High-mix, low-volume work has always been the norm for custom fab shops, but in recent years, larger manufacturers have seen their operational needs trend in a similar
direction. The shift is in response to rising consumer demands for higher varieties of product – mass manufacturing is taking a backseat to mass customization. As more manufacturers adopt this “smaller batch” philosophy, higher quality control and lower inventory management is a welcome result, not to mention higher customer satisfaction.
For manufacturers with dedicated production lines, this new normal can be a daunting prospect, to say the least. But it doesn’t mean abandoning a longstanding way of doing business. It simply means putting a new focus on flexibility and automation.
Rack and shelving manufacturers are a prime example of the type of business that historically could produce the same parts and products day in and day out in mass quantities. Today, however, their customers’ needs are changing. As online marketplaces, like Amazon, continue to outpace brick-and-mortar retail, demand for customized warehousing solutions increases.
Typical rack and shelving systems are composed of three parts: uprights, beams and diagonals. Because the thickness of each part is different, different equipment is required for each. Uprights and beams can be produced on the same dedicated line, even though the beam doesn’t require any punches, but because diagonals are thinner and with a simpler profile, a separate line is required.
To produce an upright, which is hole intensive for easy assembly, the ideal setup would start with coil material
feeding into a punching operation followed by roll forming and then a cut-to-length operation. The uprights are then ready to be painted.
The production of beams, even if there are no punches, is produced similarly to the upright, but requires several secondary operations, including assembly, welding and support welding, prior to painting.
“An established manufacturer of rack and shelving products already has a system for producing beams and uprights that’s probably several decades old,” says Sylvain Touboul, U.S. managing director, Dimeco. “Although these lines are still in operation, they are less sophisticated with less possibilities for flexibility for punching and roll forming. Based on their age, they are often less accurate, but can still produce acceptable parts.”
Although these manufacturers are producing acceptable parts, they understand the need to increase safety measures for their employees and improve productivity for the bottom line, but they also need flexibility. The market is demanding it.
“For manufacturers producing the same long runs of parts, the rules of the game have changed,” Touboul says. “They’re switching from mass production to custom orders, and they need more flexibility. They need to run a couple of coils and then switch to another part or product. Their old system might still be fast, but it’s not flexible. Systems to improve downtime from one product to the next – that’s what Dimeco provides.”
In addition to customer demand for product variation, nationwide goals of reshoring production are also increasing the need for flexible manufacturing. Not so long ago, low-mix, high-volume made for easy outsourced production management, but today, the market requires more diversity – and still at high volumes. Dimeco is fortunate to have been well positioned with its portfolio of solutions that combine productivity and flexibility.
The company is known for its continuous coil manufacturing lines that are custom engineered for a variety of applications. The overarching goal has been and continues to be producing flexible, tailored solutions that deliver customers better material utilization, reduced changeover times and increased throughput. Dimeco achieves these goals through the introduction of coil material versus sheet material, but it is also highly reliant on technologies that are geared to reduce downtime.
“Our customers want – and sometimes already have – the fastest equipment possible,” Touboul explains, “but if the line must be stopped during long periods of time to switch from one production to the other, the production rate at the end of the day is dramatically reduced.”
Because the speed of a line has its physical limitations (an average speed of 100 fpm is typical), the goal should be to concentrate on optimizing downtimes. At Dimeco, the flexibility of a manufacturing line is defined by its ability to quickly configure itself to all the variable parameters of a part. These variables can relate to the material itself (type of material, thickness and width), the punching operations (shapes, quantities, spacing, etc.) and the final shape of the parts (width/height of the profile and shape of the profile itself).
Typically, rack and shelving manufacturers order coil that is specific to each profile they produce. The problem is the time involved with switching from one coil thickness or width to the next. Fortunately, Dimeco has addressed these concerns at multiple points throughout the process.
It starts with guiding accessories that can quickly be adjusted to fit the coil’s width. For changes in material thickness, that, too, can be easily adjusted via the straightener settings or the position of the roll former stands. For further time savings, those settings can be recalled when the same material is used again.
Flexibility in the line carries on with Dimeco’s Flexipress punching system, a mechanical press that can feature standard style turret tooling. When the width of a product needs to change, an NC transverse positioning system offers instant hole repositioning. Switching from one part to the next can be achieved in seconds.
Despite roll forming’s reputation, it, too, can be flexible. A good example can be seen when the width of the parts belonging to the same family varies, keeping the same profile on both sides. In this scenario, Dimeco uses double-body roll forming machines (known as Duplex), where the roll forming width can be manually or automatically adjusted. However, if the profile is completely different, then the entire roll forming raft will have to be changed. This, too, is a scenario that Dimeco has considered and addressed in terms of keeping downtime to a minimum.
“We understand the challenges of today’s manufacturers and that’s why we focus on flexibility and fast changeover times,” Touboul says. “Depending on every profile type, we can have one, two or three roll forming stations that can switch over in 15 min. In the amount of time it takes to switch out the coil, the rest of the line will be ready.”
High-mix, lower volume part production might feel like a seismic shift for manufacturers that are more accustomed to high volume work, but achieving it is possible. In doing so, these manufacturers are not only streamlining their operations, but they are responding to market demand, and customers will take notice.