Switching to a high-speed, high-deposition welding and cutting process can provide excellent payback. However, productivity improvements always reach physical limits, such as welding heat input levels that affect mechanical properties or cutting speeds that degrade edge quality. Also, how does a company that has already optimized its processes demonstrate continuous improvement? The answer lies beyond the arc, harnessing the power of software, connectivity and Industry 4.0 (IoT) technology.
Companies with automated plasma and oxyfuel cutting systems already deploy discrete software. That is, the machine uses a CNC with software that automates a variety of functions, and the CNC may link to other departments, such as engineering, which of course uses its own CAD programs.
To make a quantum leap in productivity, such as by reducing production lead times by up to 50 percent, manufacturers need to move to complete process integration. Benefits include near instantaneous transportation of information; improved cut quality through a fully predictable, repeatable and automated process that also minimizes waste; and increased ease of use through fully automated interfaces between process steps and a highly automated production cycle.
Complete process integration
In a largely manual operation, the fabrication process starts with material and work order administration, which is usually connected to an ERP system. After cost estimates, order entry and perhaps the receipt of digital files from the customer (or another internal department), order management passes the ball to engineering for programming using a CAD system, such as Autodesk or SolidWorks.
The engineer creates an NC file, a parts nest and maybe adds notes, then tosses the package to production planning. Hopefully, the cutting system software integrates with the engineering software, but will it also integrate with the enterprise software? After cutting, process data collection requires manual entry, which inherently introduces the potential for human error.
Complete process integration links all of these elements, including the quote/proposal calculation, order intake, import of part geometry and drawings, nesting and plate management, creation of production data, transfer of data to production, production efficiency and data collection, and postprocess calculations.
Linking these elements efficiently and cost effectively was previously out of reach for many companies, especially those that could not afford custom programs and hardware. Fortunately, a new generation of online data management systems for mechanized cutting, such as ESAB’s WeldCloud Cut, enables software programs to bi-directionally share data as well as incorporate gas management information. Coupled with utilizing the full potential of software like ESAB’s Columbus CAD/CAM nesting software, a double-digit productivity increase and rapid payback is a given.
Regardless of the provider, the most efficient data management systems use open-architecture to interlink all production data in a business, across all departments. Such a system collects operating, machine and quality management data to bring complete transparency to production flow so that users see where optimization is possible.
Note that IoT “cloud” services do not mean that fabricators have to use a public cloud service over the Internet. In most cases, cloud refers to systems set up within the customer’s own IT infrastructure, which means that they own the data and do not allow outside access (a requirement for military contractors among others).
It is important to note that online data management systems are easy to use because the web servers, databases and communication modules are very user friendly and do not require much maintenance. Some data management systems are about as easy to deploy as installing a wireless router (password protected, of course) and a new suite of office software.
IoT technology enables users to access software tools on any network-enabled device (phone, tablet, PC), automatically receive software technology update notifications, download updates and then deploy them to all systems. The number of systems that can be connected is nearly limitless, an advantage for organizations with multiple locations worldwide.
A wealth of analytical tools and customizable dashboards enable companies to use them as standalone software, if desired, but these systems also integrate with other business intelligence (ERP) systems, such as Power BI, SAP, QlikView and Tableau. Customized dashboards enable each manager or department to view the data most relevant to their function.
Here are some of the integrated and software capabilities that can revolutionize productivity.
Order calculation/handling. Instead of estimates based on outdated or suspect information, an integrated system enables users to calculate the best price for customers using actual process and machine data. Instead of believing that a particular job takes 40 total hours and $40,000 of material, users can make estimates based on real production data.
The ability to better manage profit margins is significant. Further, the cumulative effect of data management systems will greatly reduce lead times, starting by automatically moving data to and from ERP systems. This way, manufacturers gain confidence and they can truly deliver the order on or ahead of time, increasing customer satisfaction.
Import part geometry and drawings, data transfer. When customers provide CAD files, especially if they include 3-D weld edge preparation information, the ability to import complete part information into the CNC cutting software saves hours of manual entry time and prevents mistakes.
Once engineering completes its tasks, cutting files, printouts, nesting reports and part labels can be automatically generated and transported to the shop floor. Orders to pull the proper plates from inventory can also be generated. Now instead of chasing paperwork, the shop floor can focus on improving cutting operations.
Nesting and plate management. With mechanized plasma cutting, CNC software offers the possibility to obtain the perfect balance between cutting speed, cut quality and parts life by automatically setting parameters. These include torch height during piercing and cutting, amperage, shield and plasma gas settings, gas flow rates – and then dynamically adjusting parameters.
Essentially, top-performing CNCs act as a combined programming and plasma cutting expert in a box. Buyer beware, however: Some (perhaps most) CNC systems do not really know what the plasma system is actually cutting, whether it’s a small hole, an outside perimeter, a sharp corner or some other critical path. The CNC just executes the codes for moving on a straight line or a curve and executes commands to change speed or activate accessories. Such a CNC doesn’t understand if the arc is rounding a square corner, cutting an imperfect circle or creating excessive bevel.
Fortunately, some CNCs have built-in expertise. Their software can provide real-time orchestration between all the key elements of a cutting system, including the power source and the accessories connected to it; the results show in the quality of every cut and in each month’s operating profit. Further, the CNC software operates with a touchscreen graphical interface that enables any operator, regardless of plasma or programming expertise, to obtain the best quality or fastest cut possible.
Additional ways companies can harness the power of good CNC cutting software is by having the table operator direct the software to scan an irregularly shaped remnant plate on the cutting table and then automatically nest all parts in a matter of seconds. This function can save hours in cases when performing the task in an office environment is not practical, and especially if the CNC software can automatically set process-related activities, such as cutting order, locating and defining arc starts (piercings) and cut endings.
Another CNC software function – available using simple touchscreen controls – can cut the scrap in a way that optimizes table cleanup at the end of the cutting program. Cycle time counts and all of these functions shave minutes or hours off cycle time.
CNC manufacturers offer several levels of software packages with a variety of tools, many of which operate with point-and-click ease so that anyone can use them. These tools include:
- Cost calculators for job estimating, which can increase bid competitiveness and/or profit margins.
- Ability to import DXF files straight into the CNC, bypassing engineering (office nesting software) altogether.
- Bridge tools that assign cut segments between parts to reduce the number of pierces and cycle time. Cost savings of up to 40 percent are possible with this tool alone.
- Automatic nesting tools that lower manufacturing costs by reducing plate waste and cycle time. Some plate tools can even create parts within the “scrap” of other parts.
- CAD tools and standard part shape libraries that enable the operator to design and modify parts and cut paths. This eliminates the need to go back to engineering to modify the part file, potentially saving hours of downtime.
- Hole optimization technology, which sets cutting parameters to create “bolt-ready” holes or produce precision cut quality on radii. Users simply mouse over the hole/radius, highlight it and click on the optimization tool.
Full traceability. Online data management programs are the best tools for meeting an increasing need for traceability. However, programs such as WeldCloud for cutting are more than a data recording system. They enable a wealth of analytics so that fabricators can:
- Facilitate traceability from a single cut to the complete product because the core of the system is a comprehensive database containing key information of every cut, weld seam and part. Machine data recording and reporting is entirely automated.
- Monitor and act upon various productivity reports across operations in disparate locations.
- Obtain real-time control and feedback from the production process, including from remote locations.
- Increase responsiveness of repair and maintenance operations by instantly receiving alerts from cloud-enabled machines, effectively improving machine uptime.
- Share and analyze data by teams across multiple data collection sites, using any computer, tablet or smartphone connected to the same internal network as the welding systems and database.
Looking externally, the fabricator can use an online data management system to provide complete traceability, now a requirement for structural steel construction, ship, offshore, pressure vessel, military, automotive, crane and other critical applications. Traceability previously required fabricators to manually enter data and generate reports. With automated data gathering, managers can generate reports in seconds. Further, automating data management eliminates the human tendency to manipulate data to “favorably enhance” the numbers. Lastly, electronic data gathering reduces paper use and associated storage space.
The factory of the future links together all of its machine ecosystems and provides manufacturers and fabricators with seamless integration. Total process control and data acquisition enable optimal management decisions based on current facts, not hunches about potentially questionable numbers. Full integration completely closes the loop, especially with reporting back to the ERP. The wealth of not just data, but analytical tools available in customizable dashboards, enables companies to improve on an old adage: If you can measure it, you can manage it – from anywhere and without the daily involvement of IT staff.