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Sheetmetal companies stay competitive with more machines and workers

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IT’S a common story that once a customer needs a large volume of stainless steel cabinets or sheetmetal enclosures, Australian industry struggles to compete with the ‘low-cost, large-run’ manufacturers in countries like China.

The only way for many companies to remain competitive, says Ken Christensen, MD of Power Machinery , is for them to hold their ground with short and medium length runs.

“For a lot of customers with a short run of a particular component, it’s not practical to take their products to China or India.

“On the other hand, Australian industry can offer a quick turnaround and direct relationships between the supplier and customer.

“The biggest challenge is making sure that we hold that position. Unfortunately, we are vulnerable to forces that are beyond our control,” said Christensen.

Despite the uncertainty of competing in today’s global marketplace, not everything is “beyond our control”. The sheetmetal industry is currently focusing on better equipping companies to achieve short and medium production runs. Two key elements that have emerged in recent times are more flexible machinery and a skilled workforce.

Flexible automation

Christensen says that automation in sheetmetal machinery is continually evolving to better offer manufacturers quick changeover times and increased flexibility.

“There is a gradual progression of automation towards machines that are smarter, quicker and easier to use, with a strong emphasis on flexibility and being able to go from one job to another in a minimum amount of changeover time,” he said.

This includes many developments in Flexible Manufacturing Systems (FMS) - complete production lines that are fully integrated and controlled from a central programming desk.

FMS is not a new concept, as many sheetmetal manufacturers in Australia have been using it since the early 90s to produce quality products during unmanned shifts at night. Suitable for lighter gauge sheetmetal products, the system gives manufacturers the ability to move quickly from one product to another by changing a program.

“Traditionally a manufacturer would run a certain number of a product, then they would reset the machine and change all the tooling – a mechanical process that took anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, or even longer,” Christensen told Manufacturers Monthly.

“With FMS, the one machine will pull the material down off the rack, punch it, do all the actual cutting and bending processes and the product will come out at the other end, more or less finished. It meets the needs of short order manufacturing by minimising lengthy changeover times,” he said.

According to Christensen, a Swedish press brake manufacturer has made use of the quick changeover philosophy, with the development of a programmable tooling system which automatically changes the tooling in a press brake between jobs.

“A different V size is needed for every material thickness and type, so in a traditional press brake, an operator has to change his tooling once a 1mm mild steel is exchanged for 2mm stainless steel.

“Automation eliminates the whole tooling set up, which improves safety when moving tools in and out of the press brake. It’s also more accurate, as the user can reprogram it in an increment of 0.1mm when changing to the next setting,” he said.

Bolstering skills in the workforce

New machinery requires skilled workers for operation and maintenance; a need that has become a major issue for the sheetmetal industry given the current shortage of skills in Australian manufacturing.

According to Colin Johnsen, MD of FJP Manufacturing and president of the Sheetmetal Industries Association (SIA) of NSW, smaller companies are taking on less complex work due to the lack of skilled staff, despite the fact that complicated orders is where small businesses usually make their profit.

Johnsen believes that one of the reasons for this shortage is that the sheetmetal industry suffers largely from an image problem, discouraging young school leavers from considering a trade.

“I think the industry is stereotyped as resembling the workplace of 20 years ago, with dark factories, dirty floors and a dingy environment. Parents say “your grandfather was a boiler maker and we don’t want that for you,” to their kids.

“What people have to understand is that sheetmetal manufacturing no longer solely a hands-on job. The roles have changed immensely; you now need computer literacy, electronics engineering and the capability to maintain equipment and read a schematic, alongside hands-on skills. It’s not just mechanical; it’s multi-skilling in all areas,” he said.

Government gives a helping hand

Despite the shortage and after attending an International Symposium on Career Development and Public Policy in Sydney, Johnsen believes Australia is one of the most forward thinking countries when it comes to skill development.

This is proven by the Federal Government’s 2005 budget commitment of an additional $143.2m until 2009, which led to the formation of Career Advice Australia (CAA) - a comprehensive national career and transition support network for all young Australians.

Alongside the Regional Industry Careers Advisors (RICA) and the Local Community Partnerships (LCP), the network has implemented a number of initiatives to boost interest in manufacturing careers, such as giving year 11 and 12 students industry experience for two weeks of the year, “Adopt a School” partnerships (under-written by the Australian Industry Group) and Tools for your Trade – another Federal initiative in which a first year apprentice can receive $800 to spend on tooling.

The NSW State Government is also making efforts to support industry training in the new education budget, offering HSC students apprenticeships for one day a week to help students gain a trade qualification while completing the HSC.

While all these programs are positive moves for the sheetmetal industry, Johnsen also sees a need to encourage older employees to get back into the workforce, particularly in light of Australia’s ageing population and the gap left by long term employees retiring.

“For a physical job, it’s only natural that a younger person is going to be preferred. However, a lot of these older workers have a wealth of experience and we need to bring them back into the workforce.

“Allowing them to learn new skills at their own pace is critical to enticing them back into the sheetmetal industry.

“At TAFE, you can apply for self paced learning instead of a four year apprenticeship. The faster someone can work through the modules, the faster they can earn the title of a tradesperson, making it more suitable for the older generation,” said Johnsen.

Hopefully with steps like these, more skilled workers and better technology will further bolster the Australian sheetmetal industry on an international scale and help companies maintain their competitive edge.

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