to lagging shipments, steel and aluminum inventories also decreased in July by 14.5% and 1.3%, respectively, from July a year ago.
The uncertain outlook is causing industrial manufacturers to adjust and carefully manage costs. According to a recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), only 35% of industrial manufacturers were optimistic about the U.S. economy in the year ahead, down from 69% last year. Despite the slowdown, however, manufacturers continue to invest in growth opportunities, with 80% of respondents planning to increase operational spending and 52% planning on new product or service introductions this year.
Despite current market challenges, many companies are finding that a moderate market can be an ideal time to revisit their growth strategy. In fact, as reported here, research from McKinsey & Company found that transitions between growth phases often predict a company’s success or failure. “Companies that are growing at a slow or normal clip have more time to consider their options and make wise decisions,” the article states. “Rapid growth may be desirable, but slow and steady does indeed seem to win the race.”
The fact is that while business growth may seem impossible right now, there are still simple ways to keep your company headed in the right direction. An article from ThomasNet provides three simple steps manufacturers can take to help them grow their business:
- Choose a goal. You can’t grow your business without knowing what you want and need to grow. Will you grow by gaining new customers or doing more business with current customers? Do you want to expand into new product segments? Decide what the best opportunity is for your business and focus there.
- Build your credit. Deciding to partner with a company—either on the supplier or customer side—requires due diligence. If a potential customer ran a business credit report for your business, what would it show? Tracking and regularly checking your credit file will help ensure your company’s image is attractive to future business partners and creates credibility. This will also enable you to easily pay increased or unexpected expenses as you grow such as additional payroll for new employees, or loans for new equipment or warehouse space.
- Spread the word. Once you’ve decided to grow, let people know and get the word out. Add a listing to online business directories and build your online presence to drum up new orders.
This is also a good time to lean on your supply chain. As cited in the eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for Your Industrial Metal-Cutting Organization, a report from Tompkins Supply Chain Consortium found that 80% of supply chain professionals report the supply chain is an enabler of business strategy. In addition, a majority of companies felt the supply chain is a source of business value and a competitive advantage, leading the Consortium to conclude that “the importance of an integrated supply chain and overall business strategy cannot be ignored.” Identify your strategic suppliers, position them to add value, and see where they can help you grow your business.
While there is a lot to consider when deciding whether or not to expand your business, employing a few basic strategies can help put you on a path to steady growth, even if it is slow moving. As many service centers are finding, today’s market conditions offer a unique opportunity for companies to re-evaluate and improve, not only to survive current market conditions but also to position themselves for growth when the demand rebounds.
Are you thinking about growing your metal service center? What strategies are you employing?
September 1, 2016 / continuous improvement, Cost Management, industry news, LIT, productivity, quality, resource allocation, ROI, strategic planning
For years, experts have touted the benefits of automation. The efficiency and quality improvements are perhaps the biggest draw for industrial metal-cutting companies, especially as customer demands for faster turnaround and tighter tolerances continue to increase.
However, automation may not always be the most cost-effective solution. According to the white paper, Tackling the Top 5 Challenges In Today’s Metal-Cutting Industry, in today’s uncertain market, managers need to strategically determine whether or not allocating resources to automation and technology will offer a true return on investment.
“For example, precision circular saws can outpace band saws 3 to 1 when it comes to cutting certain materials; however, band saws are more economical and offer cutting versatility,” the paper explains. “Therefore, managers need to carefully consider their costs, customer base, and long-term goals before upgrading equipment.”
Of course, this leads to several questions: What does that look like in practice? How do others determine whether or not automation is worth the investment? Who is—and isn’t—investing in automation?
Over the summer, the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) released the results of a national survey that attempted to answer those questions and more. According to the Executive Summary, the survey polled U.S. manufacturers, gathering data on the prevalence of actual and planned automation investment, the drivers of and impediments to automation investment, and the criteria for evaluating new automation technologies.
In general, the study found that actual, planned automation investment is high among U.S. manufacturers. The following is a summary of the survey’s major findings: (You can read the full report here.)
- Widespread automation investment suggests a fundamental reshaping of the production landscape that could eventually have implications for most aspects of manufacturing activity. Since the Great Recession, automation investment has been widespread in the U.S. manufacturing sector, with 83% of respondents to a December 2015 national survey having automated some part of their product-producing process in the five years prior to the survey, and 76% indicating that they plan to do so in the three years following the survey.
- Increased global manufacturing integration is raising the pressure for automation investment, as cost minimization with quality maximization looms ever larger as an operating paradigm for U.S. manufacturers. The survey reveals that the two most common criteria used by U.S. manufacturers for evaluating the performance of new automation technologies are whether they lower total production costs and whether they improve product quality.
- As supply chains become increasingly global, it is likely that automation activity by U.S. manufacturing companies will spread around the world. Supply chain pressures are at work in motivating automation activity. Among the top drivers of automation investment by U.S. manufacturing companies are use by competitors, use by customers, and use by suppliers.
- Global macroeconomic pressures that are affecting every manufacturing industry are catalyzing automation investment more than industry-specific factors. While the survey data show that larger manufacturers have a greater propensity to engage in automation investment than smaller manufacturers, there is no significant difference in the incidence of automation investment between major manufacturing subsectors.
According to Cliff Waldman, one of the MAPI analysts who conducted the study, one of the most interesting findings of the survey was automation activity by company size. Specifically, the survey revealed that automation investments increase as firms grow larger. “Among other things, larger companies have greater output over which to spread the cost of investments,” Waldman writes here on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce web site.
Waldman adds, however, that the prevalence of automation activity among small manufacturers is also notable. “By allowing for significant efficiency improvements in at least some aspects of production, it is possible that automation makes it easier for manufacturing entrepreneurs to overcome often significant barriers to entry as well as for small manufacturing companies that might otherwise have exited the market to stay and compete,” he states.
Waldman concludes that automation technology “does not offer a complete solution to lagging productivity,” but he believes that “an effective strategy for the development of a globally competitive manufacturing sector requires attention to the promise of new technologies being implemented worldwide.”
In other words, manufacturers both small and large still have a lot to gain from investing in automation. In fact, this article from manufacturing.net states that automation is one of the top-three investments manufacturers can make this year. Do you agree?
August 30, 2016 / agility, best practices, Cost Management, industry news, LIT, Output, productivity, strategic planning, supplier relationships, value-added services
There is no question that the supply chain is evolving. As reported in a previously published blog, instead of treating supplier relationships as a series of business transactions, more and more manufacturers are treating their supply chain as a valuable part of their business strategy. In fact, this trend is listed as a best practice in the eBook, 5 Performance-Boosting Best Practices for Your Industrial Metal-Cutting Organization.
With an increased focus on building closer partnerships with suppliers, it’s not too surprising that many companies are starting to move back to sourcing suppliers closer to home. As one article from Automotive World quips, “local sourcing—it’s the new global sourcing.”
According to the AW article, local sourcing can bring cost savings across the entire supply chain, especially in light of rising costs in traditionally low-cost regions. “This phenomenon of local sourcing is being witnessed across the globe, with leading OEMs sourcing locally from developed as well as emerging countries,” the article states.
A report released by MFG.com, an online manufacturing marketplace, shows similar trends. Based on the data gathered from buyers of custom manufactured parts from the MFG Watch 2016 marketplace survey, 80% of U.S. sourcing professionals chose to source their parts predominantly in the U.S. The report also found that since 2012, buyers have seemingly moved away from sourcing from Chinese suppliers, as sourcing in China has fallen by about 14% in 3 years.
It is worth noting that the MFG.com report found that U.S. sourcing professionals nearly doubled their sourcing activities in regions like Eastern & Central Europe, as well as South America and North Africa. In other words, not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon.
However, there are definitely some benefits for ball and roller bearing manufacturers that choose local sourcing. Local suppliers, for example, can quickly and easily respond to any troubleshooting or maintenance problems with your tooling and equipment, often in-person. They can also assist with other key business areas, such as preventative maintenance and operator training.
Of course, those are just a few examples. An article from Thomasnet gives a more comprehensive list in its article, “Top 6 Benefits of Local Sourcing:”
- More Reactive. Local suppliers are typically more reactive than suppliers who are farther away. They are able to deliver products quicker, and it is much easier for a supplier to coordinate a shipment across the neighborhood than around the world.
- Greater Control. The further away you are from elements of your supply chain, the less control you have over them. There’s also less chance of things being “lost in translation,” which often occurs when working with far-flung teams of people, many of whom aren’t actually on the floor and touching your products.
- Reduced Supply Chain Costs. North American businesses send and receive parts and products all over the continent, and the expenses can add up as quickly as the miles. Localizing your supply chain can reduce many of these costs. And, with less money being sunk into logistics, there will be less weighing down your bottom line.
- Better for Business. Local sourcing doesn’t just help save money; it can also help you generate more of it. That’s because companies in your region may be impressed by your efforts to keep a tight and fast-paced supply chain, which can help you attract new customers.
- Good for the Community. It stands to reason that if sourcing locally increases your bottom line, it would do the same for other suppliers and manufacturers in your area, which can be a big boon to your local economy and the people who live there.
- Helps the Environment. Localizing your supply chain represents a tremendous opportunity to help the environment. When you reduce shipping and storage, you also reduce emissions and energy usage.
Whether building cars or manufacturing ball bearings, more and more operations managers are finding that their success is directly tied to collaborative vendor relationships—relationships that go far beyond the sale of a product. While not everyone believes in local sourcing, it is one of the many ways you can build closer, more valuable relationships with your supply chain.
To read more about building valuable supplier relationships, including some key areas where suppliers can help, check out the white paper, Managing Your Blade Manufacturer Relationship.
August 10, 2016 / best practices, continuous improvement, Cost Management, lean manufacturing, LIT, material costs, resource allocation
For any industrial metal-cutting operation, inventory management is an ongoing challenge. Ensuring the right amount of inventory in-house while simultaneously working to reduce overall operating costs is not an easy task.
This has been especially true in recent years. As we reported here in our annual industry outlook, high inventory levels were a major challenge for fabricators in 2015.
As a result, many fabricators are now re-evaluating their inventory management tactics, and more and more shops are moving away from holding large amounts of inventory. According to industry survey results published by The Fabricator, a little more than half (54 percent) of the respondents said they hold less finished-goods inventory today than they did three years ago. “Custom fabricators don’t want to drown in inventory,” states an article from thefabricator.com. “In fact, for fabricators having customers requiring them to hold finished-goods inventory, those inventory requirements aren’t as high as they once were.”
Many metal-cutting shops are also starting to use more remnants, a strategy often known as “pick for clean.” As explained in the white paper, The Top 5 Operating Challenges Facing Fabricators’ Metal-Cutting Operations, this tactic “promotes a cleaner inventory, which makes shops safer, more productive, and profitable.”
Of course, there are many strategies shops can use to better manage their inventory. In fact, supply chain expert Lisa Anderson says she could write 100 articles on the subject because there are so many ingredients to an effective inventory management system. However, Anderson does say there are three key questions every manager should address when it comes to inventory:
1. Do you have the right talent? “It is surprising how often this question is overlooked, yet it is #1 to achieving bottom line results,” Anderson writes. “Although inventory could be considered a ‘basic’ fundamental skill and is often on the resume of every supply chain and operations job applicant, all talent is not created equal.”
She also says there is vast confusion surrounding inventory skills and which skills are needed for which job functions. For example, do you need inventory control? Inventory accuracy? Inventory planning? Supply chain planning? Inventory tracking? “Most of these roles require far more than inventory expertise,” Anderson explains. “They require the right combination of analytical skills and communication skills.”
2. Is your system working? This question, Anderson notes, should cover both process and system. “The second most common mistake is to try to put a square peg in a round hole,” she writes. “Instead of dictating the process or system based on whatever worked in a previous life or what your ERP system says is ‘best practice,’ I’ve found the key to success is to understand what works for each particular situation (unique combination of people, processes and systems).”
3. Have you eliminated complexity? “I gain tremendous traction in delivering bottom line results solely from eliminating complexity,” Anderson writes. “I find that complexity is enticing – the more complexity, the more people feel valued and indispensable. So, instead of getting lost in complexity, encourage and reward simplicity.”
Anderson suggests getting a team together to brainstorm ways to unscramble the complexity. In what ways can you categorize your inventory in order to prioritize? Can you start with one machine? One commodity? One location? One customer? One supplier?
In the end, taking a close and honest look at your inventory management system can have real, bottom-line results. As Anderson explains, if you improve inventory accuracy by 10%, you can end up with anywhere from 10 to 100+% improvement in on-time delivery and/or efficiency. If you improve inventory turns by 10%, you could end up with more cash and increased efficiency. Put simply—it pays to evaluate your inventory management system. How does yours stack up?
August 5, 2016 / best practices, continuous improvement, Cost Management, industry news, LIT, operator training, strategic planning
With yet another recent decline in metal shipments, industrial metal-cutting companies are paying close attention to cost management as a part of their business strategy.
According to recent data from the Metal Service Center Institute (MSCI), U.S. service center steel shipments declined in June by 5.1% from the prior-year, while shipments of aluminum decreased by 6.5%. Inventories also declined, with steel down 16.5% and aluminum down 1.5% from the prior-year. The story is equally bleak in Canada, where shipments of steel are down 14.4% and aluminum declined 16.5% from a year ago.
As stated in the white paper, The Top Five Operating Challenges for Metal Service Centers, managing costs is one of the top five operating challenges for metal service centers. However, at a time when uncertain market conditions remain, manufacturers are laser-focused on the bottom line to ensure they stay competitive.
Traditionally, there are a few manufacturing cost areas that companies typically zero in on as they try to boost their profit margins. According to an article from Chron, these include:
- Labor costs
- Material costs
- Overhead costs
- Capital investment
Another way metal service centers keep costs under control is ensuring equipment is operating as efficiently as possible. This includes running at the proper settings and using the right blades. For example, as explained in this blog post, although a coated saw blade adds a premium cost upfront, the blade’s life is nearly double and can slice cutting time in half, ultimately leading to savings and increased productivity.
While all of these tactics can certainly be effective, an article from IndustryWeek (IW) notes that companies can do more than simply focus on the “traditional” costs to help manage the bottom line. Specifically, the article says that companies can indirectly manage costs for the long-term by incorporating specific goals into their overall improvement plans. In fact, the article suggests that focusing simply on costs can be detrimental to a company’s success.
According to the IW article, costs should not be the main goal or focus of any improvement program, regardless of how tempting it can be to make changes solely for the impact on the bottom line. Disguising cost-cutting as an improvement can lead to low morale, resistance to support other improvements, and lack of engagement. Instead, the article states that companies should consider the following four action steps to realize cost improvements as part of a larger improvement plan:
- Employee training. Make sure everyone from the CEO to every worker in every function receives training in the improvement tools and philosophies. Make sure top management backs the changes and keep the session impactful and memorable.
- Spend time with and discuss finances upfront. Spend time with the financial community and hold discussions on costs and savings before the improvement project starts. Work with the financial team to develop a tracking system for possible problems to prove cost savings in the future.
- Include financial colleagues. Be sure to include a person from the financial community in each improvement team. This person will be able to validate cost savings and ensure all costs are tracked accurately.
- Include costs as part of a larger plan. Improvement initiatives need to be part of a long-term plan in order to really change operations, including realized cost savings. Otherwise, the improvement will only be temporary with the risk of the organization returning to its old habits or making them worse.
By including employees and financial community members in an overall improvement plan from the start, metal service centers can experience both operational and financial efficiencies. The goal is to think about costs strategically. Balancing cost savings as part of a larger plan will benefit the organization in the long run by offering continued returns.
What cost management strategies have worked for your metal service center?
August 1, 2016 / best practices, Cost Management, Employee Morale, lean manufacturing, LIT, productivity, quality, Safety, strategic planning
Over the last decade, the term “lean” has become synonymous with “success” in manufacturing. In today’s market, only the “leanest” survive.
This trend has hit almost every segment of manufacturing, although some have jumped on the bandwagon faster than others. At this point, most leading industrial metal-cutting organizations have incorporated some form of lean principle into their operation, and those that haven’t are starting to consider it. In fact, our eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for Your Industrial Metal-Cutting Company, recommends that lean manufacturing should be at least part of your operational strategy.
However, is it possible for your metal-cutting operation to be too lean? According to a recent article from EHS Today, the answer to that question is yes. “The more you reduce costs – the more you do with less – the more you believe is accomplished and the closer you approach maximum efficiency,” the article states. “The drawback of this popular leadership strategy is that the line of acceptance is a moving target with the point of failure centered about the moment of imbalance.”
The article goes on to say that over time, “the reduce-reduce strategy” can stretch an organization beyond the elastic limit, usually without anyone noticing. “Like our bodies, organizations need minimal resources to function properly,” the article explains. “Year-over-year reductions compounded with additional performance requirements will cause the organization to rely on calories they do not have to burn.”
How do you know if your organization has reduced beyond its limits? Below are a few warning signs, according to EHS:
- Untimely and numerous early retirements by the most knowledgeable resources.
- Unexpected and voluntary separations from early and mid-career professionals.
- Organizational culture indifference to change.
- Missed commitments.
- Lower quality productivity.
- Higher injury experience.
- Lower customer satisfaction.
- Higher absenteeism.
- Lower standard of excellence.
- Loss of leadership credibility.
- Long working long hours.
- Organizational undercurrents of frustration.
Another dangerous outcome of being “too lean” is being unable to adjust to changing market conditions. An article from Lean Manufacturing Tools explains: “Too many people in the past have used a lean definition that concentrates purely on waste reduction and have created anorexic processes that fail as soon as customer demand changes.”
This is not to say that lean manufacturing tools are short-term and cannot be used over a long period of time. Instead, experts suggest that lean manufacturing tactics should evolve as a company evolves and improves. In addition, this article from IndustryWeek says that management needs to be sure they treat lean manufacturing as “a way of life,” not just a project.
Like anything, the key is finding a balance. Efficiency and waste reduction should be a priority, but they can’t come at the cost of safety, quality, or the overall financial health of the company. As the article from EHS explains, “Success comes in realizing how much ‘efficiency’ is the right amount to preclude organizational excellence from reaching the point of inevitable failure.”
Are there any areas of your industrial metal-cutting organization that have become too lean?
July 25, 2016 / best practices, blade failure, blade life, continuous improvement, Cost Management, material costs, preventative maintenance, productivity, strategic planning, supplier relationships
Cost reduction will always be a top priority for manufacturers. However, in today’s ultra-competitive and uncertain market, manufacturing executives need to be both creative and strategic as they look for new ways to reduce costs.
As stated in the white paper, Top Five Operating Challenges for Forges that Cut and Process Metal, there are several ways forges are reducing operational costs. Measuring total cost, monitoring blade life, and instituting ongoing preventative maintenance programs are just a few examples. According to the recently revised Forging Industry Technology Roadmap, the forging industry as a whole is also working toward finding new ways to reduce material and energy usage costs—two of the most significant cost factors in forging.
A recent article published by Thomasnet, however, notes that while the tendency is for small and mid-sized businesses to focus on reducing costs for their overall operations, there is also a huge benefit to reducing costs within specific business functions, most notably procurement.
“Small businesses spend between 45 and 65 percent of sales revenue on procurement of inputs,” the article states. “Therefore, procurement should be considered a viable opportunity to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Even basic changes to the procurement process can cut procurement costs by 5 to15 percent and start a smaller business on the road to strategic sourcing.”
The article goes on to list five strategies small and mid-size operations can use to improve procurement. Read below for a summary of three of the five best practices (You can read the full article here.):
- Build and Maintain Strategic Partnerships. Small firms should seek strategic partnerships with key suppliers. Purchasing from fewer suppliers saves time and resources while building trust. A small business owner can talk openly with a strategic partner and ensure the company is not overspending due to unnecessary costs.
- Improve Internal Procurement Processes. Procurement efforts should include annual analysis of spend and demand, with supplier pricing reviews occurring semi-annually or even quarterly. Use spend analysis to detail all costs and terms associated with procurement and demand analysis to define essential needs with a focus on improving cost and quantity.
- Organize with Others to Increase Buying Power. Partnering with other small businesses can yield volume discounts and achieve savings. Consortiums put the benefits of economies of scale into effect for small businesses that would otherwise be left paying premiums.
Of course, there are no quick fixes when it comes to cost reduction. However, by taking the time to approach cost strategically—and perhaps even one business function at a time—small and mid-sized forges can make improvements that may have a long-term and sustainable impact on the bottom line.
What strategies has your forge adopted to reduce costs?
July 1, 2016 / best practices, continuous improvement, Cost Management, industry news, LIT, operator training, productivity, Safety
Safety is one of those issues that every manufacturer knows is important, yet as evidenced by the unending list of OSHA fines, it is pretty clear that it often slips through the cracks. Even big name companies like Anheuser-Busch have been known to fall short.
If it has been a while since you have evaluated or updated the safety policies and procedures used in your metal-cutting organization, it may be time to re-focus your efforts. One simple safety tool that is often overlooked is the use of visual devices. According to visual management expert and author Gwendolyn Galsworth, the “visual workplace” is a huge opportunity for managers to create a safer, more efficient, and reliable manufacturing operation.
“Visual devices translate the thousands of informational transactions that occur every day at work into visible meaning and imbeds that into the living landscape of work,” Galsworth writes on her website. “This visible meaning doesn’t just impact performance—it creates performance.”
This means it may also help save on costs. According to the 2016 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, the most disabling, nonfatal workplace injuries amounted to nearly $62 billion in direct U.S. workers compensation costs. This translates into more than a billion dollars a week spent by businesses on these injuries. In addition, as stated in the white paper, Accounting for Operator Inefficiencies in the Metals 2.0 Environment, neglecting to identify and address safety issues can negatively affect operator efficiency, which can reduce output and impact the bottom line.
Put simply: It pays to keep your employees safe, and visual cues are an easy way to accomplish that.
How can you utilize visual devices to improve safety in your facility? The following are just a few ideas:
- Use Color. LENOX Tools has implemented a color-coded Safety Sticker program that visually displays whether or not its operation has had any safety incidents. Sticker dispensing stations and a safety calendar are located at every entrance to the facility, and every employee is required to put on a green sticker with the number of days “accident free” written on it. When a recordable accident occurs, everyone in the facility changes from a green sticker to a red sticker for a seven-day period. After seven days, everyone reverts back to the green sticker. According to Matt Howell, senior manager, the program has been “a good rallying point for the facility and builds energy around safety.”
- Go Digital. An article from Reliable Plant lists several benefits of investing in digital signage. “In today’s visually oriented world of YouTube videos, film and television, digital screens may capture attention far more effectively than static, textual media, especially in business environments where people are focused on their work,” the article states. In addition, unlike static communication tools, digital signage uses sound and can be conveyed and refreshed regularly, improving the likelihood that an audience pays attention and internalizes critical safety information. (You can read the full article here.)
- Demand Attention. While tried-and-true safety assets like warning signs, stripes on the floor, perimeter fencing/blocks, and lock-out/tag-out procedures can be valuable, an article from Canadian Metalworking points out that these tactics are passive. “Over time they tend to become invisible or are just plain ignored,” the article states. To demand attention from workers, the article suggests operations managers consider investing in warning beacons. Light features such as size, color, output and mounting options can all be used to enhance safety and promote employee awareness in key areas of the facility. (Click here to read the full article.)
What visual strategies are you using to improve safety in your industrial metal-cutting operation?
June 25, 2016 / best practices, blade failure, blade life, blade selection, Cost Management, LIT, ROI
In band sawing, forges and other industrial metal-cutting companies typically rely on two types of blades—bi-metal and carbide-tipped blades. Both blade technologies offer more performance and life expectancy than carbon steel blades, and choosing between the two types used to be fairly straightforward. However, advancements in both technologies have made it a little more difficult for companies to make the best blade choice for their operations.
While sawing is just a small part of the forging process, achieving operational excellence requires managers to optimize all aspects of the forging operation. To help forges make the best decision about the “right” blade type for their band-sawing operations, below is a brief overview on both blade types from the white paper, Selecting the Right Cutting Tools for the Job.
Bi-metal blades are a common choice for most metal-cutting applications, especially since they are more affordable than carbide-tipped blades. In bi-metal blade construction, high-speed steel edge material is welded to fatigue resistant spring steel backing, providing a good combination of cutting performance and fatigue life.
Generally speaking, bi-metal blades are sub-divided into the following two categories:
- General-purpose blades are often used for easier-to-cut metals such as aluminum and non-ferrous metals, carbon steels, structural steels, and some alloy steels. These blades are also good for switching between different metal types and sizes, as well as from solids to structural pieces. However, some industry experts warn to be judicious when switching between different metal types, sizes and shapes, as subjecting blades to different types of cutting can shorten blade life.
- Production-sawing blades tend to be more versatile and are able to cut everything from the easiest-to-cut materials to difficult-to-cut nickel-based alloys. These blades are also ideal for cutting structural pieces and bundles, and they typically offer a long blade life and fast, straight cutting.
Like bi-metal blades, carbide-tipped blades are made of at least two different types of material. In most cases, carbide tips are welded to a high-strength alloy back, providing a longer lasting, smoother cutting blade.
Although carbide-tipped blades are typically more expensive than bi-metal blades, shops may elect to trade up to a carbide-tipped blade for three key reasons:
- longer life
- faster cutting
- better finish
The various choices of carbide-tipped blades will cover the machinability spectrum, but they are most often used for hard-to-cut materials like super alloys. High-performance carbide-tipped blades work especially well with hard tool steel that needs to be cut fast. Some high-performance carbide-tipped blades—especially coated versions—can offer extreme cutting rates, while others can perform exceptionally well when cutting super alloys.
Weighing the Options
As explained in the white paper, Top 5 Operating Challenges for Forges that Cut and Process Metal, having the right blade for the job optimizes cut times, cut quality, and blade life, especially when cutting tougher metals like stainless steel and super alloys. This is particularly important in forged materials, which require aggressive blades with varied tooth geometries that can get underneath any scale buildup.
Of course, there will always be instances when the “right” blade choice won’t be clear cut and will require managers to strategically choose between a “good,” “better” and “best” option. For example, bi-metal band saw blades have been traditionally used for easier-to-cut metals such as aluminum and non-ferrous metals, carbon and structural steels, and some alloy steels. However, as featured here in Modern Metals, LENOX offers a carbide-tipped band saw blade that has been designed specifically to cut aluminum and non-ferrous alloys. The new blade has a range of features that are optimized for aluminum cutting applications, including a specialized grade of carbide on the tip, a multi-chip tooth pattern, and a high rake angle.
Another example is noted in an article from Canadian Industrial Machinery. According to the article, bi-metal blades can be used to cut super alloys; however, as the article explains, cutting speeds will need to be slower and blades will wear out faster than when using carbide blades. “An experienced operator can adjust parameters to cut the occasional super alloy with a bimetal blade, but carbide is the choice to cost-effectively cut large quantities of hard materials,” the article states. “Blade choice comes down to a cost-per-cut situation and what fits with a shop’s operation.”
Making the Right Choice
Indeed, blade selection needs to take into account the total operational costs of running the blade, including maintenance costs and equipment requirements. Case in point: While carbide-tipped blades are more advanced in the right application, they do not perform well with a lot of vibration. Therefore, they can only be used with certain saws. Metal-cutting operations using carbide-tipped blades need to make sure they are using a saw that can run the blade speeds that are required.
In the end, the “right” blade choice requires forges 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
By understanding some of the basic features of each blade type and then strategically assessing operational needs and goals, managers can make informed purchasing decisions that will factor into the bottom line and, ultimately, contribute to the shop’s overall success.
June 5, 2016 / benchmarking, best practices, bottlenecks, continuous improvement, Cost Management, lean manufacturing, LIT, operations metrics, Output, performance metrics, predictive management, preventative maintenance, productivity, quality, strategic planning, workflow process
Manufacturers know that downtime results in lost productivity and profits. However, thanks to technological advancements in predictive maintenance, service centers and other industrial metal-cutting companies can nearly eliminate downtime altogether.
Unlike preventative maintenance, which uses anticipated and planned downtime to prevent unplanned breakdowns and minimize cost impacts, predictive maintenance aims to predict breakdowns before they even occur. Software and sensors collect data, and algorithms identify not only the anticipated failure, but also calculate the probable time that failure will occur. This enables companies to repair or replace parts before failure and helps eliminate both planned and unplanned downtime.
Several industries are adopting predictive maintenance as part of their operations. An article from the Harvard Business Review provides a few examples:
- Airlines can now predict mechanical failures in advance and can reduce flight delays or cancellations based on data sources such as maintenance history and flight route information.
- The oil and gas industry can use real-time data to predict the failure of electric submersible pumps used to extract crude oil.
- Banks can use sensor data to predict the failure of an ATM cash withdrawal transaction.
The manufacturing industry is also adopting predictive maintenance, but research shows it is doing so at a slower rate compared to others. For example, a recent survey by the Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association and LNS Research concluded that manufacturers have some work to do to catch up to current capabilities—only 14 percent of survey respondents said they used manufacturing data in their analytic program.
Of course, building a predictive maintenance program requires both time and money, but many manufacturers are finding that the benefits outweigh the cost. An article from American Metals Market lists just a few of the many potential benefits of using predictive maintenance:
- Reassurance of safe, continued plant operation
- Improved operating efficiencies
- Reduced lost production
- Reduced cost of maintenance
- Less likelihood of secondary damage to equipment
- Reduced inventory of spare parts
- Extension of the life of plant and mill equipment
- Improved product quality
According to the AMM article, several metals leaders are reaping the rewards of predictive maintenance, including:
- U.S. Steel Corp. uses machinery diagnostic services for oil analysis, vibration analysis, electrical thermographic analysis and more to keep its operations up and running.
- ArcelorMittal is using thermal imaging cameras to ensure proper operation of its production plants, saying it improves efficiency, safety, and helps avoid breakdowns and minimizes downtime.
The trend is also starting to gain traction in industrial metal cutting. The LENOX Institute of Technology’s benchmark study of more than 100 metal service centers and other industrial metal-cutting organizations found that companies are gaining additional productivity and efficiency on the shop floor by “investing in smarter, more predictive and more agile operations management approaches.”
While there is no question that predictive maintenance is proving beneficial in the metals industry and beyond, some companies may be hesitant to adopt the technology due to the investment and the training required for implementation. However, if your goal is to reduce downtime and increase the chances of future success, this may be one technology worth considering.
For more information on predictive maintenance, check out this overview article, which lists common tools and techniques, as well as a video.