Evan Smith, president of Hypertherm, says that connecting with end users and automation are two areas in which the plasma industry needs to raise its game.
Hypertherm knows plasma. That’s not so much an endorsement as it is a statement of fact – the company pioneered radial water injection plasma cutting almost 50 years ago and has built a leading market share position in the industry.
Today, however, in the wake of an economic downturn and recovery, plasma – like the manufacturing industry as a whole – needs to change and adapt. To find out what particular challenges the industry’s facing as it seeks to do so, we talked to Hypertherm’s president, Evan Smith.
FAB Shop: What’s the state of the plasma industry right now?
Smith: Well, when I think about the plasma market, I tend to think about it as part of the steel fabrication or metal cutting industry more broadly. The wider steel fabrication capital equipment market is generally healthy, but it’s a mixed picture by global region and by industry. And now that we’re past the Great Recession, and also the immediate recovery, it’s also a more mixed economic environment for investment and fabrication equipment generally. The decision makers are still cautious.
We’re seeing equipment usage up. There’s evidence by consumable demand, but I’d say that with the actual demand for equipment itself, we still see a fair amount of investment postponement in the industry. Our light industrial equipment demand is up, and we think it’s because the investment threshold is lower.
Out of the three technologies sold by Hypertherm – plasma, waterjet and laser – waterjet is probably the strongest right now, but plasma is holding onto its share in the cutting technology marketplace.
FAB Shop: What challenges do you see the plasma industry needing to overcome as it moves forward?
Smith: As with most cutting technologies, there’s the skilled workforce shortage. We find a lot of end users operating sub-optimally, so there are the issues of operator training and system optimization. A lot of end users are also unaware of technology upgrade opportunities.
I think also, in the plasma cutting industry, we see process automation and material handling being areas of relatively less development. Plasma is by far the most productive and cost-effective technology available for most high volume plate cutting applications. But in terms of overall automation, we see that there’s a need and opportunity for further development.
FAB Shop: What would you say that development would entail?
Smith: Well, the core cutting process itself will continue to improve – so, for example, making plasma cutting faster, more cost effective, higher quality, more precise and so forth. But we increasingly see more development in the software, in the control and in the whole upstream and downstream process integration with the actual cutting.
FAB Shop: How else do you see the plasma industry needing to change and adapt over the coming years?
Smith: I think more application focus versus system focus is going to be an important requirement, as well as focusing increasingly on service levels and advisory relationships, which will help customers address the issues that I mentioned earlier, of operating sub-optimally and not being aware of the technology and the upgrade potential. I think we’ll also see more flexible in-sourcing and outsourcing among fabrication customers, and more emphasis on total lean operations.
Smith sees plasma systems being increasingly networked through the cloud in the future.
In building those customer relationships, I think producers and partners will need to go beyond the equipment or system performance itself and increasingly look at the total value stream and product lifecycle for the customer, in order to gain an understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish in their applications. This way, we’ll be able to deliver those particular applications in better and better ways.
I think other parts of the steel fabrication value stream today are simply more connected and smarter in terms of software and automation development. They’re able to address the issues of self-monitoring and self-optimization, and thus also the shortage of skilled workers.
Plasma needs to follow suit. In the near future, I would expect that plasma systems will be more connected, perhaps through the cloud, and more application optimized. Broader application capabilities will allow plasma to enter new spaces that have been previously dominated by other cutting technologies. And following the trend of the digital factory, the plasma system itself will provide more information and intelligence into total factory management systems and processes.
Right now, Hypertherm controllers can monitor certain parameters of system performance and often allow remote connectivity through the Internet. This is how we facilitate the information flows to partners and to Hypertherm in order to allow value added services. That’s just the beginning.
FAB Shop: To summarize, where do you see the plasma industry in five years?
Smith: Well, in some respects, like the last 20 years. Certainly, plasma technology will continue to improve. It will increase in speed and precision, have a better cut quality, be more repeatable and have a lower cost per foot of cut. But I think you’re also going to see an expanded application space for plasma as we continue to push particular adaptations and optimizations of the technology.
The future of the plasma industry might also include systems that can teach themselves particular applications.
I would expect to see smarter and more connected machinery, as we’ve discussed – machines that are self-monitoring and more able to operate without human intervention.
We’re also pushing greener technology, and we think the industry and equipment will become cleaner and greener in terms of its carbon footprint and its impact on the environment.
I think we’ll see systems – as we’ve talked about – with increasingly more sophisticated software and control technology. The plasma system itself will become more integrated for particular applications, and we’ll have more embedded process intelligence. And as process intelligence evolves, we’ll probably see self-teaching or self-learning systems, as well.
FAB Shop: Thank you.