May 2007 - People will continue to debate the ancestry of mankind, but the general principles behind evolution are undeniable. Ever-changing environments drive the need for change, not only in a species but also in ideas, technology and even the way that companies conduct business.
As each day passes, the pressure that China and other overseas manufacturers place on the domestic manufacturing community increases. Companies must adapt to the overseas threat or find themselves on the list of endangered species. Those that refuse to do so will ultimately become extinct. The roll-forming industry is no exception.
"China is strategically targeting the larger-volume-type jobs out of the United States and pursuing them," says Rob Touzalin, president of American Roll Formed Products Corp., Painesville, Ohio, a producer of custom roll formed products. "What's inevitable is that custom roll formers in this country are going to be fighting over fewer and fewer large jobs. The smaller jobs will necessitate new thinking on setup and production efficiencies. If you don't understand that China is a major factor in the U.S. market and if you don't react to that, you're going to be in real trouble."
In order to survive, roll formers and their equipment manufacturers must learn how to evolve. The future is hinged on the development of new technology and industry partnerships. Rolling over isn't an option.
Darwin believed that man made a genetic drift from his so-called lower-primate relative. Luckily for roll formers, they aren't dealing with chimps. Adept engineers are constantly figuring out how to improve and streamline roll forming lines.
"The marketplace is becoming cutthroat and if you want to stay in business, you've got to figure out how to streamline operations," says Jeff Carson, international sales manager at Samco Machinery Ltd., Toronto, a manufacturer of roll forming equipment. "There's a constant need for improvement."
Although the industry still relies on processes that were put in place more than 50 years ago, such as inline punching, deburring and notching, strides have been made to keep roll formers on the cutting edge. Technological advancements can keep labor involvement to a minimum, ensure quality and enable the production of previously difficult-to-make parts.
"The idea is to have a finished product with zero labor involved, especially in the American market where labor costs are really something that you have to consider," says Carson. "We have a machine called a nester that automatically packages individual pieces into a small bundle and a palletizing machine called the master bundler that palletizes each of those bundles. It can fill a truckload automatically, so you can have a truckload ready to go to the job site without a human hand touching it."
Material handling devices are becoming a common add-on for any roll former wanting to reduce labor costs. Chuck Summerhill, vice president of U.S. operations at Roll-Kraft, Mentor, Ohio, a roll forming equipment manufacturer, says, "It's becoming a prerequisite, particularly for commodity-type items where speed is everything."
To keep lines running at an efficient speed, roll formers can also use vision systems to regulate the product coming off the end of the line. The inspection software is becoming more sophisticated while the technology to increase quality standards is advancing, as well. Ryan Durst, senior manager of sales and marketing at The Bradbury Group, Moundridge, Kan., also an equipment manufacturer, explains some of the products that the company has developed in order to create higher-quality parts.
"Recently we introduced an anti-flare device that mounts on the roll former base to counter certain internal stresses and correct the flare inherent in roll formed metal parts--thus improving the quality of part shapes," he says. "Our patented new Flat Trak strip evaluation system is a non-contact monitoring device that enables operators of both old and new levelers to achieve superior strip flatness through detailed real-time feedback. It measures the flatness of cut-to-length metal strips, gives leveler operators graphic real-time feedback on strip shape, records flatness information and can be used to print bundle tickets that certify flatness."
Intuitive and automated add-ons reflect society's ever-increasing reliance on technology. Summerhill mentions, however, that some roll formers aren't in the position to make the capital expenditures required to incorporate the latest and greatest technological advancements. And sometimes they're just not necessary.
Roll-Kraft's quick-change die fulfills simple needs by going back to the basics. To save time in changing out cut-off tooling when a different angle is required, the company developed a manual process that allows an operator to simply pull out a few bolts and realign the die to the new cutting degree instead of removing it entirely. Purchasing only one piece of tooling that can achieve multiple angles, as well as the minimal time involved to make the adjustments, equates to savings.
Rafted lines have become a popular choice and are finding their way in to numerous roll forming operations. As with Roll-Kraft's quick-change die, the philosophy behind a rafted line is to reduce downtime. Alternate stands or rafts allow for offline setup and can be installed into place as soon as a run is completed, resulting in a minimal pause of the production process.
In addition to proper equipment selection, cooperation within the industry is another method that can prove beneficial when combating competition. Historically, species that have cooperated with one another have ensured the survival of the entire group.
Companies like Roll Forming Corp., Shelbyville, Ky., are fortunate to already be part of a larger sum. As a member of Voestalpine, the company's Austrian-based parent entity, Roll Forming Corp. benefits from the organization's established resources and experience. Bill Johnson, sales manager at Roll Forming Corp., believes that the industry can find longevity from consolidation just as steel producers have in the recent past.
"There are a large number of small to mid-size roll formers that are competitive in niche markets and are subject to the economic ups and downs of those markets," Johnson explains. "Consolidation will help roll forming technology advance by allowing technology advancements to be spread more quickly and evenly throughout the industry, as well as leveraging the ability to raise capital for continual investments in technology. Voestalpine has already been very successful in Europe with bringing roll form companies together under a single format to share in the synergies of the group. The same model will work in North America."
Touzalin describes a partnership that he developed with Superior Roll Forming, Cleveland, more than twelve years ago. "We serve different markets and don't really compete so we thought that if we combined our resources we would simulate a company twice the size of either company," he says. "We share a lot of assets including engineering, equipment, technology, customers, salesmen, nearly everything. We felt that the sum of the two of us together greatly exceeded what we could do ourselves in the marketplace. Superior is currently building an 80,000-square-foot addition and we just moved into an additional 70,000-square-foot facility. It seems to be working."
Both companies foresee long life and attribute a portion of that prediction to their partnership. No matter what preventative method is prescribed, however, the domestic roll forming community needs to protect its future. Technology and innovation are bountiful and will continue to shape the face of the industry. The question is whether stateside companies will be around to see it. MM
By Abbe Miller, from the May 2007 issue of Modern Metals.