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Steel Industry Insight

Fabrication on the cutting edge

Steel fabrication has come a long way from the forges of medieval blacksmiths. While some steel-related sectors still have stuck to their basic historical roots (iron ore is still melted and mixed with carbon to form steel, even though the furnaces have vastly improved), the industrial revolution, the technology boom, and the blending of computer science and metalworking have brought the fabrication sector into an age that barely resembles its earliest beginnings.

But the leaps and bounds in fabrication advancement are absolutely necessary, especially to keep up with a manufacturing industry that demands high quality, as well as efficient production to keep costs down as much as possible. Every year, inventions and innovations explode onto the fabrication scene, often showcased at expos and conferences such as FABTECH and METALfab before becoming widely absorbed into the industry. Some new ideas focus on streamlining the fabrication process or enhancing design capabilities, while others aim to put an eco-friendly spin on existing parts or processes. Then there are others that offer a window into the future of fabrication, when very little separates a designer’s idea from the finished product.

Considering that manufacturing is one of the strongest steel-related sectors at the moment, it’s no surprise that there have been so many innovations in fabrication this year. In fact, according to the American Machine Tool Distributors’ Association (AMTDA) and the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT), US manufacturing technology consumption totaled $2.98 billion in 2011 through July, up 102.9 percent compared to the same period of 2010.

Before fabrication design processes involved meticulously drawn-out (and now computer graphed) specifications, early metalworkers largely designed by the seat of their pants, with few steps between their minds dreaming up images and their hands turning their dreams into reality. Fast forward to the future, and those early fabrication processes are coming full circle—many innovations in the sector focus on closing the gap between ideas and products, doing away with most of the complicated drafting and computer programming that goes into fabricating metal.

Taking measurements in the design process is a crucial step that cannot afford the slightest margin of error, and modern fabricators are fortunately blessed with high-precision tools to facilitate such accuracy (as opposed to centuries ago, when metalsmiths likely used finger digits as a common unit of length). In addition to micro-calipers and computerized scanners, fabricators have recently had the additional benefit of measuring the surfaces of already-formed parts beyond the typical two dimensions. One recently-debuted scanner can measure edges in 3-D, which has the potential to give fabricators the greatest possible depth of accuracy available.

Another way innovation is streamlining the fabrication design process is the creation of programs that test and tinker with designs before sending them into full production. Some equipment manufacturers have developed prototype systems that allow fabricators to test designs for tools and dies (stamping, for example) to ensure that any necessary changes are made before time and resources are wasted on design flaws not apparent until production is in full swing.

Going hand-in-hand with the design process, programming equipment to implement designs is another area in which new technology has increased efficiency in fabrication. Certainly, computers sometimes seem to cause more frustration than they’re worth, but a steady stream of improvements have managed to work out many existing kinks, as well as those that haven’t cropped up yet.

One of the most prominent innovations in fabrication programming is the implementation of technology that is already prevalent in other markets. Touch screens, which are quickly becoming the norm for mobile phones and soon home computers, are especially convenient in a fabrication setting, when tools and specialized uniforms can make traditional keypads cumbersome (and thus increasing the margin for error). Some new equipment touch screens are completely customizable, while others are comprehensive, allowing for easy programming of prompts, diagnostics, communications and controls—streamlining the whole process.

Equipment

It has been said that one of the main things that separates humans from animals is the use of tools, and while this theory has been disproven in recent years (primates and other mammals have shown their adeptness at tool use), there’s no question that humans have beyond mastered the use of tools for their own benefit. From the earliest beginnings using tools to gather food and build shelter, humans have honed their tool-making skills to such a point that tools have become almost an extension of themselves. Fabricators today, for instance, rely on equipment that can turn a plain flat sheet of metal or a simple square bar into something amazing, taking up far less elbow grease than it would have centuries ago.

One focus of equipment innovation is the improvement in comfort and safety for those operating machinery. A new grinder from Equipois, for example, allows fabricators to maneuver equipment weightlessly, while other grinders coming into the market eliminate such potentially dangerous elements like kick-back, sparks, debris and odor. Sparks and fumes are also a common byproduct of welding, and tools that aim to extract fumes independent of the welder by repositioning automatically will drastically increase safety and productivity. However, while welding is a technology that has a long history and will likely continue into the future, new products are giving fabricators a choice in metal fastening, such as specialized clinchers that replace the need for welding.

However, for those who prefer welding, there are new tools emerging that make the process smoother and more efficient. Typically, manual welding suffers from efficiency-draining starts and stops to reposition equipment, but new welding carriages coming into the market will allow for continuous welding of corner, fillet and lap joints, increasing production significantly. And for those in the pipe fabrication field, the introduction of new weld preparation machines will produce accurate bevels in much less time compared to traditional single-point machining.

The opportunity to increase productivity (translating into cost savings) will also be available with other technologies coming on stream. For instance, a new laser cutter from Hypertherm will have the ability to cut thicker metal faster and thinner metal with increased accuracy. Grinding is another fabrication process with the potential to eat up precious time, and new devices that relieve the heavy burden of grinding equipment from fabricators’ shoulders are certain to reduce fatigue and even injury.

Energy efficiency is another commonly seen focus in new fabrication technology, as companies across the industrial spectrum aim to reduce costs wherever possible, especially energy, which shows no sign of ever getting less expensive. One up-and-coming product features electronic press brakes, which, compared to traditional hydraulic brakes, offer a significant drop in energy consumption, decrease maintenance costs, increase cycle times, and eliminate the need for hydraulic oil—yet another “green” perk.

Robotics

Don’t let television and film scare you—while the chance of an eventual planet-wide takeover is slim, robots are destined to be our assistants, not our oppressors, for the foreseeable future. Already, robots and robotic applications have become integral in industrial settings, substantially reducing the time and manpower required for a variety of processes. While some in the manufacturing industry might balk at the idea of an all-robot workforce someday, the future isn’t so grim—there will always be the need for human operators to control them, thus manufacturing jobs are relatively safe (unless you really believe in Skynet from “Terminator”).

New robotic technology is advancing at a rapid pace, mostly easing the burden on fabricators so they can expend their efforts elsewhere (and cut down on injury to boot). New robotic bending systems, for example, can bend unusually long and/or thick pieces of steel and other metal in a fraction of the time it would take multiple operators.

In addition to increasing the ability to serve human fabricators, new technology is focusing on making robotic equipment more human-like. Equipment that more accurately mimics human anatomy and movement, such as the Adaptive Gripper from Robotiq, cut down on production time by increasing its ability to manipulate parts. Another robotic innovation uses new tooling materials to smooth out robot motion paths and decrease idle time.

Of course, the ultimate goal in robotic innovation is to increase the similarity of robotic computing to that of a human brain—robots might never be able to think like humans, but robotic engineers are trying to invest in artificial intelligence with a bit more ingenuity. For example, new robotic welding systems can automatically compare newly-welded surfaces with pre-programmed tolerances, giving the system quality-control responsibility that typically takes up considerable time when fabricators have to manually inspect welds with conventional gauges.

Other features

Innovative design programs, state-of-the-art equipment and complex, almost human-like robotic components are integral to bringing fabrication into the future, but attention should also be given to the little details—the miscellaneous features that might not warrant a press release to herald their arrival into the fabrication sector, but are every bit as influential in the sector’s momentum.

For instance, welders of steel pipes might have the most interest in upcoming welding technology, but a small detail like a water-soluble purge dam, which leaves no adhesive residue after being flushed away at the completion of a weld, still does its part to make the fabricator’s job easier. It is also more environmentally-friendly, following the common theme in manufacturing innovation to not only make products better, faster, and cheaper, but less harmful to the planet as well.

Other new fabrication features are following suit, especially in the realm of chemicals used during fabrication processes. Pickling solutions, for example, are traditionally toxic, but so far there have not been many alternatives to remove scale from base steel. Instead of trying to find a better chemical, some fabrication companies can now abandon the chemical route altogether, using instead a solution of water and metal grit that, when blasted at high pressure, does the job just as well. Likewise, there are new alternatives on the horizon to remove rust, including the use of non-toxic, non-flammable, pH neutral rust removers that lower the danger of exposure to those working with steel.

Aside from innovations that help fabricators in-house, new research facilities designed to test and analyze metal will help fabricators down the line, even if they don’t realize it. In August, one such lab opened in Wisconsin, boasting cutting-edge instruments for the microscopic, chemical and mechanical analysis of metals and other materials. Some of the Fisher-Barton facility’s capabilities include electron microscopy for high-magnification imaging; X-ray fluorescence to analyze complex, unknown bulk samples; and drop-weight testing to produce a time history of applied force and deformation. Fabricators in a wide spectrum of equipment manufacturing sectors—including agricultural, power, recycling, medical and many others—stand to benefit from a detailed analysis of their metal supply before it arrives in their shop to be fabricated.

Facing the future

It’s no secret that when it comes to economic instability, fabricators often feel the brunt of every market ebb and flow, considering most fabrication companies are small- to medium-sized operations that service regional end-use markets, and thus cannot absorb volatility in material prices and demand as well as, say, a steel mill.

But in the long-term, fabricators will inevitably thrive and continue to play an integral part in the overall economy—humans have an almost instinctual urge to build things and evolve as a society, as history has clearly shown.  And as changes continue to take place in such already-evolving industries such as construction, automotive and a wide range of machinery and equipment, fabricators will be right there waiting, one step ahead with a handful of new tools and processes to make the transition into the future as smooth as a freshly-buffed sheet of steel.

One step further into the future

To fans of the television show “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the replicator, a sci-fi invention that could reproduce anything from food to clothing to complex machinery, represented a fantastical view into the possibilities of manufacturing in the future; all the characters had to do was push a button, speak a command, and virtually anything they wanted appeared out of thin air. While the actual physics of such a device remain in the realm of fiction (for now, at least), incredible new manufacturing processes are churning out of the brightest minds in the modern world, bringing the distance between our world and the world of “Star Trek” that much closer.

One such new technology involves using printers to manufacture metal parts for aircraft, automotive and other equipment. Granted, such printers are not the typical household models that print out maps, recipes, or even high quality photos, and the new 3D printers used at global corporations such as GE and Airbus work on an entirely different set of principles. Instead of ink printed on paper, metal fabrication printers start with a heap of fine metal powder (aluminum, titanium, or specialized steel), much like the type used for powder-coating metal parts. An electron laser then follows the design programmed in by the fabrication engineer, and melts certain portions of the powder into a thin, but discernable shape. At this point, the surface is lowered by micrometers, covered with more powder, and the process begins again until miniscule layer by miniscule layer, a three-dimensional product rises from the surface.

Aside from the incredible accuracy such manufacturing allows in comparison to molding or carving out of larger block, printed metal parts also have the benefit of being lighter without compromising strength. The software used in metal printing calculate exactly where the parts need to bear loads most, and adjusts the concentration of material in those areas. While the weight saved with each manufactured part would be minimal, it would add up combined with a whole airplane’s worth of parts—according to some estimates, reducing an airplane’s weight by just one kilogram can save $3,000 a year in fuel costs. In addition to cost, 3-D printing also saves time—high-precision parts can be manufactured in weeks, instead of months.

Of course, this new technology is not limited to metal fabrication. Other uses currently being researched include using human cells as a type of ink to produce replacement body parts. For now, pioneers in the field are working on replicating simple tissues such as skin and muscles, but within this decade, scientists expect printers to create complex blood vessels, then move on to full body parts and organs.

While the fictional replicator of “Star Trek” existed in the 24th century, 3-D printing capabilities are just the first step toward realizing the fantastic possibilities of metal fabrication—much like the Iron Age blacksmith who first figured out how to shape metal with fire.


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