A Brave New Age – Steel Fabrication into Industry 4.0

by Kevin Harris, Fabsmart

In the course of my work, I am fortunate to get an insider’s view of many steel fabrication operations in South Africa and what I have seen is that there are as many fabrication strategies as there are fabricators. Each fabricator has their own philosophy on pricing, drawing management, procurement, part processing, and assembly production and it has become clear that the old tried and tested fabrication methods are fast becoming outdated. One of the key differences between fabricators in this spectrum seems to be the company’s appetite for technology adoption. On one end of the spectrum, companies opt for a low tech, high labour approach where the methods are manual and labour intensive and on the other end, companies opt to invest large amounts of capital in cutting edge software and hardware where many of the processes become automated and less labour intensive. There are many factors that dictate which end of the spectrum a fabricator places him or herself and while there are no right or wrong positions, fabricators need to be clear about what they are trying to achieve. One thing that is becoming increasingly clear however is that fabricators on the low-tech side of the spectrum are starting to realise that they are falling behind, and some will not have the knowledge or capital to catch up. Its not all doom and gloom though and there are always solutions.

Specialised fabrication software and intelligent CNC machines were the first wave of fabrication technology improvements and in the last 10 years, we have seen levels of adoption where almost every fabrication shop is using software and CNC machines to some degree or other. For many, this would be a nesting program and a simple 2D plasma plate profiling machine and for others, this would be a sophisticated robotic system capable of programming itself. While for most, 3D modeling software isn’t new, downstream software to manage the rest of the process is still relatively unexplored. Depending on the fabricator’s strategy, it might be feasible to bypass the NC equipment stage because there is such high adoption in the supply chain, but it will not be possible to avoid implementing good software and I would urge fabricators in this scenario to think carefully about their plans.

The next wave of significant change in this industry is just starting to become visible. IoT or Internet of Things and its Industrial subset IIoT, is being referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 (after steam, electricity, and computers) and will become a major topic of discussion in the next decade. Adoption in agriculture and security is already significant but in our specific field of steel fabrication, it is a little behind the curve. IoT is essentially a name for internet connected devices that perform a specific task and then send their data to a cloud-based platform. This platform could either simply report that information back to a user via an app or message (SMS or email) or could trigger an automated workflow for that business. Let’s use an industrial example: A maintenance manager places an internet connected temperature probe onto a critical motor. The sensor takes readings at predefined time intervals and then transmits this data to a cloud platform. This platform then compares the reading against a pre-set range and when the reading falls outside of that range, the system can either send the maintenance department a message telling them that it is time to service the motor or it could be linked to another system (ERP such as SAP, SYSPRO etc) that automatically generates a works order for a maintenance technician or subcontractor. The data is also reported in real time via an app or desktop dashboard.

Industrial applications are very broad and varied and limited only to the imagination and knowledge of the client. Process variables such as voltage, current, level, pressure, light, level, noise, pH and many others can be used to create highly useful process dashboards and can effectively and efficiently automate significant portions of any process.

The kicker here is that companies with a low technology adoption rate will struggle to take advantage of this new wave of technology because they’re not yet tech-enabled. In order to leverage this new field of knowledge, it will be necessary for fabricators to at least have started to build a culture that is open to experimenting with new methods.

Let’s be clear though that these technologies are not implemented for their own sake but to solve fabrication problems. Before undertaking any technology development project, it is essential to think critically about what problem you are trying to solve. Buying software and collecting data for the purposes of producing a smart dashboard is useless if it doesn’t contribute to the elimination of constraints or risks in the process. By taking the time to properly consider your strategy (i.e. where you want to be in the spectrum described earlier) and identify the obstacles that prevent you from getting there, you might come to realise that there are solutions available that fit your organisation and don’t require massive cultural shifts or financial investments. For those that embrace it, IIoT will usher in a host of interesting and useful applications that will enable you to run a sharper, leaner and higher quality fabrication business.

Kevin Harris is Managing Director of Fabsmart and has a particular interest in technology and organisational effectiveness. He has 25 years of process engineering and high-level management experience in steel fabrication and other manufacturing industries.