Five years ago, the people of industrial sheet metal, Hialeah, Fla., were immersed in an old-fashioned sheet metal factory, wielding metal shears and laying out by hand. The shop served the local welding shops as well as the metal roofing space, and it did so with an old shear, a metal bending machine and a few other basic machines.
Today, the workshop of 20 employees has been completely transformed. It has modern TRUMPF fiber lasers and press brakes, even a portable IPG fiber laser welder. It also has a team of engineers well-versed in SolidWorks, and not all of them work locally – a feat that raised many eyebrows this morning when the company held a roadshow that kicked off this week. Manufacturers and Manufacturers Association (FMA) Annual Meeting, will be held in Miami from March 1-3. The tour group gathered around an elegant room near the front of the shop. On one side, two designers worked on widescreen monitors that were adjacent to a row of screens on the wall, each showing a remote engineer’s computer screen in action.
Only about 20% of ISM customers have a 3D CAD file. Most come with drawings on paper, sometimes with just an idea in mind, hence the need for in-house engineering. But these remote engineers do more than just draw in SolidWorks. They also work in offline bending simulation software. During this morning’s visit I saw an engineer modify a backgauge position to form a complex part, with contoured edges and multiple bends at unusual angles – no single 90 degree bends were found. These screens help remote employees collaborate with onsite staff.
Soon after, I saw an equally complex part forming on the company’s press brake. This is the kind of party you look at and like, OK, how do I rate this thing? The backgauge fingers seemed far too simple to take on the intricate contours. Would this thing need a side gauge? Not at all, as it turned out. The operator bent the odd flanges one after the other without hesitation, and with each bend a new safe gauging point was revealed. It was a sight to see for a sheet metal enthusiast like me.
The transformation of the shop is not finished. In recent months, the store has hired a software engineer to develop a custom enterprise resource planning (ERP) system tailored to the needs of the business, reducing the store’s reliance on paper travelers and other communication inefficiencies.
That’s a lofty goal for any store, but the company’s rapid transformation in five years makes this software initiative even more impressive. Russell Murton of ISM, our tour guide, told us that the fact that so many people in the business have roots in old school fitting out and that the more experienced people in the workshop know the intricacies of the design and manufacture of sheet metal, has made the transition to modern machinery. and a software all the more powerful.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” Murton said, adding that the machines make those who know sheet metal even more efficient and effective.
ISM’s Diego Idarraga added that this knowledge is essential for store employees and, in particular, those working remotely. These remote engineers do not visit the workshop, but they know the sheet metal. In fact, all of them have been working in sheet metal for years.
Both in their thirties, Murton and Idarraga appreciate the need to know how things are made, how the tool shapes sheet metal. More importantly, they both enjoy the time they spent in their 20s, learning the old-fashioned way, watching how sheet metal forms, bending and unfolding blanks in their heads. And they recognize the importance of legacy processes. The workshop performs manual laser welding – a new process if ever there was one – in an area directly adjacent to a welding station, one of the oldest metalworking processes. It’s old, but it’s still the best way to get the job done.
Like many family fab shops, ISM is going through a generational transition, and this new generation is making its mark in a big way. Considering the changes the store has made over the past five years, imagine what the next five years have in store for us.