In the fabrication business, there are two main types of shops from which a customer can choose. The first is a mass-production fabricator that makes thousands of the same type of product. The second is a custom shop that works on unique projects, creating new processes and plans for each customer’s design. For a new fabrication business owner or manager, there’s a lot to consider for both types of shops, but considering the high-mix production that a custom fabricator faces on a regular basis, there’s a lot to address.
As the lead fabricator and senior welder at Fabricated Products Group (FPG), a custom fabricator and machine shop specializing in architectural systems and components, many lessons have been learned throughout the years – particularly in regard to welding operations. No matter how many projects have been tackled or how many new products have been designed, there are several rules of thumb to follow to ensure that custom orders can be delivered in a timely fashion and meet or go beyond expectations.
When a new customer comes to a custom fabricator, the process begins in the same manner every time: with planning out the exact needs of the customer and establishing what the project is going to look like in order to produce each individual piece. Initial conversations lead to a design intent, which then becomes a drawing or idea board with each part design and system drawing. In doing so, a fabricator can establish the proper course of action to be taken from the first conversation all the way through to the end product.
Once a job ticket and packet of information are created, the list of materials is brought in. The product manager then works with the team to ensure each piece of material is cut or created correctly the first time, applying the mentality of “measure twice, cut once” to reduce material waste.
One way to curtail waste, in time and materials, is to thoroughly plan out each individual task that needs to happen, starting from the largest tasks or cuts of material and working down. Spending more time at the beginning of the project is always a better course of action than making repairs at the end.
A major trend in fabrication brought on through technology is the increased adoption of robotic machinery capable of cutting and welding materials. This is especially important and applicable in shops that are mass producing materials, as they can create programs for these robots to perform time after time.
For custom fabrication shops, however, the prospect of robotic welding doesn’t always make sense. There are definite benefits in regard to speed and precision, however, for a custom fabricator, creating new procedures for every new job can require more time than is available for the job.
There are new robotic products and technologies coming online every day, so it’s always advantageous to be privy to those developments. But, until a solid business justification for a robotic investment can be made, rely on the acumen of in-house staff to refine best practices using machines and processes that have been tried and tested and found true over time. The value of experienced staff is truly priceless – and especially so in a custom shop where each new job order must be approached individually.
Still, technology is a beneficial part of the industry and cannot be overlooked. New advances create better practices with fewer mistakes or structural flaws. As an example, custom fabricators that work primarily in aluminum can adopt the use of machines that offer new options to work with these materials better.
New technology learned at seminars, workshops and conferences inevitably helps a shop stay current in the industry. Whether it comes from something like an improvement that’s been made in welding gases or something as simple as new personal protective equipment, advancements in the industry can give even the most custom product fabricators a major leg up. For example, an old industry standard was to use helium as the welding fuel, but thanks to improvements in technology and a global shortage, new advances delivered major benefits to the industry.
The most important factor is understanding what the project requires and finding the right welding element to utilize for it. For some new fabrication business owners or managers, the level of understanding may be low, especially considering the numerous types of welding that’s required in a custom fabrication setting. And while it might not be necessary for a business leader to have a deep understanding of every specialized method of welding that might be leveraged, a basic understanding is essential.
Basic understanding should, of course, include the difference in processes, such as MIG and TIG, but it’s also helpful to understand the proper amperage and voltage to use for each task. Amperage controls the energy depth of the weld, penetrating deeper into the metal being welded. Voltage controls the height and width of the weld deposit. These two variables interact with each other, with an increase in one resulting in an increase in the other. Differences in metals being welded, dimensions and desired results are all factors to consider when designing the welding process and choosing the adequate welding method.
There are multiple risks to be considered when working with welding, including the light, fumes, electrical and heat output from the welding machinery. And it is, therefore, imperative that a business understands the important measures that must be taken to keep their welders safe.
With any new welding equipment or process that is adopted by a fabrication shop, all protective equipment must be up to date. Additionally, using new advanced helmets and hoods can provide increased visibility for welders while keeping their eyes safe from the welding arc. Proper screening around the welding stations protects others in the workshop from getting “flashed” by the welding arcs as they work nearby or walk past.
When working with high heat and electric arcs and the possibility of fire, fire-retardant materials are necessary as protection. Management, therefore, must be trained on all potential hazards and proper avenues to avoid them; this works in tandem with the understanding that workplace leadership needs to instruct the employees about the availability and proper use of the equipment.
As an example, a safety measure that is often overlooked is the storage of supplies not in use. Gas tanks need to be chained together and connected to a wall or column when stored to avoid possible accidents.
Further safety measures include protection from welding fumes. To offer welders the best protection possible, the best technology available should be used, including technologies to filter fumes away via in-mask ventilation and strategic ceiling heights with fans and over-table vents. Employee health is paramount, and shops should educate all team members on the best ways to maintain a healthy environment in the workplace.
Another safety measure that should be utilized is properly planning the equipment necessary for lifting, transporting and moving pieces. Accidents can be largely avoided by planning out movement of the pieces effectively.
An adequate training strategy rooted in experiencing the steps from the beginning of work to the final product can help in understanding the entire job process. Where welding is just one piece of the project, seeing the total procedure firsthand is beneficial in grasping the “why” behind the purpose for tasks and why certain procedures are happening.
From a training perspective, leadership should also be an active participant. One particular process that proves useful is when newer employees are given the opportunity to shadow with a mentor that can show them the best practices while learning on the job and being able to ask questions as they go. This way, elder tradesmen can pass down the experience to the younger generation without a lapse in skill or quality.
Both in a mass-production and custom fab shop, whether one is revising or updating training, looking for new and technologically advanced equipment, or just getting started, it’s crucial for company leaders to understand the process from start to finish. When the entire team is in sync, success is sure to follow.