The metal-processing industry faces several challenges affecting business profitability and sustainability. The sector is labor- and capital-intensive and operates in a volatile environment characterized by complex value chains. Metal-processing companies must optimize asset utilization and leverage digital technologies to combat predominant market challenges. Globalization increases competition since companies depend on the same customer base. Each facility should proactively explore ways to improve product quality and service delivery to retain a substantial market share.

The metal-processing sector currently deals with complex supply chains. There is constant pressure to optimize distribution channels while keeping a keen eye on prevailing geopolitical issues, socioeconomic interruptions and scarce raw materials. Companies struggle to cut costs related to metal ore extraction and processing. These companies require upfront information regarding market changes to realign operations and control production costs.

Metal processing requires a pool of skilled individuals to handle routine production and supply-chain activities. However, the world is experiencing an acute shortage of skilled labor that impedes the consistency and efficiency of workflows in facilities. Companies spend more money to acquire, train and retain the scarce talent eating into the slim revenue margins.

How can metal-processing facilities overcome these challenges by leveraging digital technology?

Here are four ways digital technology can help the metal-processing industry overcome modern challenges.


Automating Routine Activities and Inventory Management

Metal processing is a combination of different activities supported by cross-departmental employees. These dispersed teams work toward a common goal, and each must deliver on its mandate to ensure cost-effective and timely delivery of processed goods. The complexity of these processes varies, and minor interruptions may cause adverse effects on routine operations.

Modern technology enables companies to automate and centralize routine metal-processing activities while fostering cross-functional collaborations. Companies can invest in reliable Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software to manage inventories and resource allocation among departments. Such systems work collaboratively with production scheduling solutions vital for short- to long-term asset utilization planning. ERP systems reduce human errors and minimize scheduling clashes among departments.

Metal processing relies on several production assets with varying maintenance requirements. The availability of these assets dictates the productivity levels of facilities. Companies can streamline maintenance operations using Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS). CMMS solutions enable companies to manage scheduled maintenance and emergency repairs and enhance team collaboration. The systems keep detailed maintenance reports that companies use to manage budgets, maintenance personnel, tools and spare parts to ensure timely corrective and preventive measures on production assets.


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Forecasting Market Demands

Predictive analytics and access to accurate market data can improve the competitiveness of a metal-processing company. Companies should gather sufficient intelligence regarding potential market disruptions, supply-chain challenges or changes in customer behavior. Forecasting market demand is a step toward implementing market-driven production, enabling companies to operate with lean inventories.

Companies can combine advanced data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to conduct targeted market research. These technologies use machine learning and predictive algorithms to sift through millions of market data records to identify trading patterns in particular geographical segments. With these insights, companies can optimize supply chains and reorganize internal processes to ensure optimal productivity in line with existing market demands.

Supply chains experience rapid changes depending on the prevailing socioeconomic and geopolitical factors. Companies should invest in modern fleet monitoring technologies, like GPS-enabled trackers, to manage supply-chain visibility. That way, metal processors can estimate delivery times and monitor the real-time movement of precious shipments.

Companies can also leverage predictive technologies to manage equipment maintenance in facilities. These technologies rely on condition-monitoring sensors that collect real-time asset performance data to estimate when component failures are likely to occur. It enables companies to control product quality and avert breakdowns that extend machine idle time.


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Enhancing the Efficiency of Critical Production Assets

Increasing the efficiency of production assets determines the quality and quantity of process outputs. One way to achieve this is through strategic automation of tasks and equipment. The company should also implement effective maintenance strategies to ensure every production component operates optimally.

Automation of production assets results in the consistency of metal-processing activities. Unlike humans, automated facilities can run continuously without fatigue. Companies can leverage basic automation techniques like programmable logic controllers (PLCs), SCADA systems and human-machine interfaces (HMI) to perform repetitive tasks. They can also leverage advanced solutions like robots, automated guided vehicles (AGV) and autonomous mobile robots (AMR) for material handling and execution of dangerous tasks. These solutions perform tasks faster than human employees and enhance safety in facilities. Automation technologies ensure companies achieve production targets affordably with minimal defects.

Implementing proactive maintenance strategies extends the useful lives of critical production assets. Proper asset maintenance optimizes overall equipment effectiveness, reduces instances of equipment breakdowns and lowers energy consumption across the facility. The company can derive long-term value from machinery and earn sufficient revenues. Proactive maintenance strategies include:

  • Regular preventive maintenance
  • Condition-based monitoring
  • Predictive maintenance


Reducing Process Wastes

Metal manufacturers scramble for limited natural resources. There is a need for companies to control the utilization of raw materials and control process waste. Traditional metal processing produces plenty of scrap. With the advent of technology, companies can achieve sustainability goals by controlling scrap quantities and fostering recycling initiatives. Automating manual production equipment reduces waste by eliminating unnecessary production stops and non-value-add, time-consuming procedures.

There is increased utilization of CNC machines and automated metal-processing machinery to streamline process efficiencies and improve precision. Metal processors can replicate product designs and complete fabrication processes faster. Companies have low scrap levels since production machinery has high precision standards.

Companies can also reduce waste using additive-manufacturing (AM) processes. AM eliminates the stripping of material to fabricate products. Some practical additive manufacturing techniques include:

  • 3D printing
  • Laser sintering
  • Electron-beam melting


Conclusion

Technology is pivotal for minimizing and eliminating challenges associated with metal processing. Companies should choose relevant technologies based on the challenges affecting operations in their facilities. Capital costs for implementing novel digital technologies in the metal-processing industry vary. Investment costs depend on technological sophistication, desired business goals, number of production equipment and availability of the preferred digital solution.

Companies should audit facilities to identify the most pressing issues to help them choose appropriate technologies for implementation. They should also understand that these solutions require time to stabilize and mature. Companies should educate staff on the benefits and ways to utilize these technologies to simplify routine metal-processing activities.


For more information: Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO of Limble CMMS. Limble is a CMMS software that helps managers organize, automate and streamline their maintenance operations. He can be reached at editor@limblecmms.com or 801-851-1218.