State of the Metalforming Industry
Excerpts from: State of the Metalforming Industry - Part Two
By Donald B. Dobbins,
Past Editor , Metalforming Magazine
According to Michael J. OBrien, president of Signature Technologies, Dallas, TX,
controls must be broken down into two categories -machine controls and process controls.
"Currently machine control offerings are adequate for the market," OBrien
says. "However, the individual black-box varieties or the proprietary systems,
although quite functional, do not lend themselves to integration with other technologies.
For example, a press control system requires that the controls meet certain standards, and
also that the design be performed by someone quite
knowledgeable of presses.
"The integration of die protection or tonnage monitoring into the press control is a
desirable feature but it limits the quality of the end product and performance if the firm
building the press controller does not have or acquire expertise in these two fields.
Thus, what we have seen in the past few years has been the birth of the integrated system
lacking robustness in areas beyond machine control.
"The need for more precision and integration with other plant-floor devices and
information systems will require a migration to standard platform products, such as PCs.
The first step in this direction was taken with the PLC or programmable logic controller.
However, the latter, although facilitating user programmability, is still considered a
proprietary device. We see that controls will move in the direction of PC-based devices
that provide the user with an open choice of hardware for both processing and input/output
devices. Thus, components need not be of the same manufacture and can be
multi-sourced," OBrien explains.
"Process controls," OBrien says, "are all but non-existent in the
metalforming industry. Process controls can be defined as devices that can measure, assure
and optionally correct variations in the process in order to maintain consistency of part
quality. The products and technology exist to perform process control, however, what is
absent is the focus of the driving forces in our industry. In fact, most industry leaders
do not even understand the term, process control.
"The most important advances have been in the areas of die protection and
signature-based process control. The reason that these advances are so important is that
they force the user to focus on the process. Die protection gets the user to identify
problem areas in the tool in order to apply sensors to detect such problems. The real
benefit here is that the user needs to understand the tool, and therefore gets exposed to
a small part of the education process. Unfortunately, most current users of die protection
systems do not apply in-die sensors and therefore fail to gain that process knowledge.
"Signature-based process control is totally focused on the process. Its sole
purpose is to identify, measure and verify consistency as well as provide correction
output to control the process. All variations in the process, tooling, equipment,
environment, material, lubrication, etc., that change a signature, have an effect on the
process, and therefore, can be analyzed and their effect on the process can be determined.
Aside from the obvious benefits of process verification, the ability to see
the process, combined with human reasoning, opens the doors to major advancements in
"An example of just how far we are behind is the level of automation and quality of
product found in industries such as petro-chemical, water/waste water, pharmaceutical and
automotive. Just look at what happened under the hood of an automobile once process
control technology was applied by adding sensors, a processor(s) and software.
"Today, our automobile goes 100,000 miles without a tune-up. It starts reliably in
all kinds of weather, and offers many features unheard of just 10 years ago. In the
automotive industry, factors that forced these changes were non-U.S. competition, quality
problems of trying to do complex functions mechanically instead of electronically and
environmental regulations that required understanding and much closer control of the
"Where are these motivators in the metalforming industry?"
Shown is a signature-based process control system, from Signature
Technologies, installed on a Minster press at A.J. Rose Manufacturing Co., Avon, OH. A
newer version of signature analysis, this system uses force transducers to enable the
machine to "feel" the parts as they are being formed.
There is a significant amount of obsolete equipment in U.S. manufacturing
operations," observes Mike OBrien. "The biggest problem with this
equipment is not its age so much as its condition. I am continually amazed at the lack of
understanding that exists within the operations department in regard to the dynamics of
equipment and how it affects the process. A better understanding in the latter would
significantly improve the ability to properly choose equipment to fit specific process
needs; i.e., to know where the limits are in an old piece of equipment and what parts can
be run that will not be affected by those limits.
"Are American plants modern?" asks OBrien. "Not by European
standards, but they probably are average for the world as a whole. Many Japanese plants
are not modern, but their equipment is maintained in good condition and close to original
"I believe that manufacturers can afford to update and replace current equipment.
Many who do, however, fail to make the proper investment in training so that they can
obtain the return on investment (ROI), that makes the new purchase decision valid.
"The problem I see repeatedly is the purchase of modern equipment that is operated by
an old workforce, which gets training in operating the equipment but not in
why the equipment was purchased, where the benefit is to the company and how the new
equipment can benefit them or improve their own performance. Many times operators know how
to operate the new equipment but dont really understand what it does.
"Safety usually is an issue of training," says OBrien, "but it also
is an issue that involves proper design of machinesnot allowing production
management to have the capability to override systems. Many times permitted overrides
around control logic by production result in safety overrides due to lack of knowledge on
the part of those performing the override."
On International Issues:
"I believe that North American companies do compete in international markets,"
exhorts Michael OBrien. "Those who do it are succeeding because of the technology they can lever; i.e., they have the ability to use
technology to overcome cheap manpower. However, I have noticed one very significant
threat. The Asian market, which does not have the inventory of equipment and yet has the
largest emerging market, currently is buying new equipment with the latest technology and
"In the U.S. market, the average metalformer finds that the cost of adding the same
new technology and options to existing machines is in the price range of what was paid for
the machine 20 or 30 years ago. This painful reality cools the desire to make the
"Meanwhile the Asian competitors really have no choice since they have no equipment.
The result is that the Asian company is investing in new technology and implementing it
whereas the U.S. metalformer may wait until its too late. Also, the Asian company
has to train its workforce on equipment that has new technology, thus the worker accepts
this technology as part of the machine. The U.S. worker, who has been using a machine for
years, cant understand how this new box on the machine is going to help. This is a
very significant issue.
"Asia poses the biggest threat to U.S. manufacturing because it is located locally to
the largest emerging market - itself," OBrien explains. "Asia has to build
infrastructure in manufacturing technology and is investing both finances and its
resources in technology, which it perceives as state-of-the-art. Yet, the same technology
in the United States is perceived as leading edge. The United States is waiting for these
new technologies to get away from an edge that does not exist. Europe does not appear to
be a big issue other than its ability to compete with U.S. equipment manufacturers selling
Mike O'Brien says there's a problem. "I believe that quality materials are a real
issue and U.S. material suppliers have not kept up with their foreign competition, either
in new materials or quality of materials. This could pose real problems in a world market
since importing materials adds significant cost to U.S. metalformers who need these
materials for what are usually high-technology products. The import costs are not felt by
their foreign competitors, who usually reside in the country of origin of the materials.
"I also believe there are significant advances in materials coming and that the
United States is not even in the running," O'Brien continues. "Ten years ago, I attended a conference in Japan given to corporate
Japanese executives. The key focus of this presentation, hosted by a Japanese electronic
company, was a total commitment to new exotic materials and fabrics that would change the
future. The examples given, now reality, were clothing that came in one size and
once worn would adjust its size, probably like thermal shrink tubing, to fit the wearer. I
have to believe the Japanese have the same dedication to new metals development."
Michael O'Brien comments, "I have stated my case about training in many parts of this
article. I do not see that industry or schools will properly address the training need
because the industry usually is reactive in this area and the schools are focused on their
biggest markets, which do not include metalforming workers."
"I believe we must have a certification program and that the program must focus
strongly on the leading edge and not the status quo. If we are to lead the world, we must
instill in our workers an expectation of a work environment that is beyond the status quo
in order to move forward. We need to have metalformers competing for talent, not with
money, but with the best facilities and tools, thereby establishing pride - instead of
resignation - as the driver for working in this industry.
"I find many good candidates are turned off by the lack of perceived technology in
metalforming, rather than the nature of the plant environment. What better way to attract
such personnel than to put screens on our machines, which make them look like everything
else that is modern, instead of assuming workers can't even understand such screens?"
Mike O'Brien feels that the most important issue impeding the
future of the metalforming industry is the lack of commitment to education and training by
business owners. "I believe the only way to resolve this problem will be to formalize
training through a non-work-related process, such as a certification program," Mike
"The main reason it is critical is that the current decision makers tend to wait and
see what others do, and 'the others' are doing the same. They also don't understand the
new technologies that they need to bring into their operation to remain competitive in a
world market, therefore, they don't believe their own employees can understand the new
"Looking at the industry as a whole, a barrier to utilization of modern process
control technology in metalforming is not its complexity, not its cost, not user
unfriendliness of software, nor its suitability for the metalforming industry. On the
contrary, it is the inability of industry to properly understand how to digest new
technology and properly train employees - training not being limited to how to use it but
more importantly why to use it; i.e., conveying to the user where the ROI is and
empowering the user to harvest that ROI.
"We can't compete with emerging competitors on labor cost," O'Brien warns.
"Shortly, we will not be able to compete on education - look at the nationality of
most graduate students in leading engineering schools in the United States.
"Our only real area of strategic opportunity is one utilizing technology in order to
overcome our competitive weaknesses and maintain a leadership position by being better at
producing formed metal parts for technically demanding products.
"In order to accomplish this we need to have an education system that produces a
workforce that is technologically ahead of the work environment they are about to
Let me hear your views...This article is now, September 2002,
five years old. Some things have improved while others have not...let
me hear your views.
link to read the complete article.