SigmaNEST celebrates a quarter century of CAD/CAM innovation and automation this year – recognition of a South African entrepreneur

Now in its 25th year, SigmaTEK Systems LLC successfully continues to provide CAD/CAM nesting software and services to enhance the efficiency and profitability of flat material and tube cutting under the SigmaNEST brand.

“We are known worldwide as the producers of the most efficient nesting engine in the world,” says Ben TerreBlanche, SigmaTEK founder and CEO during an interview with comSpark. Hence, the company’s tag line, “Nest With The Best.”

And it took a quarter of a century and then some to get there, he adds. Not to rest on its nesting laurels, SigmaTEK is embracing a big agenda for the future release of new products this year that will revolutionise fabrication and the sheet metal software business, making what TerreBlanche describes as the “scarce” manufacturing workforce more efficient.

Headquartered in Forest Park, USA with an engineering department of 80 employees, SigmaTEK maintains an extensive support network worldwide, with 15 branches (300 employees) throughout North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. A leading solution suite for computer numeric control (CNC) programming and automatic nesting, SigmaNEST ensures accurate part cutting, optimal material usage and efficient cutting time, and is compatible with most domestic and international machine equipment for plasma, laser, punch, oxyfuel, waterjet and router cutting. SigmaNEST solutions are efficiently deployed from a single computer or a large, networked system utilising a material requirements planning (MRP) system.

“Our software is a one-stop solution, which means a big benefit from a user’s point of view,” TerreBlanche notes.

The software integrates with a user’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, synchronising raw material information with cost and scheduling information.

Ben Terreblanche

“In order for the SigmaNEST system to know what to produce, it needs to be told by the ERP system which parts are needed. The software gives that information from the host ERP system, and then it looks at what has been received in inventory for raw materials, or sheet stock. Then it picks the best sheet to put the parts on and plans it, programmes it and posts the selected programme so the machine operator just has to load the machine and hit the green button, and then the parts are made automatically.”

In the beginning
TerreBlanche, a mechanical engineer who hails from South Africa, became involved in mechanical design very early on in his career.

“It was at a time, in the early ’80s, when a lot of design was still done on drawing boards,” TerreBlanche recalls. “It was also a time when computers applied to engineering started to appear. I worked for a company in the defence industry, and they were interested in improving the design process. They operated an office of about 15 people working on drafting boards. It was just challenging to do that work in two dimensions. So they were very interested in how the computer could possibly help them.”

TerreBlanche’s boss at the time was quite busy and did not have time to spend on boarding him.

“He took me to a computer room, unlocked the door, turned on the lights, directed me into the room and said, ‘Ben, I have to run off to a project meeting. See what you can figure out. I will be back tomorrow.’”

It would be six months before TerreBlanche’s boss checked back in with him.

“I got involved in the first FEA model with 3D surface modelling for the G5 barrel which was being manufactured by Littleton Engineering. That was back in 1982,” TerreBlanche explained.

“I completed my Masters in CAD/CAM technology in 1984 and was getting the hang of proprietary operating systems. In the meantime, I had figured out the mathematical transformation to make things appear 3D on the computer,” says TerreBlanche.

“It was not an invention, it was just that I took the math that was well established and applied it to this problem of making things look 3D.”

When he showed his boss what he had, indeed, figured out, his boss was wide-eyed.

“He asked the company’s plant director to come in, and everyone was blown away,” TerreBlanche continues. “They appointed me to a committee to investigate the effect of computers on the design process. That took me on a worldwide tour, studying technology and becoming immersed in it. Eventually, I left that company, joined a university and developed a master’s degree class in computer-aided design and manufacturing technical aspects.” Hence, his thesis title, “Technical and Management Aspects of Implementing a CAD/CAM System.”

TerreBlanche was soon drawn deeper into this challenging field.

“I made a decision to go the route of developing CAD/CAM systems on PC and we sold our first system in 1986. That is when we formed the company. It was known as Megkon in those days and we started off with three staff members.”

“We changed the name to MeCad Systems – short for Mechanical Engineering CAD Systems – in 1987 when we took on the MasterCAM agency for South Africa. We sold our first package to Dorbyl Venco and we were on the road.”

“It was not until 1993 that we became involved in the sheetmetal nesting programme that we developed. Macsteel VRN was running 14 machines cutting various sizes of plate and sheet. They had huge wastage because they did not have any nesting programme. There were 13 people in the drawing office, each with a basic version of AutoCAD, and they were trying to make programmes, and trying to keep these machines going using a DXF system – a very inefficient way of working – very manual and very time consuming. They kept breaking down.”

Then one day, while he was driving…
“I was continually thinking about this – how I could solve the problem for them,” TerreBlanche recalls. “Then one day, I was driving, and I came up with the idea of sorting, because there are different kinds of sorting algorithms. I thought about formulating many parts on a (metal) sheet in an efficient way, not just as a sorting problem. I had a guy that was with me then on the staff and I explained the basic algorithm, how I wanted it to function, and the mathematics. He made a prototype that was very impressive, which I then took back to the company and this time they were very interested.”

“They provided a list of additional functions they needed, and we included those functions, and they were our very first customers. Once we had that company, we went to other companies, they bought the software, and we got some traction.”

“We named the software SigmaNest but we did not sell our first package to Macsteel VRN. It didn’t fly with the company’s powers-that-be because they wanted it to be automatic. Laser Cut Varios was the brave company that purchased the first package. But once they (Macsteel VRN) had purchased the package and were reaping the benefits word soon got around to the other sheet metal companies.”

“I then decided to move to the US to market the SigmaNest software as I realised that there would be huge potential. SigmaTEK was established in 1993 in Seattle,” TerreBlanche continued.

“Up to this point, I had different companies, but in 1993, when this algorithm seemed promising, I started SigmaTEK. We started showing our software around, and it was very well received.”

Why Cincinnati?
By 1996, SigmaTEK had grown to such a point that Seattle was no longer the best site for the company, and TerreBlanche and his team decided they needed to find a more central location. They chose Cincinnati.

“It’s a place of high technology in manufacturing,” says TerreBlanche, with a nod to Cincinnati’s Milacron, General Electric and other major players in the manufacturing industry, and the University of Cincinnati’s wealth of engineering talent.

“Those things have not been a disappointment, if not underestimated,” he notes.

Don’t blame the robots
According to TerreBlanche, SigmaTEK has “a big agenda” for releasing new products by the end of year, all aimed at making what he describes as the “scarce” workforce more efficient, further revolutionising the fabrication and sheet metal nesting software business.

“These people are hard to find because of a lack of skilled manufacturing talent. So, we need to make the most of our people using robotics and automation. People say robots will take jobs, but the US is about sixth or seventh on the list of robots operating per manufacturing worker in the world. We must be careful not to blame robots as the problem. We have a lot of innovators and entrepreneurs, and a very competitive spirit in the US.”

“And in our sheet metal and metal fabrication industry, we do have an advantage in that products are heavy and big and not easy to off-shore – think semi-trailers, railway cars, Caterpillar tractor frames and other agricultural machinery, mining machinery, cranes, bucket trucks – provided we produce these things efficiently,” he continues.

SigmaTEK’s fearless founder’s faith in the future of the manufacturing industry here remains steady, but that sanguine spirit is contingent upon a couple of factors.

“We cannot compete with salaries, but we can compete through innovation and automation. The only way the United States can continue to compete in manufacturing is by embracing SigmaTEK’s type of technology to make the best of raw material, to leverage in-company technical talent to the max,” TerreBlanche concludes.

“In other words, we must give manufacturers the best tools to be as productive as possible, to facilitate production of this kind of product.”