We believe in looking after and looking out for our customers. That starts with delivering top-quality metal fabrications on time and extends into looking for ways to help our customers do better. If we see a way to save a little time or material without compromising quality, we’ll put that idea forward. It’s the same if we think an alternative coating or welding process will result in longer life or a better appearance: we’ll let our customers know. This customer focus extends to sharing what’s going on in the fabrication industry. We think it’s essential for anyone designing or buying fabrications to be aware of metal fabrication trends and advances, because that will help them, or you, do your job better. And with that said, here’s our look at metal fabrication in 2023.
Metal Fabrication Trends
Like just about every industry and business, we see some significant headwinds. Raw material and energy prices are up, as are interest rates. We’re still dealing with workforce challenges and labor shortages too, but there are some positives.
One item of good news is that semiconductor shortages seem to be easing. That’s going to help our friends in the truck and trailer industry, although it’s not really among our top trends and predictions. Here’s what is:
- Increased focus on sustainability
- More automation
- Advances in manufacturing technology
- Continued workforce challenges
- Regulatory changes
Increased Focus on Sustainability
Sustainability – as in, doing more with less – isn’t new for us or anyone else in manufacturing. We’ve always tried to minimize waste and conserve resources. Arguably though, material and energy price increases are encouraging increased focus on these opportunities to save money. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.
We look closely at material utilization and scrap, and strive for ways to increase the first and reduce the second. Setup is a significant cause of waste, so we’re looking for ways to ensure the first piece of the machine is a good piece. Working with sheets, nesting is both a problem and an opportunity. If we can find better ways to nest parts for punching or laser cutting, that can save significant amounts of material.
Other aspects of sustainability that we like are the trend toward going paperless, the adoption of green cutting fluids and lubricants, and the switch to LED lighting. Yes, these are good for the environment, but they also help us manage our costs!
An interesting aspect of metal fabrication in 2023 is that almost all our material scrap can be recycled. Aluminum in particular is a very “green” material because it takes far less energy to melt aluminum scrap than it does to extract it from the raw bauxite. And let’s not overlook that much of the “raw” material we buy, especially aluminum, has already been recycled at least once, if not more.
When people hear, or read, the word “automation” they tend to think of robots. Well, robots have a role in metal fabrication, especially for welding, but they’re not the only answer.
Cobots, (a contraction of “collaborative robots”,) have been “on the boil” for a few years. These lack the payload and precision of welding robots but have potential in a wide range of pick-and-place tasks. One of their advantages is that being power and force limited, they don’t need the elaborate guarding of more powerful robots. In addition, they can work alongside human workers, doing jobs like machine tending and unloading.
A couple of years ago pundits were talking about the fourth industrial revolution. Now it’s abbreviated to 4IR but the meaning is the same. This is the idea that cheap sensors and communications technology, coupled with clever data analytics tools, will lead to dramatic improvements in productivity.
Well, 4IR is here, although for us it’s wrapped up in the latest generation of metal fabrication machinery. A good example is how artificial intelligence (AI) is being incorporated into laser cutting machines to better optimize beam parameters. And should you need another example, AI is also helping improve nesting algorithms so we can get more pieces from each sheet.
Advances in Manufacturing Technology
Automation is not the only advance underway in fabrication technology; some of the processes we use are changing too.
A big one is the rapid advance in fiber lasers. These cut faster and with less waste than the CO2 machines we used before, and fiber technology keeps improving and costs keep falling. Not long ago a 6kW laser was as powerful as they got: today 40kW lasers are available.
The advantage of higher power is a faster cutting of thicker materials, without the need for costly assist gases. These latest-generation fiber lasers offer the prospect of higher productivity and lower piece costs. What’s more, their precision means common edge cutting (where one pass cuts the edge of two pieces) is feasible, helping increase sheet yields.
Another technology trend that continues to receive a lot of “air time” is 3D printing. In its early days this additive manufacturing technology was mostly about printing with plastics but today there are a host of machines that can print in a variety of metal powders.
We certainly don’t think 3D printing will supplant metal fabrication any time soon, but it may have a role to play in tooling. Printing of tools for turret presses and press brakes is definitely one of the metal fabrication trends to watch for.
It’s unfortunate, but young people just aren’t drawn toward a career in manufacturing, let alone fabrication. Plus, our workforce is getting older and a wave of retirements is looming. These aren’t new trends, but neither are they going away, which is why we’re taking action.
Internal reorganization here at Wiley has given younger members of the team a bigger voice in how the business is run. In addition, we’ve embarked on a big “culture” exercise. We’re keeping our family culture but at the same time working to ensure Wiley remains an attractive and rewarding place to work. Watch this space for more changes in the coming months.
Like all businesses, we have to follow the policies and legislation set in place by our elected leaders. Two areas that could impact us in 2023 are requirements to measure and limit greenhouse gas emissions, and controls on PFAS exposure.
Greenhouse gases are addressed under our sustainability efforts. Increased productivity means fewer grams or pounds of emissions per part produced. PFAS exposure limits are another matter though.
The term, PFAS refers to a whole family of “forever” chemicals that, if they get into the environment, are believed to cause a range of health problems. Obviously, no one wants that, so moves are afoot to curtail their use. One complication is that no one seems completely sure where these chemicals come from, although industrial cleaning is thought to be one source. What we’ll have to do isn’t clear, and for this reason, it’s one of our metal fabrication trends to watch.
Talk to Wiley For Metal Fabrication in 2023
Wiley has been in the metal fabrication business for a long time, and that’s not about to change. We’ve seen a lot of fads come and go, and a few trends that have stuck around. Our focus on customer service is something that’s here to stay, but other aspects of our work keep changing.
We’ve shared what we see with you here, and we’re looking forward to working with you through the course of this year. As always, any time you want to discuss what we could fabricate for you, don’t hesitate to contact us.