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Laser Technology
Tuesday | 30 April, 2013 | 12:00 am

Common connection

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Bystronic Byspeed piercing 3⁄8-inch mild steel at McNeilus Steel.

Software streamlines communication between machines

April 2013 - After a period of slowed production and cautious planning, many companies are happy to invest in additional equipment and increase orders. Often, this means adding different, more recent models. That new technology can result in a disconnect between older and newer machines. Software helps operators input information and simplify oversight.

In Tampa, Fla., a steel service center added more machinery to its lineup of laser, oxy-fuel, waterjet and plasma cutters, and communication between machines and operators became problematic. “We needed a software where all programmers could be on the same page,” says Dave Carpenter, engineering and estimating manager at Tampa Bay Steel Corp. “I was using the software that came from the laser machine or plasma or waterjet cutter—one guy knew how to work one and another knew a different machine. It was a pain if someone was out. We needed a solution that could program everything in the shop.”

mm-0413-laser-image1Tampa Bay Steel takes on jobs serving a variety of industries, including power production, wastewater treatment, trailer manufacturing, heavy equipment manufacturing, automotive, as well as mom and pop fabrication shops. The shop cuts “just about anything,” Carpenter says. Its laser cutters cut up to 3⁄4 inch carbon steel; stainless steel, typically for 304L, 316L and 904L stainless; and 1⁄4 inch aluminum in a variety of grades. 

Carpenter says although his laser machines are all from the same manufacturer, the various models have different post processors. The company has three lasers and is adding another later this spring, bringing its total to four. 

“Their software doesn’t allow us to do a multi-post,” Carpenter says. The company added SigmaNest software from SigmaTek Systems LLC, Cincinnati. “With SigmaNest, I can post to all the machines, and I don’t have to redo the program for a specific machine. … With two different post processors, I’d have to go back into the program and repost to the second post processor because the software doesn’t allow for multi-posts.” 

By using SigmaNest, Carpenter says any of his five other operators can pull whatever program they need no matter which machine. “It’s made the programming process a lot easier since my programmers don’t have to do double the work by having to make double the posts,” he says.

SigmaNest software is versatile. “You’re not limited to certain brands,” says Ben TerreBlanche, president and CEO of SigmaTek. “It’s an open architecture—oftentimes companies purchase a laser cutter, for example, and just work with the software that came with the machine. However, once they really get going, they recognize the need to open up the scope of the programming system.”

Integral tracking

Seamless communication between machines is not the only major benefit SigmaNest software offers customers. Different metal grades have different chemical compositions, making them stronger or weaker. “It may be a crane lifting thousands of pounds, a seat belt bracket on a fire truck, a frame rail for a military vehicle carrying soldiers or a grain cart carrying 1,500 bushels of corn. Each requires specific grades of steel for their applications,” says Chad Gossard, sales manager at McNeilus Steel Inc., Dodge Center, Minn.

McNeilus Steel’s customers need tracking of materials from the beginning of production to the final shipment. Services include laser cutting (flat and 3-D), high-definition plasma, oxy-fuel, bending, shot blasting, rolling, machining, rebar fabrication, sawing and robotic beveling. 

The company added SigmaNest software to its laser cutters to generate cutting programs that improved efficiency, accuracy and productivity. “The nature of the steel service center business requires laser machines to cut parts for different customers on the same sheet,” says TerreBlanche. “It becomes a challenge to keep track of work orders and progress, hence the need for planning and scheduling systems such as an MRP [manufacturing resource planning] or ERP [enterprise resource planning].” 

SigmaTek’s SimTrans, an online transaction processor and data hub, works into the cutting process by synchronizing what is happening inside SigmaNest and communicating back and forth with a host ERP system. The system is useful because it helps companies communicate with all machines within their shop. Operators have the ability to see an order input into the host ERP system and have it displayed on every workstation where operators can see the job on a to-do list.

“It doesn’t matter where the host MRP system is. In McNeilus Steel’s case, they had different islands of automation not connected to each other,” explains TerreBlanche. “While they had a programming system that could make programs and an ERP system where they could do inventory control, the systems were not elegantly connected or not connected at all.” 
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McNeilus Steel works with materials including stainless steel, aluminum, carbon steel, HSLA grades, heat-treated structural grades, abrasion-resistant grades, tread plate and galvanized. “We are constantly switching jobs all day long,” says Brandon Klebel, CNC programmer, McNeilus Steel. “SigmaNest has helped group some of that work together to make scheduling and planning easier for our operators.” 

Material certificates, chemical composition of sheets and cast numbers when material comes from the mill, must be tracked. When steel, for example, is purchased from the source, “the steel plates have a birth certificate displaying how much carbon, nickel or chrome there is,” TerreBlanche says. The chemical composition of the plate is important because it could involve liability and safety. “If I’m going to make an elevator, there’s a bracket located on the top of that cage. You don’t want to skimp and put some cheap steel that could crack.”

Tampa Bay Steel also is considering upgrading its ERP system to use the software for material tracking.

Evolving technology

Tampa Bay Steel needs to upload files for parts and process them quickly throughout the day. The company uses Solid Works 3-D modeling software to design and build models of parts to be cut. Before using SigmaNest, programmers had to break down the parts into a 2-D model and into separate DSX files. “Now, I can save the 3-D model and SigmaNest software can pull the parts out and load as individual parts without us having to break down each 3-D model into 2-D parts,” Carpenter says. “Once I save the assembly I need, the software automatically pulls all the parts out and loads as individual parts, saving me that extra step—it automates that process.” With more than 100 orders on average daily, not having to break down the assembly for every order saves a significant amount of time for special orders.

Previously, it was difficult to integrate jobs because of the many different file types. That process now is easier with SigmaNest. “On average, we ship to 110 customers a day. Today alone our truck drivers had 140 stops,” Carpenter says. “So we deliver to a lot of customers.” 

SigmaNest allows Tampa Bay Steel to program orders ahead. “We can look at an entire day’s worth of orders and put material together, nesting orders on the same material,” he says. “The software is a lot smarter. Any remnants are recorded into a material library so that I can stock material in SigmaNest so we use those pieces first and then go to our regular 4-foot-by-10-foot sheets.”

A team of 50 engineers and software developers produces major releases about every two years, but there are service pack updates every quarter. The company is on the verge of releasing SigmaNest version 10. 

“Our services group, a team of consultants that are experienced in this field, analyze new customer requirements,” TerreBlanche says. These consultants take feedback from customers and evaluate and implement changes to SigmaTek’s software. 

“We acknowledge that we don’t know everything ourselves so we’re very interested in the opinions of our customers. We succeed when our customers succeed with SigmaNest.” MM

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