Brent Balinski reports on some of the current trends in sheet metal work, working with lasers, waterjet cutting and bonding.
Sheet metal working
Sheet metal working has been under pressures familiar to the entire manufacturing community for a long time.
According to figures from the Australian Industry Group, the fabricated metal products category employed 59,300 in February, half of the workers it could claim in November 1989. This was slightly more than 6 per cent of the total of 949,700 manufacturing employees.
An open economy and cheap options from low-cost nations have eroded employment, and remain a concern for many in the industry.
"The biggest issue right now is longevity - staying alive," Walter Suber, vice-president of the Manufacturing and Engineering Institute of Australia pointed out.
"I think the biggest issue is there's a lot of business going offshore," he followed.
"So trying to maintain an Australian manufactured product, making sure there's Australian content, is one of those major things that we're trying to push."
Suber, who has worked with metal for over 35 years and is also currently customer service manager at BlueScope Steel, believes things are particularly difficult right now. He points to the collapse of three NSW and ACT sheet metal manufacturers in less than a year.
Custom Group, Altank and Advance Metal Products (which was acquired by Wilson & Gilkes) are just three businesses that have recently packed it in.
"Unfortunately in the current economic climate that we're in there's lot of hurt out there," he said.
"There's commercial activity, there's some good projects going on. It's not all doom and gloom - if you're looking. But the optimism is just not there at this stage.
"The volumes that used to be there pre-GFC are just not there."
Even though it is not always enough to stay alive - Advance had invested significantly in capital equipment not long before it went into liquidation - it's essential now more than ever to stay productive through up-to-date equipment. And as has been the case for some time, short lead times and doing things as efficiently as possible are vital.
Suber and others will tell you that the metals industry looks nothing like it used to.
"[Factories are] often a multi-million dollar businesses that need to have multi-million dollar components: lasers, turret machines, benders and folders, robotics," he said.
"You need to have that equipment to be competitive on the world's platform... You've got to update your software regularly - the days of just having a few benders and folders and marking things out by hand and a measuring tape are long gone."
Looking at lasers
Laser cutting is a highly computer-driven process in many workshops. The demand for flexibility is also understood keenly by vendors and suppliers of machinery.
"There's more on equipment being able to provide better quality of production and do additional things," Annaliese Kloe, managing director at Headland Machinery, told Manufacturers' Monthly.
"You're now seeing laser technology, for example, in the metal industry being able to cut 25 millimetre mild steel and to have very good cut quality."
Kloe's company has been the sole Australian partner for German machine tool specialist Trumpf for more than 30 years. Headland distributes the Trumpf 5000 series laser cells, which have been hailed as among the more innovative and flexible fibre laser machines available.
The Trumpf TruLaser 5030, available now with BrightLine fibre technology, is able to handle both thin and thick metals (up to 25 mm) as well as highly reflective services.
"What we've seen is the evolution of the fibre laser, so that actually enables you to have things like triple the feed rate over conventional C02-type lasers," explained Kloe, who said high levels of automation were also in great demand.
"When you go overseas, you go to Europe and you go to other countries, that's really what technology is doing for them over there," she said, noting that in other high-cost countries there was a similar need to be as productive as possible.
"So you bring in a lot of automated systems, offline programming, to enable the smarter, programmer-type person in an office being able to run multiple machines.
Another trend she's noticed in Europe is the drive for greater energy efficiency, with those designing machine tools making sure the job can be done with the lowest energy costs possible.
"For example on Trumpf's CO2 lasers, they now use 30 per cent less electricity," said Kloe. "So that's also a driving force through a lot of the design of the products coming out."
An area that has resisted automation more than others has been bending, with skilled operators and a lot of manual handling still required.
However, there are efforts to take the labour out of this too, and Kloe predicts a big increase in automated bending techniques coming onto the market in the next few years.
"I think as the technology's moving, the people operating the machines don't have to be as skilled," she reflected on the changed demands on workers.
"They're basically calling up a program and pressing a 'go' button. So a lot of that - you still need a skilled labour-type person on the press brake where you have to understand what happens to metal when it bends, but on a laser you've got offline programming doing all the hard work."
The waterjet option
The most popular waterjet cutting machines in Australia are also made here, by Techni Waterjet, established in 1989 and based in Campbellfield.
Waterjets work by focussing ultra-high-pressure water (with an abrasive garnet additive, if required) through a tiny, precious stone orifice, out of which it streams as fast as three times the speed of sound.
In their (very) earliest form they were only able to slice paper and similarly weak materials but they are now able to slice everything from rubber to metals.
They often find homes in factories that also have a laser cutter, complementing other types of machining and providing a suitable option for when heat sensitive materials are being cut.
According to Techni's marketing manager, Paul Chiodo, waterjets are a popular solution for reasons including the range of materials they can cut, at high accuracy and high speeds.
"The major point of a waterjet machine is its versatility," Chiodo told Manufacturers' Monthly.
"And it cuts all the metals: steel, aluminium, brass and all that kind of stuff. It cuts with no problem."
The company's top-of-the-line product, its Techjet-X3, has a positional accuracy of 0.01 mm and cutting speeds as high as 25 metres per minute.
The company claims over 200 installations in Australia and more than 500 worldwide. Chiodo gave glass and metal as the two main uses for his company's machines.
Techni also manufactures its integrated servo pumps (which won an innovation award at the Euroblech metalworking expo in Germany in 2010) and has in-house software associated with its machines, which takes some learning but not a lot, according to Chiodo.
"It's the first seven days [training] they are put through," he explained. "And it's pretty straightforward: you don't have to be a whiz to be using it."
Among its users, Techni believes that price sensitivity is the most noticeable concern.
"There's been a little bit of a Chinese influence lately in manufacturing," he said.
"We've had to be a little bit smarter in the manufacturing process of our machines to make the prices more competitive, because we're the only ones in Australia that are making waterjet machines."
Bonding with chemicals
It depends who you ask, but it has been said before that there are four main methods of structural bonding in manufacturing.
These are thermal methods (e.g. welding), mechanical fasteners (e.g. rivets), double-sided tapes and liquid adhesives.
Each has its strengths and its limitations, but for the last category, there are certain benefits for those working with sheet metal. These are particularly to do with (but are by no means limited to) appearance and price, according to Greg Bain, general manager at Lord Chemical Products.
"The big driver is probably cost saving and improving production times," Bain told Manufacturers' Monthly, citing a popular use for his company's adhesives.
"And certainly I think the drive to higher quality and better appearance, like filing cabinets for offices is a classic one," he explained.
While transport is the number one industry Lord serves, higher consumer expectations about appearance had made office furniture an increasingly popular use for adhesives.
"20 years ago people were happy with weld spots showing up all the way around. Now they don't want that - they want a nice surface."
Bain said there is sometimes a process of educating a client about the potential savings realised through adhesives over other methods.
"You can imagine your typical metalworking customer is who is used to welding or rivets says 'oh, they cost nothing, we just use them'," he said.
"And then we offer this expensive adhesive and they say 'oh we can't possibly save money'."
Welding and rivets come with the hidden costs of energy, filler metals, metal fasteners and the need for skilled labour.
Compared to some other methods of bonding, adhesives also leave a surface unmarked, and won't buckle metal or burn off anti-corrosive coatings. They are also suitable for thin substrates. Bain added that industrial adhesives are able to flex and can fix complex shapes, and welding requires the two (or more) surfaces being joined to be the same material.
Of course, it's not always a case of saying one will always be better than the other for every situation.
"It's definitely a process of education, of going through and demonstrating or showing what the value proposition is and where the value lies for them," said Bain.
"And it's very much a case of working through processes and seeing what works for what situation...So yes, a lot of tech service work, a lot of hand-holding."
Manufacturing and Engineering Institute of Australia
0419 242 886
1300 592 061
03 9357 8360
Lord Chemical Products
03 9335 6620