One can only apply so much cutting amperage to a metal plate before the excess heat rounds the top edge of the cutting surface and otherwise degrades cut quality. After hitting the limits of cutting physics, the next frontier for boosting automated plasma cutting productivity comes from harnessing the full power of two digital technologies: CAD/CAM programming and nesting software and cloud-based data management applications.
Software that saves
Every cutting table has a CNC controller that coordinates the physical movement of the torch and delivery of cutting power and the shielding and plasma gases, and there are many offline software programs to design part shapes. However, without any ability to optimize workflow or cutting performance, they add all the intelligence of crash test dummy behind the wheel of a car.
Thus, optimizing productivity starts with CAD/CAM programming and nesting software developed by cutting machine experts that understand both the plasma process and the ecosystem surrounding automated cutting. The result is software that can seamlessly integrate with the design software, cutting machine, controller, cutting processes, plate storage and retrieval systems, order administration and ERP system.
Today’s most advanced programming and nesting software has a modular structure that provides a basic foundation and allows users the flexibility build on its implementation. While cutting software is not new, there are many new and powerful capabilities. Further, the need for it has never been greater as OEMs and job shops are under pressure to deliver more parts with fewer resources. Here are just a few of the ways the software can save thousands of hours of time, lower costs and increase output.
- Automate plate nesting to maximize plate utilization in seconds. Given this year’s spike in metal costs and extended delivery schedules from mills, there has never been a greater need to get as many parts as possible from every available plate.
- Plate management. These functions manage and define all plate material in inventory, including remnant plates. It can save large inside cutouts as remnants, make multiple remnants on the same job and interface directly to an inventory control system for real-time reporting.
- Job planning. These capabilities enable the cutting software to automatically pull in data from the ERP systems and efficiently keep track of job orders.
- Production data generation. These tools, such as cost calculators, give users planning and cost control capabilities and can output data at any stage of the process.
- Bevel cutting. Bevel software, available as part of ESAB’s Columbus CAD/CAM software, enables plasma and oxyfuel systems to accurately bevel cut with minimal operator intervention on mild steel from 6 mm to 50 mm thick. Where bevel cutters of the past were complicated and bulky, newer 5-axis systems are more robust and can fit on smaller tables.
- Square cutting. Because of the swirl of the plasma gas, the high-precision plasma process inherently creates a 1- to 3-degree bevel on one side of the cut. This new software technology, combined with a 5-axis bevel head, can automatically cut materials at higher amperage while tilting the torch to compensate for increased edge angle. Users can double their cutting speed while keeping a squarer edge.
Alternatively, by cutting in a “quality mode,” the system can compensate for even the usual 1- to -2-degree edge angle. This technology also improves cylindricity on small holes. As a result, cut parts can flow to the next production step with minimal or no post-cut edge preparation.
Along with high parts volumes, automated cutting generates an enormous amount of data. Cutting software has long had machine data capture (MDC) capabilities to capture all this data and store it in database. From the MDC, users can perform overall equipment efficiency calculations, a commonly used key performance indicator for automated machines. Other data includes that from ancillary equipment such as plate storage and transportation systems, quality control/traceability systems and, as noted above, ERP systems.
None of this is new. What is new is being able to use online applications such as ESAB’s CutCloud to easily aggregate and analyze data as part of a digital ecosystem. A cutting operation typically has distinct categories of users involved with engineering, production, quality, maintenance and the business operations. Each person wants different data and needs to analyze it in a different way. With applications that run on any web-enabled device, these users can:
- See what the cutting machine is doing in real time from anywhere
- Gather and measure the cutting machine’s efficiency and productivity
- Improve accuracy of sales quotes by using actual system data
- Generate customized reports and send them via PDF, Excel or other formats
- Use WiFi to connect systems that could not previously be connected (e.g., in a shipyard where the cutting table could easily be half a mile or more away)
Here are few examples that expand on the power of online data analytics for connected systems:
1. Better maintenance practices: Connected systems enable remote monitoring and troubleshooting. Machine status and conditional alerts via text and email enable intervening before minor issues (e.g., low machine coolant) become a major source of downtime. Through data analytics, users can predict if consumables will run out during the next production run. They can then proactively decide if they want to change consumables before the cutting begins or stop in the middle of cutting a plate.
2. Removal of hidden bottlenecks: While systems can inform operators which cutting consumables to use and when to change them, it doesn’t guarantee that operators will have the required consumables at hand when required. A consumable changeover takes less than a minute.
If 30 min. of unexpected downtime shows up on a daily report, was it because the operator had to go to the tool crib to get the right parts? Or was it because the overhead crane wasn’t available to remove the plate skeleton after cutting? Data analytics foster conversations between operators and supervisors that remove frustrations for everyone involved.
3. Ability to track and trace: Digital solutions enhance quality control and part traceability, which is required for fabricators working in pressure vessel, bridgework and military shipyard applications. These functions historically required hundreds (likely thousands) of hours of human labor, and they are inherently prone to human error. Did the operator write the correct part number on the part? Was the cutting information connected to the correct part? What steel lot did that plate come from? How long will it take to retrieve that information if a customer asks a question?
With online applications, virtually all data related to a part can be linked to its unique ID number and recalled remotely. After just few clicks and a couple of minutes of processing time, a report can be on its way. It’s worth noting that plasma systems also have multiple options for part identification, including plasma marking, pin stamp marking and inkjet marking.
4. Secure and reliable system: Large corporations are especially concerned about protecting intellectual property and cyber threats. As a result, they prefer to work with trusted partners. One of the undisputed world leaders is Microsoft, which is why ESAB selected Microsoft Azure to build its cloud-based digital solutions platform. Data from CutCloud is password protected, just as the company’s Office 365 information is protected.
With an online system, there are no servers to install, no software to download and all data is stored in the cloud. For users of cutting systems and business software, the analytics software applications will be comparatively easy to learn. The suite of application tools can optimize the performance of every step of the cutting process, maximize the ROI on every piece of equipment and immediately combat issues such as spiraling material prices and labor shortages.