on machining—not an
operation that merely
supports the sheet metal
work, but a full-blown
machine shop with
about 30 CNC turning
lathes and another 30
The company has invested in LVD laser cutting machines for years.
A laser from 1989 still
produces the occasional
blank when needed.
But today all of the half-dozen LVD laser cutting
machines in regular use,
including a new 6-k W fiber laser capable of cutting up to 1-in. plate, run
fully automated. Only a
few operators manage
all of them.
Sheets are loaded,
material is cut (with various jobs on one sheet), and parts are offloaded. Specialized cut programs “chop” the skeleton to make material removal easier. Material
handlers don’t have to shake out microtabbed parts but instead “peel away” the
nest from one edge to the other.
Across the street in the machine shop, a square tube sits in a fixture with
several drilled and milled holes and pockets (see Figure 5). This square tube
doubles as both a structural support and a functional part of a textile machine,
and it exemplifies Vanderscheuren’s competitive position.
The company co-engineered this product with its customer, and that design
is evolving. At this writing, the tube is cut with a band saw, then milled in specially designed machining centers with beds long enough to accommodate the
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But could this tube be cut with a laser? Also, its routing isn’t ideal; some operations are performed at the factory across the street. In fact, Miermans pointed
to various product flow issues throughout the facilities—between welding and
cutting, between certain milling and turning operations, and elsewhere—that
he and other company leaders intend to resolve and improve upon in the coming years.
What makes the improvement initiative unusual is that it’s not happening
during a time of crisis. The company is busier than ever, and, again, the balance
sheet is very healthy. But according to Miermans, this makes it the best time to
“Most start improving in a crisis. We don’t have that problem, but there is a
sense of urgency. If you get close to a crisis and try to improve, it may be too late.”
At LVD headquarters and customer experience center in Gullegem, Belgium,
Kurt Debbaut, product manager of CADMAN® software, pointed to a series of
colored boxes, a chart that captures the essence of flow. Jobs released to the
floor have already been verified to be correct, their forming requirements simulated based on the actual tools available on the floor.
Orange boxes show a job that’s in progress at various stages of production,
from the order release through bending. Red boxes show jobs that have issues
(material problems, etc.), blue boxes show jobs that are in queue, and green
boxes show that a job has been complete.
Intelligence provided by CADMAN-Job software, the chart gives a snapshot
of a fabricator’s current state. The red boxes reveal distinct problems, but the
blue boxes also reveal problems that might have gone unnoticed. If a job sits in
queue (the blue box) for days on end as WIP, the shop has a problem with flow.
WIP is perhaps the greatest drain on throughput in modern metal fabrication.
A part may have only a few hours of “touch time,” when the part is loaded, cut or
bent, and unloaded, but the queue time between jobs can sometimes last days.
Broaden the view beyond cutting and bending to include order processing
upstream, assembly and shipping downstream, and it’s easy to understand
why it takes jobs weeks instead of hours or days to make it through the shop. A
fabricator needs some WIP to mitigate inherent process variabilities of a high-product-mix operation.
But why exactly do fabricators have such variability? Where does it come
from? You have 3-D CAD, business software like enterprise resource planning
(ERP), postprocessing of files to cutting and bending, even adaptive bending
that can adjust for different sheet thicknesses, hardnesses, and grain directions.
Connect the dots between digital information and machinery and, in theory, the
variation plummets, even in the most high-product-mix environments.
Carel van Sorgen has connected the dots.
Van Sorgen has been around sheet metal for most of his life, pioneering the
use of CNC machinery and laser cutting in the 1970s (see Figure 6). For years
he had ideas about streamlining the entire order-to-delivery process through
software. His vision included a lot of the ideas behind Industry 4.0 years before
These square tubes, structural members of a textile
machine that double as a functional part, are cut, machined, and drilled in Vanderscheuren’s machine shop.
Carel van Sorgen, president of 24/7 Tailor Steel, has been in the sheet metal industry
most of his life. His father launched a sheet metal shop after World War II.