Sheet metal and Software. 50 years of continuous evolution

Over the past fifty years, the sheet-metal sector has undergone a major transformation involving myriad changes, some of which have been very far-reaching. This evolution has been linked largely to the advances made in software engineering.

With a view to gaining a better understanding of how the sector has evolved, there now follows an overview of the advances made in each decade.

The 1970s – The beginning of automation

The sheet-metal forming industry has been operating as a key part of the production chain for years, yet the 1970s saw it take its first steps toward automation, starting with computer numerical control (CNC) for carrying out a series of connected operations. This leads to an increase in both quality and performance.

One of the new developments in this decade, without which the sector’s subsequent evolution would not have taken place, is the advent of laser technology. The sheet-metal industry thus opens the door to a new future.

The changes introduced require increasingly more qualified labor, with this trend continuing through to the present day.

The 1980s – CAM systems change the rules of the game

The 1980s witnessed further advances in sheet metal machines in pursuit of more efficient and faster machinery. The very concept of automation evolves; numerical controls improve and combine with computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) systems. This means workshop operators only have to focus on the actual machining of the part, as the programming is set by the technical department. The CAM system leads to the G-Code being interpreted by the machine it is being run on.

The changes introduced require increasingly more qualified labour

The 1990s – Digitization appears on the scene

This decade introduces the mass implementation of solutions for digitizing certain processes. This is when software begins to transform workshops thanks to the universal use of computer-aided design (CAD), CAM, and CNC.

The need arises to improve the budgeting of costs, with the first steps being taken toward the sector’s digital transformation. Nevertheless, two decades will have to pass until the first major changes are introduced that herald the adoption of digital processes.

The 2000s – The priority, consolidate automation

The industrial sector begins to refer to lean manufacturing, although the sheet-metal industry does not adopt this operating system en masse. Automation is still an unsolving issue for most companies in the sector. It is becoming increasingly necessary but is a major headache for many businesses. The first systems are adopted for automating workshop processes that interact with technical programming systems. Individual machines are interconnected and work together to handle material and its input and output in each work center.

Enterprise resource planning (ERPs) first appeared in the 1990s, beginning to be timidly introduced in certain steel-sheet businesses. The growing demand prompts the creation of a new market for satisfying these needs.

Automation is still an unsolved issue for most of the sheet metal companies.

The 2010s – Digitalization starts

Work continues on consolidating automation and the material flow to improve the efficiency of the production process. The next logical step involves solving the supervision of the material flow, with the full traceability of operations in the warehouse and production, thereby streamlining the sector’s efficiency.

Software is becoming increasingly important in industry, and companies are considering integrating the processes run by different systems. The sector refers to digital transformation for the first time, although few companies have embarked upon a full digitization project. This is still an expensive and costly process.

The demand for skilled labor continues to grow as software and automation require specialized training. This decade sees the start of the escalation toward laser machines with more cutting capabilities and the appearance of 3D printers.

The 2020s – digitalization to face new VUCA environments.

Although this decade has only just begun, we can already detect certain trends that enable us to make our own predictions.

Software has now become a key driver of transformation and, moreover, another line of business for the industry. The sector is beginning to gain a collective awareness of the need for digitization and its benefits for operating in ever more complex markets.

Furthermore, there is a growing realization that excessive personalization leads down a blind alley. Customized developments appear to meet requirements, yet in the long term they cannot be scaled up, adapted, or improved in step with the firm.

Digitization is a huge advantage but it is not an end in itself

According to these tendencies, we may reach an obvious conclusion: digitization is a huge advantage but it is not an end in itself; it involves constantly being on the move. The key factor of success in this process is to be clear about each firm’s needs.

Besides, it is becoming increasingly easier to choose scalable solutions without involving major investments. The choice (and this constitutes a major advantage) may involve solutions based on platforms that integrate the latest technologies and are guaranteed to provide long-term viability. In the long run, proprietary software with few options for interfacing with other systems, and which runs in home-grown environments or highly specific ones, entails a series of limitations that should be avoided.

It would therefore be pointless for this sector to be fazed by these latest trends, such as AI. It is true to say that the sheet-metal industry will ultimately rely on AI tools that will be extremely useful in numerous fields, but we must first walk the walk, and these tools will be rendered useless if we have not previously embraced a digital transformation.

Our advice remains the same: if you want to digitize, find a partner to guide you through the entire process. Above all, make sure your resources are ready for the changes that a truly digital transformation will bring to your firm. If the organization is not mature enough, there will be no point in implementing the finest tools the market has to offer: the project will almost certainly fall short.

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