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Key Considerations When Forging and Cutting Aluminum

November 30, 2015 / , , , , , , , ,


Anyone working in the metals industry knows that use of aluminum is growing. Even with fluctuating prices, aluminum demand is still much stronger compared to other metals, including steel and copper.

Thanks to rapid growth in the transportation and construction industries, aluminum’s upward trend is expected to continue over the next several years. According to one market report, the worldwide market for aluminum alloys is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.8 percent through 2020, with market revenue rising in the U.S. from $91.2 billion in 2013 to $126.5 billon in 2020. Another report states that in the global automotive industry alone, aluminum use is expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.4 percent over 2015-2020.

As key suppliers to the automotive and other aluminum-consuming industries, forges need to ensure their skills and equipment line up with market demand. Like any material, aluminum’s unique properties require manufacturers to be equipped with the right metalworking tools and techniques.

Out of all of the various groups of alloys, aluminum alloys are the most readily forged into precise, intricate shapes. As explained by the Forging Industry Association, this is because aluminum alloys are:

While these properties certainly make aluminum alloys ideal for forging, they also have different requirements compared to other forged materials. For example, as an archived article from Forging magazine explains, temperature controls and furnace construction for aluminum are different from those used with ferrous materials. Specifically, indirect-fired or electric resistance-type furnaces equipped with internal fans are often preferred for aluminum. In most cases, the article states, this usually means new furnaces for the steel forger contemplating forging aluminum.

Other forging processes such as trimming, heat treatment, and quality inspection also need to take aluminum’s distinctive attributes into consideration, as described here in the Forging article. The same holds true when sawing aluminum. Forges that cut and process metal need to make sure they understand what is needed to cost-effectively and efficiently cut aluminum.

While aluminum is a softer material, it is also abrasive, which can present some machining challenges. According to a recent article published in Canadian Industrial Machinery (CIM) magazine, aluminum’s abrasive property can wreak havoc on a saw blade, accelerating tooth wear and diminishing blade life. This not only increases blade costs and downtime due to constant blade changes, it can also affect cut quality and overall productivity. However, smart blade choices can help overcome this common cutting challenge.

To combat aluminum’s abrasive quality, most manufacturers recommend carbide-tipped band saw blades over bi-metal blades. This is because carbides are harder, tougher, and more durable, Matt Lacroix of LENOX  explains in the CIM article. “Carbide tips are slower to wear and better suited to handle the high machining speeds,” Lacroix writes. Other blade factors, such as backing steel and tooth geometry, can also help improve the efficiency of sawing aluminum, he adds.

As the use of aluminum grows, it is more critical than ever for forges to fully understand the material’s unique characteristics and machining requirements. For more information on how to cut aluminum, you can read the full CIM article, “Taking the Hard out of Cutting Soft,” here. The Aluminum Association also provides a brief overview on aluminum forging here.

material costs

Can Your Service Center Be More Environmentally Friendly?

October 5, 2015 / , , , , , , ,


For years, manufacturers were bombarded with the “green movement.” Everything from conference keynotes and annual reports to football commercials centered on sustainability and the many ways manufacturing leaders were “going green.”

And while the trend has died down in recent years—replaced by buzzwords like “big data” and “connectivity”—the issue is still very relevant. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just implemented a new ozone rule that will affect the metals and larger manufacturing community. Under the new regulation, “facilities may be required to install costly pollution control equipment, limit production, or forgo expansion,” according to an article from industry publication Edge.

The final ruling, which was just published this month, isn’t as strict as many manufacturers feared it would be; however, organizations like the Metal Service Center Institute (MSCI) and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) openly oppose the new directive. “The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America—and destroy job opportunities for American workers,” Jay Timmons, CEO of NAM, said in a press release.

Whether by force or by choice, the point is that sustainability efforts will continue to be important for manufacturers. If you haven’t already started changing the way your metal service center operates, now is the time to make some environmentally conscious changes. Below are just a few ideas to get you started:

What changes have you made to make your service center more environmentally friendly?

material costs

A Look at Inbound Quality Inspection in Your Forging Operation

September 25, 2015 / , , , , , , ,


When most managers think about quality, they tend to think about their internal operations and the competency of their employees. Quality control is largely based on the processes that managers have put in place to ensure that tolerances are met, cosmetic expectations are achieved, and errors are kept to a minimum.

However, it is important for managers to remember that quality begins with the supply chain. According to the white paper, Top 5 Operating Challenges for Forges That Cut and Process Metal, operations managers need to be sure they are tracking the quality and accuracy of the material coming from the supplier. Product liability and traceability continue to be huge concerns for forges and other metal-cutting companies, and raw material mix-ups can be both expensive and dangerous. Even major organizations like Boeing and NASA have learned this lesson the hard way.

Put simply: thorough inbound inspection processes are just as critical as outbound quality processes. By taking the time to confirm what is coming in the door, forges can confidently supply products that are both accurate and fail-safe.

The most successful way to ensure inbound quality is to devise a standard operating procedure (SOP). If you don’t already have one in place, an archived article on alloy verification from thefabricator.com provides a good starting point. According to the article, a good SOP should include the following six components:

(For a detailed explanation of these six components, check out the full article here.)

If you already have a standardized inbound quality process in place, another article from Quality Magazine suggests ten ways manufacturers can optimize this critical procedure. Below are a few best practices that will likely apply to your forging operation:

In the end, quality starts well before a piece of material even makes its way to the shop floor. Don’t underestimate the value of verification—or the cost of assumption. By implementing, enforcing, and optimizing inbound quality inspection processes, managers can stand behind every product that comes in—and goes out—their doors.

material costs

Tips for Cutting Superalloys in Your Metal Service Center

August 5, 2015 / , , , , , , , , ,


Over the next few years, experts anticipate growth in the use of high performance alloys or “superalloy” materials such as Inconel and Hastelloy. The high-performance metals, which are known for their outstanding corrosion and high temperature resistance, continue to find uses in aerospace and aircraft applications, and more recently, are expanding into the oil and gas industries.

“Growing corrosion as a cost concern in exploration and production in offshore drilling rigs is expected to propel use of high performance alloys such as superalloys in oil and gas applications,” states one study from Grand View Research, Inc. “Non-ferrous alloys such as nickel and titanium are also expected to witness above average growth due to their high mechanical strength coupled with increased use in aerospace, oil & gas and gas turbine applications,” the study continues. Specifically, Grand View Research forecasts that superalloy demand will experience an annual compound growth rate of more than 3.0 percent from 2014 to 2020.

While there is certainly a science to cutting any metal material, tackling tough-to-cut materials like superalloys can be even more challenging as managers try to balance cutting speed, finish quality, and blade life. However, with the right tools and know-how, service centers can efficiently and cost-effectively handle tough-to-cut materials without compromising quality.

The following are three key tips for service centers that want to cut superalloy materials:

material costs

Metal-Cutting Industry Report on Non-Residential Construction

August 1, 2015 / , , , , , ,


As we reported in our Metal Service Center Outlook for 2015, non-residential construction—one of the steel industry’s biggest markets—was expected to finally register some growth this year. While this market has been slow to respond to the improving economy, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) predicted an 8.1% increase in non-residential construction in 2015, driven by double-digit increases in commercial construction. Healthy gains were also expected in institutional projects such as schools and health care facilities.

So far, predictions are lining up with current data. Although poor weather curtailed construction activity in the first quarter of the year, the “overall construction market has performed extremely well to date,” according to a late-July report from AIA. “The greatest amount of activity was seen in the building of commercial properties – most notably offices and hotels – with an unusually high spike in manufacturing construction spending triggered by the surge in domestic oil and natural gas production,” AIA said.

According to the most recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau non-residential construction spending was up a staggering 11.5 percent in June on a year-over-year basis—the largest year-over-year growth during a calendar year’s first six months since the Census Bureau began tracking construction spending in 2002. Anirban Basu, Associated Builders and Contractors Chief Economist, says the data “serves as further proof of the recovery for non-residential construction.” In addition, exactly half of the 16 non-residential construction sectors experienced growth in June, and on a yearly basis, 15 of those 16 sectors have expanded.

“However, the one sector that failed to grow during the past year, power, happens to be the largest,” Basu adds. “Had power simply remained unchanged during that time period — it’s down 16.5 percent largely because of the fall in oil prices — non-residential construction spending would currently stand at its highest level ever.”

Demand Disconnect
Of course, all of this good news should mean good business for steel service centers and other industrial metal-cutting companies. However, orders for steel beams and other structural steel products have not been following the demand trend. Citing data from Metal Strategies, Inc., Metal Center News recently reported that shipments of structural steel are forecast to dip by 3.3 percent this year, despite increased construction activity. Service center executives also told the industry publication that steel beam sales in the first half of the year did not meet expectations.

Why aren’t steel orders following the upward curve of construction? According to the Metal Center News report, there are three likely reasons: uncertainty about the economy, high import levels, and excessive inventories. While all three factors will have caused some unexpected speed bumps, experts believe that metals companies can still benefit. “As long as imports don’t surge further and both service centers and mills remain disciplined, there is money to be made from the coming growth in construction,” Metal Center News concludes.

Cutting-Edge Developments
As service centers and other industrial metal-cutting companies wait for orders to catch up, there are a few other industry developments happening within in the non-residential construction segment. From new applications to new materials, the following are some cutting-edge trends worth noting:

 

 

Making the Cut
While only time will tell whether or not metal-cutting companies will benefit from the expected growth of non-residential construction, industry leaders know that staying competitive starts with staying informed. Whether following economic data to prepare for increased demand or simply  gaining insight into future material trends, success requires industrial metal-cutting companies to both know and adjust to the needs of the customers and industries they serve.

material costs

Taking a Closer Look at Inventory in Your Forging Operation

June 25, 2015 / , , , , , , , ,


As most manufacturing executives know, inventory is one of the eight deadly wastes of lean manufacturing. Unfortunately, many metal-cutting companies tend to either ignore inventory or intentionally stock up on material “just in case.”

But there is a reason lean experts consider inventory as deadly. Excess inventory is costly in more ways than one: it requires space, equipment, measurement, and management, not to mention the initial cash expenditure.

Perhaps the greatest danger of surplus inventory, however, is that it often hides other forms of waste and inefficiencies existing within your forging and metal-cutting operations. As an archived article from Modern Machine Shop explains, inventory provides the perfect mask for a host of workflow problems. “With enough inventory, we do not need to be concerned with problems; in fact, we probably will not even know they exist,” the article says. “After all, with lots of inventory, who needs to worry about long vendor delivery times, critical machine breakdowns, long equipment setup times, production schedules not being met, absenteeism or even quality problems that lead to low production yields?”

Of course, that is exactly why managers need to take a closer look at their inventory. According to an editorial from IndustryWeek, inventory optimization can “unearth huge process improvement opportunities that will impact both the balance sheet and the income statement in a positive way.” Below are just a few of the process improvement opportunities the author says may be hiding underneath your raw material and work-in-process inventory:

In most cases, digging deeper into your inventory will reveal a list of process areas in need of improvement. The question then becomes: What can managers do to keep their inventory low? While there are several ways to accomplish inventory optimization, below are three simple strategies to consider:

 

 

 

Regardless of the strategies you adopt, the bottom line is that inventory management should be a priority. Even if you are consistently filling customer orders, that doesn’t mean you doing it efficiently. By taking a closer look at what lies underneath piles of inventory, forging operations can save costs, improve productivity, and finally get to the root of some operational issues that may have been there all along.

material costs

How Machine Shops Can Be Successful in 2015

April 21, 2015 / , , , , , , , , ,


Will 2015 be a year of growth for machine shops, as many are predicting? Recent data is sending some mixed signals. Gardner’s most recent metalworking business index (MBI), for example, showed that conditions in the metalworking industry expanded in March for the 15th consecutive month and the 17th time in 18 months. New orders and production increased have also increased for the 18th month in a row.

This of, course, is good news. However, as Modern Machine Shop reports, compared with one year ago, the MBI index has actually contracted for three straight months. “So, the metalworking industry is growing but not as fast as it was at the beginning of 2014,” the industry publication says.

Meanwhile, industrial production decreased 0.6 percent in March after increasing 0.1 percent in February, according to the Federal Reserve. For the first quarter of 2015 as a whole, industrial production declined at an annual rate of 1.0 percent, the first quarterly decrease since the second quarter of 2009.

But not all hope is lost. Many experts are still anticipating growth in industrial production this year and next year. As the LENOX Institute of Technology reported in the 2015 Industrial Metal Cutting Outlook, the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) forecasts that manufacturing production will grow by 3.7% in 2015 and 3.6% in 2016.

Also, according to Shopfloor, the blog of the National Manufacturers Association (NAM), manufacturers remain mostly upbeat about additional demand and production in the coming months. “We have started 2015 on a softer-than-desired note,” the blog states, noting that a strong U.S. dollar, weakened economic markets abroad, lower crude oil prices, the West Coast ports slowdown, and weather have all eased growth in activity. The blog concludes, “Hopefully, we will see better production numbers in the months ahead.”

What Now?
Regardless of how the year shakes out, the fact is that machine shops need to continue to optimize their operations. Continuous improvement does in fact mean continuous, regardless of business conditions. The goal is to strategically approach those improvements with industry trends and forecasts in mind.

How can you be successful in 2015? A recent article Production Machining offers three strategies for increasing your chances for success this year:

There is no crystal ball for what will happen in 2015, and as the last few years have taught manufacturing executives, nothing is ever certain. But hoping for a better year isn’t really a plan. To strategically approach today’s market, managers need to consider what is happening in the market, while also proactively improving what is happening inside their doors.

material costs

Metal Service Center Outlook for 2015

April 5, 2015 / , , , ,


Like most sectors of the metal-cutting industry, metal service centers are hoping that experts are right about the growth prospects for 2015. After 2014 fell short of expectations and with recent data showing less than favorable numbers, most companies are trying to stay optimistic about the months ahead.

Shipments Down
The latest figures from the American Iron and Steel Institute show that February steel shipments from U.S. steel mills were down 10.8 percent compared to January 2015 and decreased by 9.1 percent compared to February 2014. Shipments year-to-date were down 5.3 percent compared to 2014 shipments.

According to data from the Metal Service Center Institute (MSCI), U.S. service center steel shipments declined in the first three months of 2015 compared to the same months in 2014, although March shipments were only down by a tenth of a percent. Shipments of aluminum products, on the other hand, increased in both February and March after being down in January. Meanwhile, steel and aluminum inventories grew in the first three months of 2015, MSCI reports.

Cautiously Optimistic
Even with a rough start to the year, analysts remain optimistic that there will be growth in 2015. As we reported in our 2015 Industrial Metal Cutting Outlook, forecasts for steel demand are positive, but growth rates will not be as strong as they were in 2014. According to the Short Range Outlook 2014-2015 from the World Steel Association (worldsteel), U.S. steel demand is expected to increase by 1.9% in 2015—much lower than the 6% growth the U.S. experienced in 2014. Globally, worldsteel forecasts that global apparent steel use will increase by 2.0% this year.

Many industry leaders are also fairly optimistic about this year. In a mid-February statement announcing its 2014 financial results, Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co. said that it expects the U.S. economy to continue to improve throughout 2015. The Los Angeles, CA-based service center believes high levels of metal being imported into the U.S. will continue given the strong U.S. dollar and weaker economies in other parts of the world, which will continue to put downward pressure on steel prices. In addition, due to normal seasonal trends and an improving demand environment, Reliance expects higher tons sold in the first quarter of 2015 versus the fourth quarter of 2014, but lower average selling prices and margins.

OEM Outlooks
Of course, no one really knows how this year is going to shake out. Perhaps the greatest gauge for how metal service centers might fare in 2015 is to look at segment forecasts. Below are outlooks for three OEM categories that will likely play a large role in determining demand in 2015:

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Trends Affecting Industrial Metals Companies Serving the Automotive Industry

February 15, 2015 / , , , , , , , ,


It’s no secret—the U.S. automotive industry is doing well. In 2014, the industry registered gains it hasn’t seen since 2006, and the momentum doesn’t seem to be slowing. According to a recent report from the New York Times, sales of automobiles rose 14 percent over January of last year, with several major auto makers posting double-digit increases in a month that is traditionally slow for U.S. dealerships. Sales forecasts for the next five years are even better. One analyst has even predicted sales will hit 20 million vehicles by 2020, reports Automotive News.

This is no doubt good news for any supplier serving the automotive space, including industrial metal-cutting companies. However, ramped up demand usually means ramped up customer expectations, and suppliers need to be ready to not only meet the needs of automotive makers, but also stand out from competitors vying for the same business.

To help companies strategically approach this market, below are some of the major trends impacting automotive manufacturing. From materials to robotics, customer needs and processes are evolving, and suppliers looking to win (and perhaps keep) the business may need to adjust accordingly.

material costs

Why Fabricators Should Consider Minimum Quantity Lubrication

December 10, 2014 / , , , , , , , , , , , ,


There is no question that coolants should be considered a critical part of your metal-cutting operations. They save you maintenance time, improve cut quality, and extend tooling life. However, not all lubricating options are created equally. As this blog post describes, managers have a wide range of fluid options available to them. And while coolant selection may seem like a small detail, it should be treated like any other operational purchase, with both strategy and cost in mind.

One coolant choice that many fabricators overlook is Minimum Quantity Lubrication (MQL). This alternative option sprays a very small quantity of lubricant precisely on the cutting surface, eliminating any cutting fluid waste. In fact, many consider it a near-dry process, as less than 2 percent of the fluid adheres to the chips.

MQL is great for smaller saws and for structural applications, both of which are popular in fabrication shops. This type of coolant application is most commonly used in precision circular saw operations, but it can also be used in band sawing as well.

Below are just a few of the key benefits to using MQL over traditional flood coolants:

Managers need to be aware, however, that MQL application is a more sensitive process than flood cooling. Mist must be aimed precisely at the tool to be effective. Fluid selection, equipment, and material type also play key roles in proper MQL application. For a full description of what is needed to use MQL, including equipment and fluid types, download The MQL Handbook. This helpful resource also offers some “rules of thumb” and other important tips to consider before transitioning to MQL.

As stated in the handbook, changing over to MQL is not as simple as just plugging in a lubrication system. It will require some research, upfront investment, and some training. However, it can offer significant advantages to your business, your employees, and the environment—three major reasons to at least consider using it in your fabricating and metal-cutting operations.

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