How metal fabricators can automate their information flow


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Jul 29, 2023

How metal fabricators can automate their information flow

Khanchit Khirisutchalual/iStock/Getty Images Plus Editor’s Note: The following is based in part on several webcasts, including “How to future-ready your manufacturing business,” available at

Khanchit Khirisutchalual/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Editor’s Note: The following is based in part on several webcasts, including “How to future-ready your manufacturing business,” available at and presented by Andy Pickard, senior solutions consultant at Aptean.

On-time delivery has been a challenge within the fabricated metal parts supply chain for years. Supply chain and worker shortages over the past several years have added fuel to the late-delivery fire, but in truth, that particular fire has never stopped smoldering. The industry faces a hard truth: Often, what’s planned in the schedule doesn’t match what ultimately takes place. Between order acceptance and the final shipment, something goes awry.

Some might blame the schedule, but the scheduling method itself is just part of the picture. That schedule needs to draw from accurate data. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say. Still, it’s not as if fabricators purposefully schedule using bad data or naïve assumptions. Much of the problem has to do with the sheer amount of information that’s conveyed within the fabricated metal products supply chain. Every disruption leads to emails and phone calls as people react to unexpected news. Material or purchased components are late. Certain sheet stock just isn’t available now. Someone didn’t show up in the press brake department. The heat treater is late returning our parts. And so the scramble commences.

When many shops analyze why jobs were late, referring to the reported estimated-versus-actual variances within the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, they find comments like “missing material” or “operator unavailable.” These problems don’t relate directly to machine performance. A faster machine won’t make needed material or a qualified operator magically appear.

The core problem relates to information and, not least, how and when that information is conveyed—both between and within companies in the metal fabrication supply chain. Today, digitizing workflows can make a real difference. Just as rework is wasteful on the shop floor, so too is a missed email or an unanswered voicemail message. Today, like part flow on the shop floor, information flow throughout the enterprise is ripe for automation.

Most metal fabricators are high-product-mix operations, and many serve a range of industries. Revenue diversification makes for a robust business, able to weather the ups and downs of specific markets, but it can also make demand inconsistent and hard to predict.

To serve customer needs, fabricators need to be agile, able to ramp up and down as needed to meet the demand of various markets. It can be quite the juggling act, and most operations can keep only so many balls in the air. In fact, when demand came roaring back in 2022, many operations spent most days meeting day-to-day demands, with no time left to look at the big picture.

One mistake many make is to view various operational mishaps as isolated problems. They then purchase a machine or software platform to solve that problem, yet don’t consider how that one change affects everything else in the office and on the shop floor. This approach often ends up creating a complicated network of systems that need to be integrated. To avoid this, fabricators should look at the big picture from the get-go and consider software platforms that offer end-to-end insights.

Imagine a scenario in which a supplier of a purchased component has a shortage; the company won’t be able to deliver the component when a fabricator’s assembly department needs it. Such events show the virtues of lean manufacturing and ensuring jobs flow quickly from one work center to the next. The faster the flow and less work in process (WIP) between manufacturing steps, the shorter the lead time, which means planners can release orders to the floor closer to their due dates. So, when that unexpected shortage comes, planners can hold off releasing the work to the floor—no resources spent working jobs that, thanks to supply chain woes, might not be able to ship for months.

Still, focusing on internal processes is just half the battle. Mishaps sometimes occur because of the way people organize and convey information. A planner or purchaser types into Excel spreadsheets, sends emails, and leaves voicemails to check on orders. Someone forgetting to send an email or check a voicemail can snowball into a large production problem.

Today, some companies interact with customers and suppliers through online vendor portals. More commonly, though, many have moved toward automating certain communication tasks. For example, a system sends an email five days before a part or special material is due to be delivered. If something changes, people can respond via email, manually update information like purchase orders or work orders, or even build custom systems that can act on new information automatically. For instance, a late delivery of specific hardware might automatically trigger an order to an alternative vendor.

Automated emails also can streamline communication with outside service providers like heat treaters and powder coaters, as well as customers. Sure, customers will be frustrated when they get an automated email telling them that their fabricated parts will be late, but they’ll be even more frustrated if they don’t know about it until the last minute, just because someone forgot to send an email.

Software can help automate these office communication tasks. News of a shortage upstream in the supply chain immediately triggers an email to customers. Vendor web interfaces could even prompt action, like altering an order quantity. Such automation doesn’t eliminate the need for that follow-up phone call—that personal touch still goes a long way—but it does ensure everyone has the information they need when they need it.

Also helping the situation are good purchasing practices, like diversifying the supply base and working with customers to set up approved vendor lists with sourcing alternatives. Fabricators that rely on just a small number of suppliers for metals and components from specific geographic regions are setting themselves up for increased risk.

Good inventory management, often involving the tracking of material from the supplier through the entire manufacturing process, plays a role here too. Over the pandemic, fabricators without good material and component traceability felt the pain. Production stopped and started as material became available, often with little or no notice whatsoever. Real-time inventory data can help mitigate the impact of problems and disruptions. If a supplier lets you down, you should be able to see immediately which orders are affected, then take the necessary action.

Keeping vendor scorecards is critical too, weighing price with performance, which includes quality, delivery, as well as the quality of communication. Say a fabricated part can’t hang properly for an automated powder coating process, or a certain design requires time-consuming masking around certain part features. Does the coating vendor just quote a price, or does it communicate that challenge and perhaps even discuss ways to prevent the problem? When vendors and suppliers learn from each other, everyone wins.

Timeliness is key. Within a fabricator, information must be pushed to those who need it, so they can react quickly. Say a job next month requires five welders with certain skills, yet the shop will have only three available. Planners need to see that constraint and schedule jobs around it, perhaps bringing in additional resources as necessary.

Some operations might require more than one person to a work center (two people manipulating a large workpiece on a press brake, for instance); others might require one operator and then a little time from a material handler (a “percentage” of a person) to load and unload the part. A schedule that doesn’t account for the labor correctly can inadvertently draw resources away from other jobs.

This again brings up the garbage in, garbage out conundrum. When a fabricator doesn’t have a clear idea of how long jobs take and the resources (people, machines, and material) they require, a new scheduling strategy won’t solve the root of the problem.

Correcting these issues can go beyond traditional time studies that measure changeovers and run times. Beyond this, what skill does a job require? Does a work center produce the same amount across all operators on all shifts? Ideally, yes, but in most cases, probably not.

Again, this goes back to communication and training, both of which can be enhanced as a shop undergoes a digital transformation. Workers today use tablets to pull up the latest drawings—no more revision-control problems with paper travelers, forcing rework and (more than likely) schedule changes. Beyond this, employees can review work instructions and even view documents and videos showing exactly how a task is to be performed.

Cross-training also applies here. Custom fabricators experience bottlenecks that shift continually depending on the mix of jobs being run. This makes documenting and maintaining rigorous cross-training especially valuable. One day, cross-trained personnel might insert hardware; another day, they might run a simple job on a press brake; yet another day, they might help in assembly or packaging. With training documented, planners know they have the flexible workforce they need before they release a job to the floor.

Training today should entail not just machine operation but also the basics about part flow and even a cursory overview of the shop’s scheduling method. Say a company’s scheduling software uses the drum-buffer-rope method touted by the Theory of Constraints. Again, the constraint might shift, but in this situation, it would be helpful for everyone to know that a certain work center is a constraint, which means work needs to flow through that work center in a certain sequence to ensure the right quantity of parts arrive at downstream workstations at the right time. Not utilizing that constraint resource as predicted can affect everything else around it.

Change is a constant in the shop, of course, and scheduling needs to account for it. New information from suppliers and customers requires shops to adapt. But changes shouldn’t come from “unforced errors” due to a lack of training—like an operator choosing to run a job out of sequence just because it’s easier, not knowing that he’ll be throwing a wrench into a downstream operation several hours or days later.

Knowledge has become a keystone for success, especially in the highly variable world of high-product-mix metal fabrication. Here, the right software and a strategic presentation of data can help close the loop between the office and shop floor, as well as between a fabricator and its suppliers and vendors—and help everyone get to the root of the problem.

Consider an operation where a certain work center takes far longer than expected on a job, even though all parts and materials were available on time. On Fridays, the company dedicates several hours for training and improvement. So, the very next Friday, employees from that work center meet with supervisors. These sessions (all of which could be documented in software) might help the company get to the root cause. Perhaps work instructions are confusing and need to be revised. Perhaps the material being fabricated is problematic. Perhaps a maintenance schedule wasn’t followed.

These sessions also might introduce improvement opportunities. Perhaps a work center fell behind simply because it was overloaded. Consider an automated folding center or panel bender that’s loaded with work. Looked at on a per-job level, it makes sense for a fabricator to send all the work it can through those high-end systems. After all, an automated bender can complete a job in minutes, with minimal labor, while bending the same job on a manual press brake might take skilled people several hours to complete. It’s possible to process these parts on the brakes and meet customer quality requirements, but it takes additional time and resources—so, why do it?

It helps to zoom out here to consider all the other jobs on the floor. Effective scheduling is about maximizing throughput with available resources and making sure all operations have what they need at the right time. If the press brake has available capacity (that is, the machine and required labor are available), it might make sense to route more jobs through them at certain periods. Good scheduling systems, armed with information from shop floor feedback, can take all this into account.

Such information is fed back to the office, where estimators, engineers, and production planners can use it as they prepare jobs for the floor. After all, if someone issuing a quote does so with bad information, they can set events in motion that put the shop behind schedule and even reduce margins.

Ultimately, every part of the production process needs to work hand in hand. When you have clarity over current and future workloads, you’ll understand future requirements and be able to plan ahead and schedule intelligently. Closing that information loop among all parties within the supply chain—vendors, customers, as well as office and plant personnel within the fab shop—can help make world-class on-time-delivery performance a reality.