Why Forgers Should Invest in Automation
A recent company survey indicates that forgers are more concerned with the availability of qualified labor than its cost. Given that, the forging community should consider automation to minimize its labor requirements. Automated billet feeding is one area that can improve manufacturing efficiency and reduce labor costs.
As I walked through one of our customer’s forging facilities, I was reminded why I decided to purchase Feedall Automation, a 73-year-old parts-feeder manufacturer. Feedall had just installed an automated billet-feeding system in April, and I was visiting the facility this summer to see the progress. The integration of automation in traditional forging facilities is a must these days, and I was able to see first-hand the benefits of these automation investments.
During the past couple years, the manufacturing industry has undergone a significant transition, completely changing the manufacturing process at its core. Automation is taking over traditional manufacturing, driving efficiencies, improving overall safety, decreasing maintenance costs and skyrocketing productivity.
The evolution of automation promises to supercharge manufacturing capabilities, and it is essential that the traditional forging industry respond and embrace this change. Suppliers are helping lead this charge in other industries and are looking for the forging industry to embrace this transformation. This article will outline three compelling reasons why investing now in automation for the forging industry is critical.
Constant Push for Productivity
If you are involved in manufacturing, then you are very familiar with the word “productivity.” It is the single-most-important operational-efficiency measurement used by manufacturers. The U.S. government publishes a quarterly measurement by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) that sets the baseline productivity among all manufacturing companies. This statistic sets the expectation for most companies on how they should be performing to keep up with the rest of the industry.
Labor productivity increased 3.4% in the first quarter of 2019 versus last year (Fig. 1). To put it into forging terms, a given facility would need to increase the number of billets (or pounds of finished product) by 3.4% without increasing any labor hours. If labor hours increased by 1%, then the number of billets processed would have to increase by 4.4% to achieve a productivity of 3.4%.
By any measurement, this is a healthy increase for companies to achieve, especially those that are not investing in automation. A study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) showed that forward-thinking manufacturers that invest in automation can expect annual efficiency gains of 4.1%. The single-most-effective way of achieving continued increased levels of productivity is by automating manufacturing processes.
At Feedall, we see these opportunities every day with our customers. Having a solution that can impact their productivity is at the forefront of what we do with our customized equipment. On average, our custom feeding equipment reduces downtime by as much as 20%, which provides greater productivity.
The second reason to invest in automation is the shortage of available labor. In a survey our company sent to 180 forging professionals, 65% responded that they have a difficult time finding labor. Contrast that versus the same group responding with only 20% who were concerned with the current cost of labor. Therefore, finding labor is more of a concern than its cost. One of the reasons for the many challenges in finding labor is the demographic shift in the U.S. (Fig. 2).
Baby boomers are no longer the largest available labor pool in this country. The millennial generation, which is made up of about 56 million workers, is not pursuing skilled-workforce opportunities. This creates a decline in available workers and a challenge for most companies, especially forges. Therefore, companies are going to be forced to find alternatives to direct labor by automating processes. Companies need to be proactive with this change in labor availability. Implementing automation shifts the types of jobs needed in the future that require new training and education to the current workforce. Companies that do not have an overall strategy for implementing automation tend not to get the most out of implementing these solutions.
Increased Technology in Automation
Without the ability to forge steel and other metals, the global industrial revolution would not have had the parts needed to manufacture cars, aircraft and other industrial goods. Despite lagging other industries in implementing automation, the forging industry must invest and upgrade processes and equipment in order to remain competitive. Only 22% of forging professionals from our survey said that their company has made significant investments in automation. Concurrently, 59% of this group said automation investments are important to their businesses over the next five years in order to remain competitive (Fig. 3).
This outlook change in automation can be attributed to some new developments in technologies that have emerged over the past decade. One of these is the ability to have fewer manual processes with part-handling systems. Having greater flexibility to manage a large part range with less downtime and reduced maintenance is one of the main takeaways from these forging professionals.
Our company has made significant progress in addressing the needs of its forging customers. During the past two decades, a great example of this is with the investments made in automating the billet process into induction heaters. Gone are the days that forging facilities need to implement large vibratory bowls to feed billets. These old and antiquated systems are unreliable, not flexible for retooling and a maintenance headache. They also require a full-time operator to manage these machines against part jams and various downtime occurrences.
Over the past 20 years, Feedall Automation has studied the needs of our forging customers to streamline this material-handling process. Our ultimate goal was to eliminate all manual handling of billets from the cut-off saw to the press. This required a new way of integrating engineering and sensor technology into traditional equipment design. What we developed was the Model 4800 billet-feeding system as shown in the photo at the beginning of this article.
Model 4800 does not use vibration or gravity to manipulate the part orientation, creating a maintenance-free operation. Specially designed adjustable cleats and an integrated cross-feed conveyor allow the system to have no part recirculation or fallback (Figs. 4 and 5).
The integration of sensors allows this system to work with little to no labor involvement. Low-level sensors allow the system to meter more billets into the hopper for greater uptime and productivity. The adjustable cleat design is capable of handling billet diameters from 0.5 inches to 7 inches with lengths up to 24 inches. Not only does this equipment create a safer environment for forging operators, but productivity is greatly increased.
Feedall Automation continues to look at better automation solutions for our forging customers. We currently have issued a patent application on a system to aid robots in picking random parts out of bins.
American manufacturing is all about responsiveness, flexibility and adaptability to change. As I walked through the forging facility evaluating the implementation of our Model 4800 on one of the press lines, it was evident that the future of forging will be with the integration of smart automation. The plant maintenance manager said, “Operators are now coming up to us asking if we can install four more of these machines on the other press lines.” When production operators feel that automation solutions are a good idea, then we know that the industry is moving in the right direction.
Author Jon Cocco is the owner and CEO of Feedall Automation in Cleveland, Ohio. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 440-942-8100 or follow him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/joncocco/. For additional information, visit www.feedall.com.
- Non-farm labor productivity reported by Bureau of labor and statistics June 6, 2019. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/prod2.nr0.htm
- Pricewaterhouse Coopers Study: Industry 4.0. https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/industries/industry-4.0.html?_ga=2.34945633.1536028253.1521642138-1598922970.1519035759
- Pew Research, March 1, 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/01/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/