Class is in Session

As students around the country return to the classroom, manufacturing professionals can do the same with a sheet metal design course


Professional development, advanced training, upskilling one’s workforce – call it what you will, it is crucial for employers to invest in employee education. As technology evolves, businesses must keep up to stay competitive. After all, when employees have the most up-to-date skills, they can handle tasks faster, make better decisions and reduce errors, ultimately leading to increased company success.

Employees with diverse skill sets are also more likely to bring innovative ideas to the table. Upskilling encourages creativity and problem-solving and it produces a workforce that is adaptable to new challenges and opportunities. These philosophies serve as the foundation for TRUMPF’s Sheet Metal Design course, a class that is described as “for anyone that would like to rethink the entire design and manufacturing process.”

The students that attend TRUMPF’s Sheet Metal Design course have a range of roles and experience. Customers are encouraged to send employees that represent different skill sets.

At its core, TRUMPF’s class aims to give students the knowledge and considerations to keep in mind to design better parts and replace or improve current processes. Taylor Wright, a course instructor and mechanical design engineer for TRUMPF, says the class is “flexible and fluid” and centers on sheet metal production using modern processing techniques.

Upskilling a workforce is a strategic investment that benefits employers and employees alike, be it by increasing productivity, innovation and employee satisfaction or simply trying to overcome the challenging labor environment. For the TRUMPF course, in particular, students learn the fundamentals of sheet metal manufacturing, explore new design and operational ideas, create better communication channels, and learn about new technologies and strategies. Along the way, they might actually have fun, too.

Fundamental foundation

One of the main objectives behind the Sheet Metal Design course is giving students an overview of traditional design methodologies. Bruce Lerario, a course instructor and mechanical design engineer at TRUMPF, says the design process chain is the very first thing that is covered in the three-day class.

“After introductions, we start from the simple, basic idea that we’re following the scientific method,” he says. “We discuss science and technology and follow the process steps to get us from an idea to a finished part. We look at the steps that take us to a finished product and the considerations that should be top of mind along that chain – going from an idea, to sketches, to a 3-D program, to a prototype part and then to a production part, all while keeping production plans, costs and logistics in mind. It’s taking the entire world of sheet metal and condensing it down to get everybody up to speed.”

The classes are a mix of customers, non-customers and TRUMPF employees. They are taught at three TRUMPF facilities across the United States – on the East coast at the company’s headquarters in Farmington, Conn., on the West Coast in Costa Mesa, Calif., and in the Midwest in Chicago. Each class includes course content and a focus on sample parts that instructors have prepared. Course instruction is described as “fairly universal” in order to cover the wide range of machines, technologies, and different customers and backgrounds involved.

The Sheet Metal Design course is taught at three TRUMPF facilities across the United States – at the company’s headquarters in Farmington, Conn., in Costa Mesa, Calif., and in Chicago.

“We’ve taught this class to beginners, intermediates and people with decades of sheet metal experience,” says Christine Benz, director of Tru Services for TRUMPF. “That’s why we keep the class so fluid. We’ve taught the class to apprentices and interns where it is basic and gradual, giving them all the basics and getting them up to speed on modern manufacturing. But, for someone with a ton of experience, we ramp it up so that we aren’t boring them or giving them information they already have.”

Classes can also be held at a customer’s facility where the instruction can be more tailored to their individual needs and challenges. Lerario describes it as more of a workshop-style class where the customer’s own parts are used as samples.

“We still have the core elements of the class as a background, but we focus primarily on their products, machines and designs,” Lerario says.

Regardless of the location, participants are often new designers and mechanical engineers that need to learn specific techniques formulated for TRUMPF products. While these new employees took advanced courses in CAD/CAM and understand how to create parts and assemblies, they weren’t necessarily educated in applying design techniques to specific brands of equipment.

“So design for manufacturability is really at the core of the class,” Lerario adds, “looking at the machines that the parts will be created on and giving the students who have the design skills some new tools to make parts more efficiently.”

Exploring new ideas

One of the main drivers to attend TRUMPF’s course is to overcome a challenging part. A customer might have a complex assembly or a weldment that serves as the trigger to seek out the class.

“Whether it’s on-site or at a TRUMPF facility, we save time within each class to focus on students’ specific parts,” Benz says, “but that’s after we initially build that framework to focus on the design process chain and the techniques that they can apply. By the time we’re done teaching some of these core elements, they may have already had that lightbulb moment where they see how these new techniques can be applied to their parts.”

Students bring in a physical example of the part if it’s small enough or send part files prior to the first day of class in order to discuss the challenges they’re experiencing. From there, the class as a whole comes up with suggestions toward a solution. If a solution doesn’t come from the class organically, course instructors are happy to provide ideas.

Class participants showcase their design concepts made from colored paper. If a part can be folded out of paper, chances are that it can be made from sheet metal.

Whether it’s a student’s part or one of the sample parts that instructors use as a conversation starter, class brainstorming sessions can be quite extensive. During these sessions, students consider the elements currently in place in the part’s manufacturing process as well as the specific function of the part. Other considerations include setup times, fixturing needs, clearances and bend tolerances, as well as downstream processes, such as welding. No rock is left unturned.

“I’ve taught the class dozens of times to hundreds of students with the same sample parts and have gotten different results from every single class,” Wright says. “It’s not like there is just one standard solution; it’s very dynamic.”

Exposure to new tech

In addition to coming in with specific parts, students come in with specific goals, such as a trailer manufacturer that needs to remove weight from their products or a fabricator that’s concerned about their scrap rates. Some students attend to optimize their processes and reduce costs while others want to get exposed to new technologies and equipment, such as a tube laser.

“Processing parts on a laser, punching machine or a combo machine optimizes the geometry so that they can cut more efficiently, using less power,” Lerario says. “A lot of these customers have legacy equipment, so it’s getting them up to speed in utilizing those machines more efficiently to save them time and energy and create a greener product in the end.”

In terms of specific techniques relating to TRUMPF equipment, the course digs into various machines, tools and machine features that can improve the way a part is manufactured. Understandably, there’s a lot to learn in that regard, but examples include TRUMPF’s tab-and-slot tool that’s used to self-fixture parts or assemblies by essentially interlocking components, which reduces gaps and, in turn, improves welding outcomes.

“We expose them to new product technologies like using twin-line cutting and eco-nozzles on a laser or creating designs on a press brake that produce less waste,” Wright explains. “If they’re throwing out less parts at the end of the day, that’s a huge win.”

Lines of communication

Another benefit of the Sheet Metal Design course is establishing better lines of communication among co-workers. Customers often send a design engineer, a programmer and a machine operator to attend the class, and for perhaps the first time, the designer realizes how his design or a certain feature of a program affects the machine operator. Conversely, the machine operator starts understanding why a certain program was made one way versus another. Wright quips that the class is where engineering egos go to die.

“Even though you’re the creator of a part or assembly, at the end of the day, you’re not the only one in the process,” he says. “Instead of thinking you know best as the engineer, you need to understand the guy who’s going to be building this part for potentially the next few years. There’s a good chance he knows your parts better than you do and could provide a lot of input.”

As students open these lines of communication within the class and begin to solve long-running challenges together, these new habits inevitably continue back at their place of work. And this is exactly why the TRUMPF instructors encourage customers to send employees that represent different skill sets.

“Bringing these people together and having them communicate allows them to establish a feedback loop, so that they can improve and make their production processes more efficient,” Lerario says.

When learning is fun

Considering the course is specifically a “sheet metal” design course, another main objective is relaying the techniques and possible solutions for successfully designing a flat pattern. Through hands-on activities, students get the opportunity to apply their newly learned design knowledge and techniques. For many, this is where the real fun starts.

“It’s a little unorthodox, but we have a bunch of colored paper, scissors, hole punches and tape to replicate the process of cutting and folding a part,” Wright says. “It kind of feels like kindergarten, but it translates very well to sheet metal production. If you can fold a part out of paper, chances are that we can make a very similar part out of sheet metal. It helps them visualize how parts come together. We even frame it as a challenge where we form teams and hold contests. It keeps things engaging.”

Long after the course ends, students continue to apply what they learned on their shop floors. In fact, it’s not uncommon for TRUMPF to hear from course participants years after the fact. Recently, a gentleman that had taken the class 10 years prior enrolled 14 of his employees in an on-site class, giving him the opportunity to show off the interlocking components, self-fixturing parts and clever designs that were the result of his enrollment in the course.

“Customers always say they wished they’d taken the class years ago,” Benz says. “But it’s never too late. As equipment becomes more advanced and sophisticated, the course becomes more important. And, as customers struggle to find qualified employees, it will be key in upskilling their workforce.”


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