Amada installs a flexible manufacturing system that includes material storage and handling, a fiber laser, a punch/laser combination machine and a panel bender. It all has to do with productivity and efficiencies.
“Owning a fiber laser cutting machine and not being able to run it at full speed is like trying to enjoy the thrill of driving a Porsche 911 Turbo S in the mall parking lot during Christmas. The continuous stop-and-go drives you crazy. If a fabricator has made the large investment in a solid-state laser cutting machine, he wants that piece of equipment to fly,” said Hein Vorster, CEO of Hitech-Gregfor, who are the proud owners of one of the most automated and flexible sheet metal processing systems to be installed in South Africa.
“Shops can’t afford to have the machine being idle, waiting on an operator to perform the loading and unloading tasks. Also, the benefits to productivity that come with automation are lost if you have to stop the machine and perform a lens change when you switch between material thicknesses.”
The Amada flexible manufacturing system (FMS) that has been installed at Hitech-Gregfor
The Amada MARS material storage system that either stores sheet or blanks
“Then Monday through Friday work is done at half pace with an eye to putting in some overtime. Sure nobody really wants to work on weekends but if it pays extra then they will, all extra cost to company. Yes, you can hire extra workers that are cheaper than you can purchase automation equipment, but the machines can work 24/7. I found that excuses don’t cut it with our customers. When they want a job, they don’t want it tomorrow or next week. They want it now. So automation takes people out of the equation.”
“Adding automation increases productivity, reduces labour and lowers per-piece costs. This new technology eliminates the need for the associated stresses and keeps the machines working according to our schedules and not according someone else’s.”
“Overseas, metal fabricators have many of the same issues, including lack of skilled labour and outsourcing to low-labour-cost countries. In Japan, fabricators tackle those issues by taking automation to new levels and Amada has shown us how to do it.”
Hitech-Gregfor’s sheet-metal processing journey started in 1992 when Vorster was in his mid- twenties. Having gained a little experience working for a couple of well-known companies, he decided he could do it better on his own. Later on Directors Henry Bushney and Rogers Naidoo would join the company as shareholders.
The last company he worked for was making consuls and cabinets and this gave him a taste for the sheet metal world.
Starting off with a second hand guillotine and pressbrake, he soon had his first contract making cabinets and trailers. Modem enclosures and racks were soon added to the portfolio.
Another view of the Amada flexible manufacturing system that includes an Amada MARS material storage system and an automated material handling and pick-and-place conveyor
The FMS has three Amada sheet processing machines incorporated into the system. One of them, the Amada EP 2500 AL panel bender complete with a swivel folder, is situated at the last station after blanking
It was only in 1994 that he was able to purchase his first new machine and he settled on an Amada punching machine. This decision subsequently influenced the rest of his capital equipment purchases and he has stuck with the brand for his sheet metal processing equipment ever since.
Today Hitech-Gregfor isn’t just a flat-sheet processor either, where it would just cut parts and ship them. They are more of a manufacturer of parts that need additional processes, including painting, bending, welding and assembly work to produce a finished or semi-finished product.
Data centre space
Hitech-Gregfor specialises in the design and manufacture of sheetmetal products for various industries but with an emphasis on the data centre space. Its customer base comprises the major network installers, mining, electronics, automation, shopfitting and telecommunication companies. The company also manufactures, sources, supplies and installs shopfitting equipment to most of South Africa’s petrol retailers. The company boasts some big name players as their customers.
Hitech-Gregfor’s offerings have evolved and grown beyond the initial production of manufacturing steel products such as 19-inch enclosures, battery racks and small electronic enclosures. The company currently comprises of three business units: The Hitech-Gregfor manufacturing arm, including aisle containment solutions; Intelcab, which manufactures portable facilities cabinets and Hitech-Gregfor Infrastructure. The recent founding of Hitech-Gregfor Infrastructure rounds out an end-to-end data centre offering – from manufacturing, through design and deployment, to servicing.
“Lights-Out” is now a reality – “Our biggest drawback in the manufacturing side, like many other South African companies, has been productivity. Two years ago it came to a head and we decided to do something about it and what you see in front of you is the result,” explained Hein Vorster, CEO of Hitech-Gregfor
The Amada FOL 3015 AJ fiber laser is one of the three machines in the system processing sheet
However, it is on the manufacturing side that the company has really evolved and now regards itself as a turnkey data centre solutions and services provider. From design to metal forming, including blanking, bending, machining and welding to finishing, which includes automated powder coating, electro plating, and electro marking as finishes to all the products the company manufactures. This comprises the cabling, cable trays, cooling units and the other related accessories and components in fixed and portable data centres.
“Lights-Out” is now a reality
“Our biggest drawback in the manufacturing side, like many other South African companies, has been productivity. Two years ago it came to a head and we decided to do something about it and what you see in front of you is the result,” explained Henry Bushney, Hitech-Gregfor’s Managing Director and one of three partners in the business.
And wow, what I saw was impressive and once I got to see and understand how and what the system was about, I was even more impressed. It certainly is a first in South Africa and judging by the interest shown from the sheet metal processing industry it is not going to be the last.
Imagine combining a raw materials storage and handling system with a fiber laser, a punch/laser combination machine and a panel bender and then programme it to process the components you want, then push the start button and walk away leaving the system unattended. When you return all the blanking has been completed and the components returned to the storage shelf that they have been delegated to. Added to this there has been no downtime while you have been away performing some other task, and all the blanks have been processed to specification and the correct number of components have been blanked.
The Amada Acies 2515 punch laser combination machine is another machine processing sheet in the blanking area of the FMS
The automated material handling and pick-and-place conveyor of the Amada MARS material storage system retrieves material via a pallet from the 14 vertical sections with each section divided into 12 shelves
But this system is much more than that because Hitech-Gregfor have added the Amada EP 2500 AL panel bender, complete with a swivel folder, that allows the company to deliver a blanking-to-bending solution, all programmed offline and with no human intervention except to collect processed component.
Amada MARS material storage system
When I walked into the area that houses the Amada flexible manufacturing system (FMS), there was almost an eerie silence. Okay the Amada Acies 2515 punch laser combination machine that is included in the system and is an integral part of the processing, was not punching at the time. But there was no loud chatter or clattering and it was not lunchtime. The system was fully operational and processing sheet.
At the heart of the new FMS is the Amada MARS storage system, a centrally located material “hub” that provides storage and distribution of raw materials and blanks on demand. The system includes an automated material handling conveyor and pick-and-place system.
Hitech-Gregfor’s FMS has been setup with six loading bays with three of them dedicated to keep the hungry machines fed. Two of the other three bays are currently being used as raw material loading bays for the FMS and the third one as a manual bay for removal of blanks that can feed the company’s other processing equipment, such as their new Amada HG 1003 ATC press brake. But in the future, more machines can be added as and when the company expands. MARS systems are custom-configured for each customer’s specific needs with future expansion in mind, taken into account.
The system starts off with raw material delivered on pallets to the appropriate loading bay and from then on automation takes over. In this case, the client has 14 vertical sections with each section divided into 12 shelves. Each shelf is capable of holding two tons of material that is stored according to client preference and production.
Hitech-Gregfor have included a “TK” or take-out feature in the FMS. “Generally, you micro-tab those parts in the sheet, so you can remove the sheet and shake them loose. The TK system removes the parts from the sheet and stacks them, so when the sheet is finished, the manual [shaking] operation isn’t necessary. We’ll laser-cut the perimeter as part of final processing, and with suction cups or electromagnets we’ll pick up that part and remove it from the sheet. It’s stacked, ready for the next operation, and because there are no tabs, there’s no edge conditioning required before going on to bending,” explained CEO Hein Vorster
The Amada EP 2500 AL panel bender comes complete with a swivel folder so that the blanks can be rotated to the side that needs bending
Running alongside and positioned appropriately near or opposite a loading or unloading bay are the metal processing machines. Hitech-Gregfor has added a parts take out (TK) and a digital parts marking feature at the beginning of the line. This is followed by the Amada Acies 2515 punch laser combination machine, the Amada FOL 3015 AJ fiber laser and then the Amada EP 2500 AL panel bender, complete with a swivel folder. It is setup so that blanking is followed by bending. All of the machines are linked to the Amada MARS storage system.
The “TK” or take-out feature
“Generally, you micro-tab those parts in the sheet, so you can remove the sheet and shake them loose. The TK system removes the parts from the sheet and stacks them, so when the sheet is finished, the manual [shaking] operation isn’t necessary. We’ll laser-cut the perimeter as part of final processing, and with suction cups or electromagnets we’ll pick up that part and remove it from the sheet. It’s stacked, ready for the next operation, and because there are no tabs, there’s no edge conditioning required before going on to bending,” explained Rogers Naidoo Hitech-Gregfor’s Production Director and the third partner.
Material is distributed to the appropriate laser, turret punch/laser press, or panel bender. Material can even be distributed to a simple IO (Input/Output) station so that it can be picked up by a tow motor and then transferred to the appropriate process/machine.
Return “in process” parts
The MARS System can also return “in process” parts to the storage racks as well as store finished parts. Intelligent control systems monitor material levels and will notify you when material needs to be restocked on a pallet.
It is important to note that the processing machines can operate in conjunction with one another or independently, depending on requirements. The manufacturing process is easily organised so that machine up-time and machine efficiency are tremendously increased, providing for continuous, on-demand production with minimal supervision.
The Amada HG 1003 ATC has been positioned next to the Amada MARS FMS system and is fed with blanks that have been processed on the FMS system
Hitech-Gregfor specialises in the design and manufacture of sheetmetal products for various industries but with an emphasis on the data centre space
It is all about scheduling your cycle times and this is aided by Amada’s software suites of APE 100, VPSS 3i and SheetWorks using a SolidWorks base platform. Nesting software such as DrAbe Blank is also incorporated into the process.
There are seven control stations included in the setup and one of these is situated in the control / design office so that the FMS can be operated remotely without any human interface on the floor.
Safeguards have also been designed into the automated material storage and delivery system. Loading, unloading and processing will only take place once the sensors have confirmed that the particular part or sheet is in place. A number of other troubleshooting and quality features are also included such as detecting if there are stuck sheets or parts.
The system is self-managed. Therefore it spends more time per shift fabricating parts. Its approach to minimising inventory is to provide a continuous flow of material at each operation on a Just-In time basis. Running “Lights-Out” is now a reality.
Hitech-Gregfor’s FMS has only been running for four months and the company is still very much in a learning curve but it is realising the results that the Directors intended it to do. Fibre laser cutting is up by 40% and production that normally took two weeks is now done in two days. When taking into account the huge savings on labour costs and overtime pay, machine uptime and efficiencies that are reducing cost per part, the payback period is expected to be five years.
Hitech-Gregfor have also recently purchased an Amada TS series welding machine
Components manufactured by Hitech-Gregfor for data storage centres that the company manufactures and markets
“Two people working one shift a day can manage the whole of the FMS as a 24/7 operation. With all the extensive sheet and part handling features, including suction cups and electromagnets, if we are not running panel bending due to the cycle speed of the bent products, the system can run all weekend unattended,” added Naidoo.
Hitech-Gregfor moved into their current facility in the Cosmo City area of Gauteng four years ago, when they built a purpose built 8 500m² factory. The introduction of the Amada MARS FMS meant that the company had to do extensive planning before the installation, without disrupting production. This included laying a new reinforced concrete floor and moving their existing equipment to a new site.
Before deciding on the configuration of the FMS, the Directors travelled to Norway and Japan to look at similar flat-sheet processors’ setups. The design of the FMS is modular and each of these configurations can incorporate a number of different Amada punch presses, lasers, punch/laser combination machines, material handling systems and blanking shears. However, the final setup boils down to the individual needs of the company.
Amada HG 1003 ATC press brake
As metal fabricators look to increase throughput in their bending departments while also facing a dearth of seasoned press brake operators, they may find their answer in the form of automated tooling change technology now found on the latest generation of press brakes.
“The very nature of today’s fabricating, with short runs and varied jobs, was putting more pressure on our bending department. Fabricators were trying to create tooling layouts that maximised product throughput, with several setups on the same length of the press brake bed, but these complex setups could take more than 30 minutes to pull together,” explained Bushney.
Various data storage centre products
Sheet metal components before powder coating and assembly takes place
“We could have gone the robotic route but it did not suite our setup. We purchased the Amada HG 1003 ATC press brake with automated tooling management to eliminate the time consuming chore of manual tooling setup. Even with the addition of a tooling station, which sits on the right of the press brake, the Amada HG 1003 ATC does not require a much larger footprint than a typical press brake without the additional storage,” said Naidoo.
“Tooling changeover on the HG 1003 ATC occurs in three minutes.”
The Amada HG 1003 ATC has been positioned next to the Amada MARS FMS system and is fed with blanks that have been processed on the FMS system.
“The automated tool changer doesn’t solve 100% of the problems, but it helps in a lot of areas where you might have issues, for example available manpower, throughput and keeping up with the new FMS speeds. If you combine all of that together, it really starts to make sense spending the extra money for the automated tooling setups.”
Other equipment that the company has recently purchased is a robotic welder, a polyurethane Foam-In-Place Gasketing (FIPG) machine to cater for its requirements and a number of automatic packaging machines, all in its efforts to increase productivity.
Hitech-Gregfor processes approximately 200 tons of steel a month, with mild steel accounting for 70% of that figure and the rest made up of stainless steel, aluminium, galvanised and others. Its working range falls mainly in the 1,2mm and 2mm material thickness and it looks to manufacture 500 data related cabinets and enclosures per month.
To keep up with the increased production output Hitech-Gregfor are also installing a third powder coating line.
“Part of the strategy for this project was to achieve a culture change within our company and to bring productivity, quality and efficiencies to the fore to help grow the company,” concluded Vorster.
For further details contact Hitech-Gregfor on TEL: 087 350 0001 or visit www.hitechgregfor.co.za