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Tools of the trade

To succeed in custom fabrication, a basic knowledge of standard machining is required

In the world of custom fabrication, it’s nearly impossible to know every metalworking process to its fullest degree. While a manager may understand the overall workings of the shop, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they can expertly operate every machine. Therefore, managers have to have a high level of confidence in their machine operators. This is particularly true in respect to machining operations where high-quality results are critical and where proper machining execution is required to deliver the same refined results every time.

When staff and managers are properly trained on the machining equipment on their shop floor, less rework is required and increased throughput results.

Whether a manager is new to a shop or simply new to the role and responsibilities of the job, having an understanding of the different types of machining processes, the state of the industry and best practices is vital to success in the position. It’s also vital to delivering an overall successful custom fabrication operation.

Types of machining

Two of the more common types of machining processes used at FPG are CNC milling and CNC EDM. CNC machining, or computer numerical control, is the process of utilizing machines and software tools to augment materials. CNC milling involves removing material from the object through automated cutting and drilling. EDM, or electrical discharge machining, operates on the principle of erosion by electrical discharge. EDM is more accurate and precise than milling, but is not quite as accessible or cost effective.

Both types of machining offer regularity in their processes and are chosen based on the needs of the project, the materials used and how exact the cutting or milling needs to be.

At Fabricated Products Group (FPG), the company recognized the need to develop in-house procedures for how to best carry out CNC machining. These procedures were initially developed back in the 1980s and 1990s and have been refined over time to develop best practices for the most common process in the shop, milling. This type of machining has become vital to the processes and allows a great level of cohesion.

EDM can cut within one-one thousandth of an inch. While this method is not new, the technology that powers it has become more advanced, more exact and faster. With different metals, it’s possible to utilize consumable materials, such as graphite or copper, which help to create shapes and designs in the material. Without the EDM process, this would not be possible. Tools developed over time have created a more streamlined process. And, advancements to the technology focus on developing programs for the tools to do manual labor quickly and decrease the chances of errors.

Electrical discharge machining (EDM) operates on the principle of erosion by electrical discharge.

Process advancements

Like most manufacturing processes, machining – in all of its various forms – has become faster and more precise over the years. However, slight changes to equipment are important to note. These changes include computer programming that has reduced the time it takes to design the processes. It has also increased the amount of data available during the process and adds to the troubleshooting options that are possible. This provides the ability to keep every team member up to date on project components.

The best advice for managers – or anyone working in the field – is to learn as much as possible from the machine’s manufacturer. There is a wealth of knowledge available from the OEM as well as through their distributors. Both offer training from dedicated professionals that know the ins and outs of the machine.

Working with these sellers establishes a firm background on the equipment, tools and capabilities of each machine. All of these can be used moving forward for increased safety and production.

The human element

It takes highly skilled professionals to operate these machines to their fullest capabilities. Trade workers are the backbone of the industry and in high demand, but as more and more top-tier professionals retire from the field, there aren’t enough young people replacing them. There is no doubt that there is a need in the industry for more talented youngsters to join the ranks, and because the shortage among fabrication shops is nationwide, it will take more students choosing apprenticeships and trade school education over four-year universities to remedy it.

The technologies behind CNC machining are constantly evolving. It is key, therefore, for a company to take note of the new features being introduced to the market.

Although there is less of a dependence on workers due to the increase in robotics and computer programming, young people are still needed to enter the field. After all, someone has to run the automated components that are being employed.

A way to combat this issue is to incorporate more apprenticeships and industry-focused internships that bring first-time trade workers into the fold. This will provide young professionals with the opportunity to learn through real-world experience, making them a more valuable asset either with that company or their next employer. In addition, young professionals can develop a specialized talent through an apprenticeship, which is essential for a shop that takes advantage of various processes.

Like most fields, education continues to be a life-long necessity to foster the best possible outcomes for the business and the individual.

Best practices

The best practice for every aspect of the trade industry is being focused on training. Proper training by experienced professionals promotes safety and proper handling of all the procedures in the shop, which always helps a company’s bottom line.

Training for safety around a machine, in particular, is paramount in encouraging a safe and productive environment. Effective training can prevent most errors from occurring and mitigate accidents and any possible lost man hours that would arise from accidents.

Training in the classroom is helpful, but on-the-job training is important to understanding exactly how something should be done. By learning from seasoned operators, many possible scenarios can be explained, demonstrated and navigated.

Not only does training work to reduce downtime for machines, but when necessary, effective training also teaches the operator how to maintain the machine properly. Keeping a machine maintained is a way to increase productivity while decreasing the downtime required when the machine needs servicing.

It is also very important to work with the team delivering the machine. These individuals focus on teaching their customers how to use the new tools and software. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – gaining knowledge lends to a firm grasp on the best way to do things.

The fabrication industry is greatly aided by machines. They help in streamlining the work, but also allow the trade workers to pursue bigger and better goals faster and more accurately. While some may fear the increase in automation, there will always be a needed human element to direct the machines and approve any actions while maintaining quality throughout the process. Whether it’s a machine operator or a shop manager, education and training are the keys to success.

Fabricated Products Group