2025.4.23-25 Western China International Expo City
Chengdu International Industry Fair
Press Service
Press Service
Metal fabricators need a dedicated automation champion

Forward from The FABRICATOR

By Tim Heston



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Even at small metal fabrication businesses, managing the shop’s automation strategy really should be a full-time gig. watcharasongprasert/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Rahul Sarkar, president of Clarity Manufacturing Consulting, recalled working with a manufacturer on an automated cell with a riveting press. The automated cell looked slick, a piece of technological wizardry. But alas, when testing began, someone from the shop floor asked, “Hey, where’s the runout testing station?”

The riveted assembly had to meet some tight requirements, yet engineers in charge of the automation didn’t account for them all, and they failed to include a critical step that had previously been performed manually. Why? No one on the shop floor had bothered to tell the engineers. 

“When an organization has a silo mentality,” Sarkar said, “automation becomes difficult.”

Those silos lead to all sorts of waste as everyone accepts the status quo and trudges forth. From the outside, the solution seems simple. Develop cross-functional teams. Support a culture that questions everything, from manufacturability in part design to documented and proven processes on the shop floor. 

All that sounds nice, but Sarkar, who’s worked with many small manufacturers and job shops, said the problem really has to do with available resources (and he’ll be detailing various case studies relating to this and other problems at this month’s FABTECH show). “Small shops are just incredibly busy. They’re dealing with orders, with delays in material shipments, and assessing machine downtime issues. They’re stressed out, and they just don’t have time to deal with all the details that go into an automated cell.”

Custom fabricators that want to automate know they don’t have the resources, and so they reach out to machine builders and integrators. The outside parties do their best, but if they’re working with limited data or information, troubles arise and a game of whack-a-mole ensues for months. 

“The biggest problem I see today is that in-house expertise is not transferred to those third parties contracted to implement the automation,” Sarkar said. “Shops need someone in-house dedicated to focusing on the problem and how it fits into the big picture. It can’t be a part-time gig, either. That person can’t run the shop floor and also manage an automation project.” 

Technology has always shaped career paths in this business, yet automation requires an even bigger shift. The journey requires big thinking and constant questioning. A particular process might be problematic, but why exactly? And is that process a true bottleneck? What are the true costs of the process inefficiency in question, and how will an automated cell reduce them?

Answering these questions starts with good data, which in turn requires good order processing and quality systems that can provide information in the right context, with minimal manual typing or feeding data into homegrown spreadsheets. Still, sometimes the data resolution (the frequency that measurements are made) can’t capture everything. Sarkar again referred to that riveting cell. That runout check station took less than 15 seconds, which likely wouldn’t have been captured by the data. Here, talking with the people who actually did the work might have prevented the problem. Silos stood in the way, hence the waste. 

Communication silos pop up everywhere in metal fabrication. People throw work “over the wall,” thinking the job’s now someone else’s problem, and automation is likely to make such problems worse. In manual operations, people can develop workarounds that might not be reflected in the print or in widely available documents. Indeed, developing these workarounds might be the best part of people’s jobs. Yet without good communication, that tribal knowledge doesn’t translate well in an automated environment. Robots just do what they’re told, and when those instructions are based on incomplete information, headaches arise.  

A full-time automation lead could prevent these problems. They’d gather pertinent data, talk with the people who do the work, and dive into the details to determine what makes sense to automate and when.  

Quick changeover and programming technologies have made part quantity a less-critical factor for automation. Now it’s more about the availability of employees to perform certain tasks. Fabricators also might look at the quantity and the nature of the job, and the “four Ds.” Is the job difficult, dull, dangerous, or dirty? “Don’t just look at the four Ds, though,” Sarkar said, “or you might miss out on the real magnitude of the dollar amount and the potential for new business.” 

Here’s where the fab shop automation leads play a key role. For instance, they might look at the four Ds and see a particular job as “difficult.” Is the job truly difficult for everyone? Or could the issue be solved with training or better process documentation? If it’s about training, is automating really the best route? If the process in question won’t have a huge financial impact, maybe not.

Still, that “financial impact” isn’t just a straightforward ROI calculation anymore. These days, OEMs might demand some level of automation for suppliers to even bid on a job. What business opportunities could arise?  

New automation technologies also could introduce new career paths. Instead of being full of hands-on workers, the future shop could have a range of employees with different talents. Some work to perfect the manual craft while others keep their eyes on technology.

Whenever I visit a shop with automation, I try to talk to the programmer as well as those who work with the equipment directly. If they throw up their hands and complain about issues, they might be slow to adopt more automation down the road. Getting burned isn’t fun. Sometimes, though, their eyes light up. They talk about how creative thinking overcame initial challenges, be it with robot gripping, tooling, consumables, program sequencing, or anything else. Employing someone like that, a true champion of automation technology, can make all the difference in the world.