From lasers to plasma, punch, warterjet and beyond, metal processing equipment represents a significant investment for any size job shop, fab shop, steel service center or manufacturer. Maximizing and accelerating the return on investment is, therefore, critical, and it only makes sense to drive such advanced equipment with sophisticated software designed to fully leverage the machine’s capabilities.
To this end, more fabricators are replacing basic software with more advanced applications provided by the specialists. To learn more, SigmaTEK Vice President of Engineering, Glenn Durham, explains what the industry can expect to see from CAM software providers moving forward.
Farrell: Scrap reduction and accelerated cutting cycles are a few of the obvious benefits of nesting programs. Where else do nesting programs make a difference?
Durham: Nesting isn’t only about scrap reduction. It’s also about part placement for manufacturability. A main goal for fabricators – beyond simply cutting and processing materials, is to efficiently manage inventory. While companies like SigmaTEK want to help manufacturers reduce scrap, we also provide tools that make it easier and more efficient to track and reuse drops.
To elaborate, there are many situations in which the location of a part on the material must be optimized before we can even consider material utilization. For example, vacuum table routers have the strongest suction in the center of a sheet. Therefore, nesting must prioritize placement of the largest parts, which need less suction to remain stable during cutting, around the outside of the sheet – and furthest from the center of the table. Smaller parts must be nested toward the center of the sheet where the table suction is greater.
Another example is nesting for machines that drag the sheet. In these nests, we must lay the largest parts down closest to the clamps and then cut parts furthest from the clamps. Design for manufacturability must understand machine specifics to make the best nest and apply a proper toolpath.
Cutting machines generally come with a pre-installed nesting program. At what point should a fabricator consider upgrading to more advanced software?
The basic software package delivered with a new cutting machine can help most smaller shops get up and running quickly. At SigmaTEK, we partner with machine manufactures to provide a basic version of SigmaNEST, called Companion. What makes Companion useful is that it’s quick and easy to get parts imported and then cut. However, when professional fabricators want to move beyond cutting a few parts and into managing business in the most profitable and efficient way, then it’s time to move to an advanced package.
What should one look for in a more sophisticated nesting program?
The answer really depends on the needs of the fabricator. We find that as newer and smaller shops grow, they first need to add the capability to import parts from a wide variety of CAD systems, nest those parts in a very efficient way and then machine them with an optimized tool-pathing algorithm. Advanced importing, nesting and NC are usually the basic requirements. Beyond that, most shops quickly want to manage inventory and work orders, controlling remnants and reducing waste; then managing the quote to delivery process in a robust and comprehensive solution. We find that at each step in this process, the ROI is such that advanced CAD/CAM solutions like SigmaNEST pay for themselves very quickly.
Can you cite examples of the ROI that SigmaNEST is delivering?
For some industries and companies, the material cost drives the ROI. We recently completed a project where our nesting improvements saved an entire sheet over a production run. That was due to about a three percent better nesting efficiency compared to what the company was previously able to get. Three percent may not sound like a lot, but since they had runs of more than 25 sheets, they got to the end of the job using one less sheet. This is a great example of saving material. But think of the savings in handling time, in machine on-time, in worker hours, and in machine wear and tear.
ROI can also be seen in situations where material utilization wasn’t the main goal. As an example, a fabricator working with plywood had more orders than they could cut and no room to add another machine. Therefore, they needed to reduce the time to cut a nest. Through a combination of nesting and motion optimization, the SigmaNEST software helped them reduce machine on-time by more than 10 percent. Since they were running seven machines, 24 hours per day, they suddenly fulfilled production demand without purchasing additional machines, adding head count or hours to the workweek.
A 10 percent run-time improvement is significant. Can those running metal fabrication equipment expect similar results?
No, I wouldn’t suggest that 10 percent run-time improvement can be expected. That was a very specific case where ROI was based solely on machine on-time rather than material utilization. Certainly, we want to cut more material faster, but the advantage that SigmaNEST brings to the professional fabricator is a comprehensive solution that allows the business to maximize the ROI based on a variety of factors.
For example, we worked with a company that cuts three-six-inch-thick stainless with their waterjet. Processing a sheet typically takes 4 to 10 hours. So, they wanted to set up a run at the end of each day and let the machine process it overnight. To minimize the chance of tip-up for these types of lights-out tasks, the company uses SigmaNEST’s Part Avoidance feature. By setting Part Avoidance to a very conservative value, an extra safety factor is injected into the operation. This gives the company the confidence to run the machine all night without direct supervision. Although the “safety factor” adds a few minutes to a multi-hour run, it allows a plate to be cut every night, ramping up ROI beyond nesting efficiency.
What are the biggest nesting challenges fabricators face today?
Fabricators are challenged by both the high cost of machines and the difficulty of finding skilled employees qualified to program and run increasingly complex machines and shop process. But we can help address those challenges through a two-fold process. We are making software that helps keep machines running continuously and, at the same time, we are placing better tools in the hands of programmers and SigmaNEST users. We are increasing and improving automation control through sheet loading, part picking and scrap processing while also making it easier to run these advanced features from a software “command central.”
One approach for dealing with these complex challenges is by importing assemblies and creating multi-machine process plans. Fabricators are increasingly concerned with more than simply drawing and cutting parts. They need a solution that also deals with the assembly of parts that may be cut on a variety of machines. The newest version of SigmaNEST recognizes which parts need to go to the tube laser, the press brake and the plasma cutter. It can then unfold sheet metal parts, task and nest for each different type of machine – all while managing the flow of different kinds of parts through the shop floor.
How does SigmaNEST support Just-In-Time nesting and similar initiatives?
Nesting and posting machine tool-path code is great, but fabricators often face challenges that require even more. This is what I mean by the importance of a software “command center” and why we offer solutions like SigmaNEST Console, which allows automatic nesting at the machine based on the work needs of the day.
This type of tool works because it can integrate SigmaNEST parts, orders and inventory with a company’s ERP/MRP system. Furthermore, with our SimTrans integration tool, the SigmaTEK services group informs the SigmaNEST user within minutes of a new order or a changed order or even a new shipment of material – whether in a centralized programming office or at the particular machine that needs to nest and cut the part.
Bevel cutting can be challenging. How can software like SigmaNEST address this?
Bevel cutting involves complicated processes and careful thought, which is why it’s essential to understand the cutting machine first and then the bevel pathing before parts are nested. Bevel nesting has to consider bevel pathing, which is a new layer of complexity. To address that complexity, we introduced a new way of applying toolpath to bevel edges that should be available in the coming months.
How does SigmaTEK capture and translate customer requirements into software features and how are enhancements prioritized?
We use a methodology for software development called Agile. One of the principles of Agile is that we receive input and ideas from stakeholders – the people who actually use the software. That means we have a constant flow of incredible ideas from our global customer base. We are constantly amazed by the creative and innovative ways that customers use our products.
Some of the best examples of customer input are related to cutting on lasers, especially on new fiber lasers. For example, when a part has a small hole in it, the laser can cut out the material and drop it through the slats. However, we started receiving calls to our support desk and messages through our sales teams that customers wanted a way to automatically cut a larger drop (one too big to fall through the slats) into small pieces that would fall through.
In response, we added the Laser Destruct feature to do precisely that. It was a big success, but then customers called our support lines and began to register enhancement requests to the feature. Our initial design worked, but customers thought of ways to make the cuts in a more elegant way, which also made the cuts faster. After listening to those suggestions, we improved the feature and debuted it at Fabtech 2017 in Chicago.
Another example relates to tabbing parts into a sheet. Customers told us that they needed an automatic method for tabbing in parts that are small enough to fall through the slats of their machines while leaving tabs off parts that would not fall through. So, we created Center of Gravity Tabbing to provide this functionality.
When the SigmaNEST user activates the feature, we automatically tab parts that don’t have a slat on both sides of the center of gravity of that part. Not only does this improve the manufacturing process, but it also makes the user experience more efficient and more enjoyable. And that’s all because a customer brought us a great idea.
What are some recent software enhancements of note?
We introduced the X1 platform in the last two years, and with that system, we added many features and improvements designed to advance the work of professional fabricators. Of course, the center of every shop is the machines that cut. Whether it’s a laser, punch or waterjet machine processing every metal imaginable, we continue to add new capabilities.
X1 also continues our history of innovation in nesting with new mathematical algorithms for automatic nesting and improved controls for those who prefer manual nesting. We also continue to roll out new tool-pathing features that optimize machine motion and tool placement and control.
Ease of use, ability to run the most machine types from the most machine manufacturers, and feature rich software that handles all aspects of the workflow for fabrication are just a few of the things that make X1 unique. These features and advancements are each significant for different people in a fabrication business.
Where do you see the industry as a whole five years down the road?
Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things get a lot of press. However, I think it’s unlikely that these will be brought into the fabrication industry as a complete package. Instead, components of these new technologies will be incorporated into our workflows to improve processes, efficiencies and quality.
So, I think we will see more companies taking advantage of process monitoring and machine utilization studies. Automation, just-in-time nesting and tool-pathing will be seen as powerful ways to get more return from investments already made.
On an almost daily basis, manufacturing processes are being revolutionized by more complete and more accurate knowledge of what is really happening on the shop floor.Therefore, when fabricators invest significant time and money into their machines, it’s critical that they use the very best nesting solution available to manage and extract the best quality parts.
Founded in 1993, SigmaTEK Systems, LLC is headquartered in Cincinnati, OH (USA) and has an extensive global support network with branches in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa. For more information visit www.sigmanest.com or call 513-674-0005.
SigmaTEK develops and sells SigmaNEST®, a comprehensive software solution for nesting, NC programming and cutting of steel sheet, plate, tube/pipe, and wood. SigmaNEST is the leading CAD/CAM nesting system for plasma, laser, punch, oxyfuel, waterjet, router, knife, tube/pipe and combination cutting machines. SigmaNEST ensures superior material utilization, machine motion optimization, and maximum part quality balanced with cutting speed, work flow integration, material handling, accurate estimates and information management.