Tube fabricator embraces digital technology to pursue Industry 4.0
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Tube fabricator embraces digital technology to pursue Industry 4.0

Dec 08, 2023

Although short cycle times aren't the most critical element in Tectonics’ repertoire, they are helpful. A laser cutting machine with an automatic loader/unloader minimizes cycle times.

Despite a typical fabricator's heavy reliance on machines, hand-held tools, computers, and software, manufacturing tends to be people-oriented. The many processes that turn raw materials into semifinished or finished goods rely heavily on the skills, education, and expertise of the people involved.

A purchasing agent orders material; when it arrives, inspectors verify that the material received is indeed the material that was ordered; manufacturing engineers program a series of machines to cut, pierce, punch, notch, and bend the parts; machine operators carry out those operations, along with the necessary material handling; welders and other skilled personnel join the parts to create an assembly; quality control inspectors measure key dimensions and do a visual check to verify that the assembly conforms to the customer's order. Finally, packaging personnel pack it up and ship it out. For an order of 500 pieces, the staff repeats this process 499 times.

Tectonics, Warren, Mich., a subsidiary of Quantum Digital Group (QDG), used to work that way. However, by using the latest available digital technology, the company put itself through a transformation that changed the way it did essentially everything. No longer a craft manufacturer, the company became a digital engineering and manufacturing company. It uses digital technology to coordinate all facets of procurement, engineering, manufacturing, and assembly. It also has digitized the interfaces that facilitate client interactions.

At the heart of Tectonics’ processes is a digital thread, a unique live data architecture that allows integration of advanced engineering systems; automated manufacturing; custom software; live sensors; and a platform in which algorithms and learning can be improved, integrated, and deployed.

Shop floor personnel still perform quite a few key tasks, but overall, Tectonics relies much more on the digital thread than people. What happened to the purchasing agent, quality control inspectors, scheduler, the shop floor supervisor, and all of the work they do? Industry 4.0 happened to them. And all of the work they do.

The Tectonics shop is a digital shop.

Measurable, quantifiable data can be represented in two ways: analog or digital. As the names imply, analog is analogous to the original information, whereas digital technology uses a numeric scheme and mathematic functions to create a replica of the original information.

Photography is a good example of the two technologies. Making an analog image is a matter of transferring a scene to film (exposing film to light), developing the film, and transferring the scene to photographic paper.

In digital photography, a sensor in the camera that is subdivided into millions of rectangles or squares (pixels) captures the scene. Each pixel captures one color; a 14-megapixel camera captures and records 14 million pixels of light. The camera's software makes a digital map of all 14 million pixel locations and stores the relevant color in each one. The colors are represented by digits, for example, 000-000-000 (which is black in the red-green-blue [RGB] color scheme) or 255-255-255, which is RGB white. The file created by the camera's software, a map of 14 million pixels and the color stored at each pixel location, can be downloaded to a computer, transferred to an email address, or sent to a printer.

A key difference is the ability to make changes. After a photo is printed, it's finished. It's impossible to edit the scene. For better or worse, digital files can be manipulated.

Tectonics Executive Vice President Mike Toribio (front, left) and Chief Executive Officer Lee Skandalaris (front, right) have led the team through a transition from conventional to digital manufacturing. The challenges went far beyond hardware and software. "We had to rebuild our entire infrastructure, starting with our mindset," Toribio said.

In the old days draftsmen used pencil and paper to create prints, which is analog. These days they use software to create digital files. A complete digital file of a metal component, one that makes all of the relevant information available and extractable—in the case of tube: material, grade, OD, wall thickness, part length, bend angles, bend locations, dimensional tolerances, and so on—is like a digital file of a photograph in that it's a map. It has a bit more information than just a metaphorical map, though. It has instructions to get the driver from the origin to his destination. The right software can extract enough information to verify that sufficient raw material is available (or order enough raw material to fulfill the purchase order); work the order into the production schedule; program the machines to make the individual parts; supply data to a measurement system so that it can verify that the part's dimensions are correct; receive live data in continuous fashion and make reports and decisions; and track the parts as they move through the shop.

In conventional manufacturing firms, manufacturing is a mix of analog and digital. Purchase orders arrive via the internet in the form of 2D or 3D files, and the machines that carry out the manufacturing processes, to great extent, use digital commands. Their actions are programmed steps that are written by programmers, saved to the machine's control system, and available for immediate (or future) use. Many companies use an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which ties together the many functions that take place on the shop floor.

The steps between receiving the purchase order and manufacturing the customer's order? Those are typically analog steps that rely on brainpower. Reading the print, thinking it through from concept to finished component, converting each step into a manufacturing process, and developing the machine programs happen behind the scenes (or, more accurately, between the ears). An incomplete or vague purchase order often initiates a round of phone tag or a small deluge of emails between the salesman who took the order and the customer who placed it until all of the details are determined.

Can the interim steps be executed by software and hardware, rather than by brainpower? By embracing a transformative mindset centered around digital technologies, Tectonics has proven that it is possible.

Manufacturing complex parts often is considered an art, and fabricating tube is often considered to be a black art. Developing the processes needed to fabricate components with proper tolerances and planning the processes so they are executed efficiently generally rely on the creativity and problem-solving savvy of engineers who have been in the industry for years, if not decades. Can these processes, many of which rely on intuition and experience, be automated? In two words, Tectonics Executive Vice President Mike Toribio summed it up in the affirmative.

"It's math," he said.

"Our customers have unique visions for their products," Toribio said. "Whether it's a graphic, platform, booth, or an event, our goal is to fully understand that vision and transform it into stunning reality." In other words, Tectonics’ customers need things engineered and built. In many cases, a project consists of a visual element and a framework that supports it. It might be a moderately sized retail sales display, a 20,000-square-foot booth for a tradeshow, or something in between.

"Our products are a synthesis of several design-engineered components, including aluminum tubing and extruded profiles, digitally dye-sublimated textiles, and polymer subcomponents," Toribio said. "We imagined a world where all of these components of various materials, created by several processing techniques, come together in a digital ecosystem," he said. Cohesion is a key element, he added, stressing the interconnectedness of processes, which leads to a seamless outcome.

"We created a new approach to engineering and manufacturing and had to ensure we would capture every minute detail," he said. "The equipment and software are instrumental, but the key to the transformation was the change in our mindset."

The change in mindset came with a change in ownership. The change in ownership was the purchase of Tectonics by QDG, which was founded by Chief Executive Officer Lee Skandalaris. An automotive industry veteran, Skandalaris spent the early part of his career in mergers and acquisitions, helping to turn around struggling companies in the automotive supply chain. In looking for another venture, he took the typical entrepreneurial route and started a company in a garage. In his case, it was a printing company, one that applied printed patterns to consumer products and was an early adopter of digital manufacturing methods.

Tectonics’ tube bender, a BLM product, has nearly every conceivable capability—right- and left-hand bending, mandrel bending, fixed- and variable-radius bending, and stacked tooling.

Relying solely on digital technology, his printing company became a model for QDG. Purchase orders were digital, the printing process was digital, and therefore the company was digital. It was basic and it involved just one process, but it was a start. After creating QDG, he looked for acquisitions, and brought the digital model to each of them. The group has invested across many industries—manufacturing, distribution, consumer products, automotive, print, and specialty chemicals—using both business-to-business and business-to-consumer sales models. Despite the variety of investments, one thing is constant: QDG's commitment to making a digital transformation. The concept is straightforward, but implementation is difficult, Skandalaris said.

"I’ve seen the data on companies that try to complete digital transformations or transitions to Industry 4.0. Studies indicate that the success rate for completing digital transformations is as low as 10 percent. It has to start and be sustained within a progressive transformational mindset," Skandalaris said. "Successful lean companies have a lean mindset; successful Industry 4.0 companies must have an Industry 4.0 mindset."

In Toribio's view, the company was a builder of exhibits derived from 2D drawings, whereas now it is an engineering company that has developed and refined digital processes, which it uses for its two main areas of expertise, textile printing and manufacturing.

The emphasis is on technology rather than trade secrets.

In 1965 Chevrolet sold more than 1 million units of a single model, the venerable Impala. That's not just a long part run; at the time that model represented about half of Chevrolet's output and 11 percent of all automobiles produced in the U.S. Once Chevrolet had the process dialed in, it was a matter of making them as fast as it could.

Tectonics is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Many of its projects are custom-made, so it might repeat one part a few dozen times to make an assembly, but that would be a long part run at Tectonics. Of course it wants to make parts quickly, but production speed isn't nearly as important as production versatility. Over the last 10 years, Skandalaris has watched how digital manufacturing has transformed industries. More recently he has witnessed this effect in textile printing, and his familiarity with the biggest industry associated with this field, fashion, brings a perspective on inventory turns that is almost incomprehensible in manufacturing.

"The normal changeover in a clothing store's inventory can take years," he said, citing a typical fashion life cycle. "Fast fashion companies embracing Industry 4.0 methods are expediting merchandising processes to get products from design to stores in as little as three weeks. Achieving the kind of lightning-fast, on-demand production transforms not just companies, but entire industries," he said.

Getting to that point is a matter of understanding technology and integrating it, which is QDG's strength.

Tectonics is wary of anything that hints at repeat orders and doing the same old thing continually. Much of its work is one-of-a-kind, so in this dynamic environment, it needs programmable equipment that can carry out new designs with ease.

None of this would be possible without a well-thought-out plan as to how each step of each process would be carried out and investing in the combination of machines and software that would do the carrying out. In other words, the plan is based on a vision; the rest is a toolkit that sees the vision through to completion. The biggest tool in the Tectonics toolkit is software. Some of it was purchased and implemented; some of it was modified by the vendor to suit the needs of Tectonics before it was implemented; and some of it is proprietary. Toribio describes the roles of the various software as echelons in a well-oiled ecosystem.

In addition to using cutting and forming processes, Tectonics uses milling to provide additional features and impart textures on metal tube.

"It all starts with a client vision translated into an engineered 3D solid model," he said. "One model can contain hundreds of individual parts, with many dozens of models in play at any given time." In other words, the company processes parts in a systematic order, but it doesn't group parts by order; parts from various orders are comingled in the production process.

"Our software systems automatically separate each model into discrete parts such that similar parts from different projects flow through common digital highways in the network," Toribio said. "Instead of tracking or batching one job or project at a time, we track each discrete part from the day it is designed. We do track individual job metrics, but now we have the data, sensors, and fidelity to optimize material, reduce wasted movement, and report locational data to our clients in real time. We don't rely on any guesswork and our clients love that transparency," he said.

It's not just a matter of developing a thoroughly integrated system, but one that is robust as well.

"We built our custom management information system precisely to handle the wide range and complexity of our logistics, engineering, and manufacturing software systems and to make it easy to offer crystal-clear views into what is happening in real time," Toribio continued.

Hardware is the next most critical tool in the Tectonics toolkit. In looking for the right equipment, the staff looked for capability, versatility, and the ability to integrate with disparate systems. However, the hardware wasn't the most critical aspect. Their main interest was in finding vendors that would become trusted partners. Because Tectonics uses technologies that come from a variety of industries, the executive team looks for vendors that share Tectonics’ vision. Partnership is the most important criteria in the company's search for an equipment supplier.

"Most people, when they see the type of equipment we employ, they think we are crazy. That changes when they can see and understand that technology is in many ways industry-agnostic. We partnered with Emmegi, a manufacturer of world-class automated extrusion working machines used in the fenestration industry. Likewise, we partnered with BLM, a manufacturer of world-class tube lasers and bending machines catering to the metal fabrication industry. Our BLM LT7, a 3-kilowatt tube laser, our BLM E-Turn52 bender, and the Emmegi Quadra L2 aren't machines typically used in our industry," Toribio said.

"Interestingly, although these assets are world-renowned for being best-in-class, we did not select them for this reason," Toribio said. "Rather, we chose them primarily because BLM and Emmegi took the leap with us and shared our vision."

Toribio doesn't deny that they still encountered a few obstacles that seemed to block the path and had to cross a few speed bumps that slowed them down, but he maintains that the strength of the partnerships was the key element in getting past such challenges.

"With a true partner, all of the barriers can be conquered," he said. That might sound like an opinion, or worse, a platitude, but it's neither.

"That's what I believe," Toribio said. It's also what he and QDG have been achieving.

A client's project takes shape. Resembling the peaks of a mountain range, the sharp angles were easy to cut and resulted in excellent fit-up because they were made on a tube laser.

"Our additive manufacturing [AM] initiative with Carbon® Inc. is another solid example," he said. "Everyone knows that AM has been around for decades, but why hasn't it truly made the splash it promises?" Its potential is far more than replacing a conventional part with an improved part made by AM, he said.

"We studied this technology and never did we think small, about piece price, for example. Piece price is important, but is it more important than the ability to innovate faster than any competitor in the world?" Toribio said. "It allowed completely rethinking what we do from the technology lens, looking forward from now rather than looking forward from the past. For us, this perspective on AM has unlocked concepts we never would have imagined before."

In Toribio's view, Tectonics has taken a head-first dive into AM, and he's reasonably certain that few, if any, other product manufacturers have done this.

"Many do prototyping or make one-off parts, whereas Tectonics uses AM for full-rate, just-in-time production parts," he said.

As it is with fabricating tube and printing textiles, the foundation is its work with a trusted partner.

One of the most famous quotes about the origin of innovation is attributed to another entrepreneur who made his way in the Detroit area, Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘Faster horses.’" Did Ford really say this? It's not likely. He didn't invent the internal combustion engine, he didn't build the first motorcar, and therefore he didn't create a replacement for the horse.

Regardless of who dreamed up this quote, it illustrates the value in giving the customers what they really want. They might think they want one thing when they really want something else. For example, when manual transmissions were the norm, some drivers might have wanted less hassle in the nearly continuous use of the clutch and the stick. What they really wanted was to eliminate the hassle, but if the automatic transmission didn't exist at the time, who would think to ask for it?

The goal at Tectonics is to give the customers what they want, even if the customers don't know that it exists. Along the way, customers want quality. Quality in each process, quality in each component, and quality in each assembly.

"Cut lengths, bend angles, and other features each have tolerances," Toribio said. "These are facts, not opinions. We can look a client in the eye and promise quality, and we know we can deliver."

Before the company implemented some of the latest technologies, it made some parts and assemblies that were candidates for quality improvement. For example, a typical assembly was a tubular frame that consisted of several sections combined to make a long, sweeping bend. These frames looked good, but they weren't great. Rather than constituting one long, uninterrupted arc, a close look revealed that a typical frame really was a series of arcs, which made assembly difficult. The customers wanted fasteners that were easier to use, and that's it, Skandalaris said. Tectonics looks for a more comprehensive solution: It got better control over the bending process so the unit did appear to be a single, continuous arc, making assembly easier. At that point the question was this: Can we eliminate the fasteners?

Designed and produced by MC2, manufactured by Tectonics, the experience these 2-in. tube Infinity Rings created won't be forgotten anytime soon.

Tectonics might not be quite ready to eliminate the fasteners, but it is in a good position to re-evaluate the fasteners it has and why it uses them. The company is in the process of implementing an AM system, which provides substantial design freedom.

"Rather than replace a component, additive manufacturing allows a designer to update a component," Skandalaris said. An update doesn't necessarily mean making a minor revision, but rather an overhaul. In the case of a fastener, it's a matter of reviewing the fastener's function and eliminating anything unnecessary. AM facilitates bold new designs, allowing features that aren't restricted by the limitations imposed by conventional machines and tooling. In Skandalaris’ view, many don't take advantage of the technology's capabilities.

"This is where a lot of people miss the boat," he said.

When the customer wants fasteners that are more durable and easier to install, a company like Tectonics doesn't look for a different fastener that will work for the application; instead it strives to redesign the components so they can be assembled without fasteners.

"We don't think about cutting and fabricating metal," Toribio said. "We think about real-time innovation."

Among the key components of building quality assemblies are versatility, precision, and tolerance. Tectonics relies on modern equipment for these aspects, using laser cutting for fabricating tubular components. However, in Tectonics’ view, finding a trusted partner in an equipment vendor is more critical than the equipment itself.