Cost Management Through Processes & Labor in Sheet Metal Fabrication
By: Aimee Sukol, JD/MA/MS Ed.
Unlike other industries that rely primarily on licensing or services alone, sheet metal fabrication manufacturing operations involve a host of ongoing costs. The highest expenses include labor, materials, machinery, and overhead. Overhead is frequently a significant cost that goes unaddressed, especially mistakes and flawed processes. In this article, I explore cost management/reduction within the relationship between labor and processes and offer considerations for mitigating unnecessary expenses.
Cost Reduction/Savings in Sheet Metal Fabrication
To reduce production costs sheet metal fabrication manufacturers require all levels of experience, but of utmost and fundamental importance is basic understanding of three concepts: dimensions, math and processes. These three concepts prevent mistakes and establish both structure and flexibility in designs efficiently and cost effectively to achieve the customer’s vision. A core component to successful processes is communication. Sheet metal fabrication requires a host of micro-processes that include design, forming, bending, welding and powder coating that involve multiple stages and teams. Thus, cost reduction relies on the process of communication to ensure each stage of the product’s design is consistent with the original plan. Meta Fab’s own production manager, Patrick Gooden provided several examples:
Cost Reduction in Communication/Processes:
One of the biggest considerations is communication. Finding a shop and communicating up front about design and their actual manufacturing capabilities is key. Most of the time our shop has a great amount of experience in building parts similar to what a customer is trying to achieve. This also means we have seen a multitude of ways to achieve essentially the same end result. That has given us the insight into which process is easiest to achieve the desired result and what is less so. Usually saving time and money just in up front cost of design work.
Patrick’s reference to communication and experience can’t be overstated. At this stage, communication to and between sales and engineering is vital to ensure the customer’s order is understood and expectations for achieving a timely order are met. Communication combined with analytic acumen allows Meta Fab to select the best process for each project. Labor in this context requires both technical and communication skills.
Cost Reduction in Math Acumen/Comprehension:
Forming or Bending metal. One consideration that is typically missed is flange length and material thickness. If you have a flange that is .250” height, but the material requires that you use a .787” die you won’t be able to bend the part without lengthening the flange. That means you will have to add an operation to shorten the flange. In some cases a wing bend style die or bend strips can allow a somewhat shorter flange to be bent on thicker material but not always and still adds cost of more material and added time to the operation of forming. A good formula is 6x material thickness will be the die size you need. Therefore to figure out if the flange size you had in mind would work you simply multiply the flange length x 2 and then subtract the Bend deduction.
Production doesn’t necessarily require everyone to complete complex math formulas, but math comprehension is essential to preventing mistakes. In Patrick’s above example, the difference in sizes and lengths for forming and bending material impacts timeliness. Sheet metal fabrication manufacturers will benefit from taking an active interest in their workers’ comprehension of fundamental math concepts and recognize when understanding is or becomes a barrier to efficiency.
Cost Reduction in Process Analysis & Attention to Detail:
Consider contours on the flat pattern of your part. Laser time vs. Turret punch time can have a wide gap in cost. Turrets typically being cheaper for parts that are more straight lines and standard radii on corners etc. Large radius corners means “nibbling” on the punch or moving to the laser. Nibbling leaves more deburr work to have a smooth finish and more hits with a punch whereas the laser just costs more.
Weld fixture. When possible use built in the part feature that self locate and reduce the need for elaborate fixtures to maintain tolerance. Utilizing half shear, flanges, cleco holes (for through hole clamp), and slot and tab configurations. This speeds up the fitting process as well as maintain good quality for less.
Materials and processing require critical thinking and attention to dimension. How do companies evaluate job candidates and existing workers for analytical skills? Employers can gauge a candidate’s capacity for critical thinking by providing a scenario based question in the interview. I recommend offering the candidate the option to answer the question verbally or on paper so that they can give the question full consideration. Ongoing training on process efficiency will also prevent costly complacency pitfalls.
For an interesting parity discussion, see the following Sage article that explores unskilled labor’s impact on construction production performance. Similar issues and concerns exist between manufacturing and construction that emphasize the importance of hiring and/or nurturing requisite labor skills.
Cost reduction in sheet metal fabrication requires specific skills that prevent mistakes and ensure efficiency. Much discussion has revolved around finding skilled workers interested in the manufacturing industry, and this issue remains a concern as younger workers are compelled to 4 year degrees or different professional fields. Thus, a thinner candidate pool requires reconsideration of how to identify and nurture essential skills through the screening process and/or ongoing job training programs. For more information about alternative hiring programs, check out Meta Fab’s previous article on re-entry programs: NEED WORKERS? RECRUITMENT BENEFITS THROUGH REENTRY & VOCATIONAL PROGRAMS FOR MANUFACTURERS. A follow-up piece that explores how to access reentry programs is forthcoming.
Programs that offer ongoing manufacturing training skills and job boards:
- Careers NW
- Work Systems provides training resources for manufacturers seeking talent.
- Information about Oregon’s state of “On the Job Training” (OJT) programs and investments.
- Oregon State University offers a manufacturing job board.
In the end, a team’s ability to communicate, plan, apply critical thinking and follow strategic processes significantly impacts a company’s bottom line. And while thoughtful consideration to screening and ongoing training involve additional investments, the long term benefits of efficiency and customer satisfaction are worth it.