By Tim Heston
Ton Pasnagel pointed to a cart of aluminized steel, a material that can withstand signifi- cant heat and resist rusting—both important attributes for a gas and wood-burning stove-maker like Barbas-Bellfires nv, where Pasnagel is
director of operations. The lacquering operation
is the stovemaker’s current bottleneck, and the
aluminized steel the company is testing wouldn’t
require any lacquering whatsoever.
“Flow is the main driver here,” he said.
Pasnagel’s operation is in Bladel, the heart of the
Dutch sheet metal industry. Drive the short distance
from the highway to Barbas-Bellfires, and you pass
by shops that collectively have more than 50 laser
cutting machines. This area includes a plant owned
by VDL, a European powerhouse that’s one of the
largest sheet metal operations in the world.
It’s likely Pasnagel’s comment on flow would
resonate with many of these operations, especially
considering the lead-time demands that customers
place on custom fabricators (or “subcontractors,”
as the Europeans call them) in the Netherlands
and nearby Belgium. Fabricators no longer talk in
weeks. It’s now about turning things around within
hours or days.
Flow was a pervasive theme during a tour for
North American industry press, which LVD Strippit
hosted in September. European fabricators ship one
of this, a half dozen of that, with little or (usually)
no finished-goods inventory to use as a safety net.
A large finished-goods inventory is simply impractical, considering shops really don’t know what’s
Many tackling lean methods in metal fabrication
talk about focusing on job flow. An idle machine
may or may not be a concern, but a stalled job (for
instance, sitting days between operations as work-in-process) is always a concern.
The shops on LVD’s tour have all scrutinized the
big picture, the complete order-to-cash cycle. The
most advanced among them have automated the
entire front o;ice. A customer clicks “order” on a
web portal and the part is nested and sent to the la-
ser, all within minutes.
In this world, machine speed really matters, as
does everything in between, from automated order entry to automated guided vehicles (AGVs)
that take orders from one operation to the next.
This is the world of Industry 4.0, where machines
and so;ware communicate so that (ideally) everyone knows where every job and every part is at all
times, building an ever-more-comprehensive and
useful database—so-called “big data.” This is also
the beginning the next step (what sources at LVD
called Industry 4.1), where machines not only communicate, but also interpret, learn, and get better at
what they do.
All these fancy terms really are just a means to an
end, one exemplified by the fabricators on the press
tour. In the end, it’s still all about flow.
Once upon a time it took Barbas-Bellfires six weeks
to produce a stove, be it the gas or wood-burning
variety (branded under the Barbas name). Today it
takes a day to process an order and three days to
fabricate and assemble it.
Primarily decorative, these stoves end up in
homes in Europe, Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere. Most of the steel shell lies hidden under a façade built into the wall (see Figure 1), but this fact
does not diminish the fabrication challenge.
Until three years ago the organization purchased
these sheet metal shells from custom fabricators
in Eastern Europe. That strategy, managers found,
created that six-week lead time. To shorten it they
brought cutting, bending, and welding in-house—
but they didn’t implement those processes in a typical way.
On the le;, Ton Pasnagel, Barbas-Bellfires’ director of operations, stands next to one of the company’s wood
stoves. Most of the company’s products lie hidden behind facades, as with the gas stove on the right.
Big data, better flow
Among fab shops in Northern Europe, the future of big data is now
Based in the Netherlands, 24/7 Tailor Steel’s cutting
and bending annex (“customer paradise” in multiple
languages is on the floor) has automated lasers with
pick-and-place robots adjacent to six LVD ToolCell au-tomatic-tool-change press brakes—all placed among
living trees. The company is on pace to grow by 45 percent this year.