We’ve been in the metal fabrication business nearly 40 years, and we’d rather like to do 40 more. We know we won’t get there by standing still though. Like Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. In other words, you’ve got to step out and try something new.

Targeted Technology Investments

Walk through our shop, (or take the drone tour,) and you’ll see we’ve adopted advanced manufacturing technology wherever it makes sense. We’ve invested in machines that cut by laser and by water. We’ve bought computer-controlled punching and bending equipment. We have a robotic welding cell that turns out consistently high-quality work. Heck, even our coffee machine has a microprocessor buried deep in its innards!

This manufacturing technology gives us the capabilities our customers need and expect. It lets us deliver high, quality, high precision, and yes, value too. And as new and improved technologies emerge we’ll be putting them to work too.

Forty years from now the basics of cutting, bending and joining metal probably won’t have changed that much. What we will have though is a lot more technology to help us. Here’s what that might include.

Material Handling

In 2060 metal will still need to get to machines for cutting, bending and joining, and the stamped, blanked and folded parts will need moving on the subsequent operations. We see two ways in which that might change.

First, mobile robots. These have come a long way from those Automatic Guided Vehicles that first emerged in the 1970’s. Today there are robots that can navigate cluttered aisles in busy shops as they take materials where they’re needed.

Those capabilities are only going to advance, so expect to see various ‘bots scuttling around bringing out sheets to the shears and taking finished parts to painting and packaging.

Second, how about exoskeletons? You saw Sigourney Weaver strap herself into one in “Aliens”? Well they exist, and development is continuing. They could be perfect for moving steel beams, pipes and tubes in and out of our warehouse, far more flexible and much faster than using a fork truck, and a lot more fun for someone too!

Vision Systems for Part Inspection

Vision systems aren’t new, but they’re really only effective in high volume operations. That’s because it takes time to get the lighting right and develop the inspection program that decides if a part is good or bad. When that’s done though, they do what can be a dull job far more consistently than any human can.

What’s needed are systems that learn the way people learn, and that’s what artificial intelligence (AI) offers. An AI-enabled vision system is trained by showing it good parts. Once it knows what to expect it will flag any part that’s different. Imagine for example putting one after a stamping operation. It would make sure all the holes are in the right places and it would find any slug marks that spoil an otherwise perfect part.

Additive Manufacturing

Additive was on our “Manufacturing Technology Trends” list in 2016, but it seems only right to talk about it again. The technology is advancing quickly with machines becoming faster and more capable. In particular, there are a growing number of systems on the market that can print metal. Most of these use a screenprinter-type of method to deposit a layer of powder, then a high power laser rasters over the surface, fusing the grains together where needed. Then another layer is deposited and the process repeats.

For sheer speed, additive will probably never rival milling and turning, but it will enable creation of parts that just couldn’t be made any other way. It’s not going to replace fabrication but it may well become the technology we use to make tools and fixtures. That’s why additive is staying on our radar.

Cobots

This is another technology from our 2016 list. Cobots, or collaborative robots, to use their full name, are robots that can work safely alongside humans. That’s achieved by limiting their power and force, using sensors to detect when humans come too close, or a combination of those techniques.

One advantage is that it eliminates the need for large and expensive safety cages, (although risk assessments must look at the whole robot operation and not just the arm itself.) A second advantage, especially for a fabrication shop like ours, is that they take very little time to train.

Traditional robots need a program to follow, much like a CNC machine. Creating that program takes time. With a cobot you just guide the gripper through the path you want it to follow and it learns. It’s a little like the difference between conventional and AI vision systems we discussed above: when the training is quicker the technology makes sense in lower volume applications. So might we see cobots tending presses and press brakes? Come back in a few years.

Industry 4.0

This too was on the 2016 list, and it also got a Tiki Talk post: (INDUSTRY 4.0: THE REVOLUTION OF METAL FABRICATION). In a nutshell, this is about putting sensors on equipment to gather data about what that machine or device is doing. Then that data is analyzed to provide insights into performance.

We could for instance, count how many hits per minute a turret punch is making, and also how long it spends not making hits. This kind of information would be very useful in scheduling work through the shop and finding ways to increase capacity. Where things could get even more interesting though is “predictive maintenance.”

You may already drive a car that monitors the life remaining in the engine oil. It’s a form of predictive maintenance that should help your engine last longer than by just following time or usage-based oil changes. Applied to a turret punch or other machine, it would let us plan maintenance for when it’s needed, rather than taking a machine out of service so we can do work “just in case”. Again, it’s about getting more out of what we have.

Another potential application is welding. Here it could track all the various weld parameters and link those to the specific parts or job. That way we’d have a complete record of how the weld was made and we’d be able to reproduce exactly what was done. This could be a very big deal from a quality and even safety perspective!

Reshoring

Okay, this isn’t really a technology trend, but it is a trend affecting most parts of manufacturing. For years there’s been concern about manufacturing work disappearing to Asia, and more recently there’s been pressure to bring it back. The so called “Trade War” with China has lead to tariffs on some imported goods and created uncertainty everywhere. And then along came a certain pandemic that further disrupted supply chains from Asia.

All this has got buyers thinking more about where they want their parts made, and in many cases the answer to that is, domestically. So reshoring is a thing, with companies looking to purchase within the US. And here at Wiley we’re ready to help.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

As Yogi Berra pointed out, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But if we want to stay around and prosper we have to take a stab. It’s hard to say what the world will look like in 2060 but the trends we’ve identified here offer a few hints. If all goes well, we’ll still be your metal fabrication of company of choice. We’ll still be cutting, shaping, bending and joining, but we’ll be doing it more efficiently and more precisely than is possible now. Hopefully, we’ll still be working with you too!