Mobile Navigation

Growing with Automation

A top-ranked shop has grown through the automation evolution, and has found a home for the early implementations of automation as well as the latest. Every step has been scrutinized and purchased with care.

A top-ranked shop has grown through the automation evolution, and has found a home for the early implementations of automation as well as the latest. Every step has been scrutinized and purchased with care.

by Ed Huntress, Editor

With 300 tool capacity, an Amada EM-ZR punch press is capable of extended lights-out operation.

EVS Metal, a fab shop based in NJ that’s ranked highly in the FAB 40 list, is a case study of success that would interest the Harvard Business Review. The big story with the company is its overall management, but Fab Shop will leave that story to the analysts who dig into balance sheets and marketing strategies. We’re more interested in the physical aspects of what they’re doing. And there are plenty of interesting and enlightening examples to choose from.

Two things stuck out on our visits to their main shop. First, they manage a wide variety of processes in a tight space, one that was never a candidate for cellular arrangements of machines or textbook “lean” practices – they have their own idea of “lean manufacturing.” Production processes are orderly and efficient but the work flow goes in all directions, with machines placed where there is room for them, even where the process flow is less than ideal. How they’ve made this work, exploiting every available nook and square foot, is a story unto itself.

The other one, which is easier to see and interesting to evaluate, is their use of automation. They have some of the latest and greatest. But they also have some older automation, which they have worked into their total production package in a way that gives them great cost efficiency, taking advantage of the older machines’ lower capital costs while getting the best mix of cost efficiency and productivity. It is a very thoughtful combination, worked into an overall facility capacity that includes everything from all-manual, labor-intensive processes to fully-automated and robotized cutting, bending and welding.

EVS’s lineup ranges from manual machines to the latest, fully robotic electric press brake.

How they got there

EVS Metal started in 1994, when the present owners bought out an existing 5,000 square-foot shop that had three or four employees. A Strippit 1000-R turret punch press was the most technically advanced piece of machinery. The NJ shop was the beginning, and they’ve since expanded into PA, TX, and NH. The main, NJ shop is now 32,000 square feet and the total company employs roughly 225 people. Sales volume is over $30 million per year.

Joe Amico, one of the two founders and now VP and director of manufacturing and sales, says “My partner had a business that made industrial rack mount computers. My former company was doing projects for him; I ran the shop. We spoke a lot, and he convinced me that we needed to do the work ourselves, the sheet metal end of things. We found this small business and we started operating there. We were making computer enclosures, industrial rack mount enclosures, bracketry, little chassis. Nothing complicated. It was all sheet metal parts.

“He had a few customers and I had a few. We had a few reps that this old company had contacts with; we kept relationships going with them and were able to get started.

“I think we started like most small shops; you try to get one or two customers that can grow into something. We rode a lot of the buildup to the telecom boom that was going on in the late ‘90s, up through 2000. We had a lot of telecom customers. With those customers, the enclosures became more complicated. They became assemblies — multiple parts that fit together to build card cages. As that work became smaller and smaller, the jobs became more and more sophisticated.

With all of their automation, EVS’s strategy is to use manual machines where the length of part runs and part configurations don’t justify robotics.

Retrenching, followed by expansion

“Then, that business more or less died instantly. There were a lot of startups trying to build capacity for the internet boom. I don’t know if anyone knew what they were going to use the internet for at that point, but there was no last mile, so people couldn’t get fast internet service at their house or to their phone. There was no reason then to build all that internet capacity. Those companies more or less died, and we were left with a company that had a decent amount of capabilities, and we had to diversify. That’s been the main thing that we’ve tried to do to this day, to diversify, and try to go after more complicated work: assemblies, box-build products, things that are more than just making a bracket. We went for large, complicated weldments.”

EVS went for ISO 9001certification; they added specialized operations at the facilities in other states; and today, the range of customers is enormous. Industries served range from medical to aerospace, food and beverage to telecommunication.Within the NJ facility they’re producing tiny, complicated assemblies, complex enclosures, and large kiosks for automated retail operations, some of which have their own assembly lines. Customers are located everywhere. “Mostly in the U.S.,” says Amico, “but we’ll ship to contract manufacturers occasionally that are in China or Mexico, Most, though, are clustered around our several facilities in the U.S.”

With all of this diversity, EVS has to look at cost effectiveness for a very wide variety of processes. They started looking into automation back in the ‘90s, says Amico:

Despite the tight spaces at EVS, there is room for an entire assembly line for kiosks – one of the company’s specialties.

Starting with automation

“For us in the beginning, automation meant taking a solid model, drawing it as a wire frame model and unfolding it. That automated what had been laying parts out in the flat. Then press brakes became automated, with a more sophisticated back gauge system that allowed you to control the pressure, heights of the gauges, and where they sat in the machine. One of the first mechanical things we automated was the loading and unloading of the turret punches, which is pretty straightforward and commonplace. We moved that to FMSs that allowed you to store multiple sheets of material, run programs for more than one part without intervention, to be able to automatically retrieve and load material onto the machine.

“In about ’98, when we were starting to run higher and higher quantities, we bought our first robotic press brake. It was one of the Astros from Amada. That machine might not have been brand new, but we bought it from Amada. That was the first time we got into robotics. We had some very high-quantity parts running and it was much easier to have that machine run them than having someone sitting in front of a press brake for three or four days running the job. Initially, those machines were used to run just those high volume parts, parts that we might eventually lose to stamping houses if they built the tool. But with our robot, they didn’t know if they really needed to build the tool. At first, that machine would run every few weeks with different parts.

“We had people in our facility that we were able to train for it, with Amada running the training programs. We contributed some of our own input to training; my partner and I would help out, not so much about how do we run the machine, but more of, ‘how do we use it? What type of parts do we run on it? When do we decide to run parts on those machines? What are the right quantities?’ As we became better at programming those machines, our employees could run smaller and smaller lots on them. Fifteen years ago, ten years ago, we had to have thousands. Now we’ll go to 100-part runs that run every few weeks, and we’re able to set the press brakes up quickly and easily get them running on shorter runs.”

Older-generation robotic press brakes, bought used and refurbished at a fraction of the cost of new ones, are applied to longer-run jobs, where slower programming and setup aren’t a handicap.

More robotic press brakes

With success came more investments in robotics. “We bought one maybe every two years for a while. Then there was that lull in our development where they sat for a few years, when the big runs went away. We really had to re-indoctrinate the employees to getting better with their setups, being able to do them quicker and easier. Part of that was advances in the software that allowed you to program these machines faster and easier. We also got into programming all the press brakes offline, and that melded everything together.”

As robotic press brakes became more advanced, EVS was taking advantage of the newer capacilities. They stuck with Amada. They now have one of the small, very advanced Amada machines that we’ve shown on the cover of Fab Shop and that the company displays at current trade shows. It’s robotic all the way, fast, and versatile.

“But the newest machines cost on the order of a half-million dollars,” says Amico. “Our older robotic press brakes are productive but not nearly as fast to change over. So we started buying used ones for the longer runs. We can buy one for $20,000 and then rebuild it ourselves. With those machines handling the longer runs and the new ones handling short runs and complex parts, we have very good overall cost-effectiveness.”

That’s the combination that caught our eye when we saw the gang of new and old working together: using the old and the new together, each for its appropriate types of jobs. The temptation to scrap the old is a lot lower when you have a rational strategy to get the best out of both.

Robotic welding

EVS started robotic welding around six years ago. It’s taken off more slowly than the robotic press brakes.

“We’ve looked at a few newer systems,” says Amico. “The thing that’s weak is the programming. Most people are programming at the machine with a pendant, which can be kind of intricate, because here you’ve got to be very exacting with the placement of the electrode or the torch tip. Right now, we’re using mainly MIG. We’ll keep looking at new programming systems, but nothing catches my eye yet.

“The big problem with robotic welding is the fixturing. Depending on how complicated the part is, it can involve extra complications. The position of the part you’re welding has to be pretty exact. As you weld, keeping that part in position is not that easy, because as you induce heat, things move around. You could only hold it so tight for a while. Even if you hold it super tight, when you pull it out of there, the part springs apart.

“There is some laser sensing available now. They’re starting to make advances, but take a machine that’s $150,000 to begin with, and you start driving the price up. It gets very expensive. Laser welding, with the fiber lasers, could do a lot better job of it, but again, the whole thing is that you’ve got to be able to get that piece in place exactly. For a job shop, the tooling becomes super expensive.”

At the other end of the scale from the kiosks, small parts, both simple and complex, are part of EVS’s production. 

Automatic punch press

EVS has both CO2 and fiber lasers, making full use of both. But a lot of their work lends itself to punch presses, and the company owns several generations. Their newest – Amada, again, the EM ZR type – is electric-drive with automated loading, automated tool changing, and sufficient speed that they can use nibbling tools (at 1500 hits per minute) that produce, as Amico says, “almost like a slow laser.”

But it isn’t substituting for a laser that’s the important part. Are they faster, more controllable, more accurate? “All of the above, and more,” says Amico. Overall speed is much faster, using punches other than the nibbler. “And almost everything we do has some kind of form in it. Most of them are up-acting forms,” which solve tool-interference problems.

The autoloading tool capacity is 300 tools; EVS typically uses 20 or 30 tools on a job. There are a lot of details to the machine that represent big advances over hydraulic operation, several of which contribute to untended operation. It represented quite a change for operators.

Says Amico: “You went from a turret that maybe was ten to 15 years old that had older technology, including hydraulic punching, but was paid for a long time ago. Now you’re moving into brand new turrets that have electric punching and they’re much, much more expensive. Itbecame a lot more difficult to run, needed a lot better support, and you had to do things a lot smarter, but if you did all those things, you eliminated almost all the setup for the machine, and it could allow you to really run lights out, if you set things up properly, for days at a time.

“Amada has been out for a few years now with their EM style machines, and they’re very reliable as long as you keep them maintained properly. They have protections, such as alarms when the ram runs out of grease. But you really can run them lights-out. We’re planning to buy another one.”

What about the older turret punch presses? They were still running full speed ahead when we visited the shop.

That’s EVS’s pattern. They have the latest, and they find uses for the earlier generations that don’t sacrifice productivity. With their mix of work, and of batch sizes, assigning jobs to different generations of machines, and of automation, is a tactical exercise that involves considerable management thought. The result is an award-winning operation.

EVS Metal

Amada America