Management software boosts efficiency

The combination of software and lean manufacturing puts shops ahead

By: Clare Goldsberry 03/12/2008 Welding Magazine

While the software that runs machine systems and CAD/CAM software packages are common to metal fab shops, shop management software is less familiar but it is a tool that may become a standard to help shops to make their operations more competitive, productive and profitable.

Production and project management software programs that integrate multiple operations from quoting to routing to production and finished product shipping are designed to make a manager’s job easier, while improving efficiency in several ways.

Brad Stacy, general manager for QC Metal Fabricators Inc. of Elkhart, Ind., said in addition to improved production and efficiency, his shop’s use of management software provided by Shoptech Software improved on-time deliveries. Besides the routine functions of shop scheduling, routing and inventory control, Stacy said that Shoptech Software’s E2 software package makes it easier to see where bottlenecks develop, and lets the shop react faster to prevent slowdowns.

“It does a much better job of projecting out for each operation in our facility. Work load will vary sometimes, and welding can be a bottleneck,” Stacy said.

“Seeing where this might occur, we can identify whether we need to hire someone, set up split shift, or incorporate overtime in the welding area,” he added. Shoptech Software offers its E2 manufacturing scheduling software with built-in sheet calculators that help to manage production, inventory and order entry, among its other features.

“Fabrication shops have unique needs when it comes to manufacturing software solutions,” Paul Ventura, vice president of marketing for Shoptech Software said.

Some shops make one-off products while other shops might do a week or two of high-volume production. In addition, some parts go through one or two processes, while other parts require multiple processes and assemblies before they are complete. Therefore, Ventura noted, manufacturing software for the job shop setting should be flexible.” He said software written specifically for fabricating shops is in demand, and that some companies are on their second or third generation of management software systems.

“Some of the general systems such as Quickbooks, Excel spread sheets or Peachtree do a good job when they (shop owners and managers) are starting out in business, but as they grow, they need more functionality as scheduling, purchasing and inventory control become more complex,” Ventura said.

“E2 is written specifically for shop management and includes things like job travelers, routers, scheduling – functions you might not find in a general office software program,” he added.

For example, E2 software allows for flexible scheduling with “whiteboard” that allows users to schedule the shop floor realistically.

“You can set your lasers up as finite elements, press brakes as infinite elements and welders based on how many guys show up that day,” Ventura said. Technology is one way to gain a competitive advantage in today’s marketplace and ultimately it’s all in the software.”

Eric and Mary Isbister discovered that competitive advantage shortly after they purchased General MetalWorks ( in 1999. General MetalWorks is a fabricating company based in Mequon, Wisc.

The Isbisters found they entered the metal fab business just in time for China’s big “ramp up” that offered cheap labor, and by 2002 they found they needed to do more if the company was to be competitive.

Now known officially as GenMet, the company has ERP software from Exact JobBoss that provides infrastructure for its lean manufacturing initiative, Eric Isbister, the chief executive officer, said.

“We find that JobBoss is well focused on small businesses. They’ve made enhancements over the last few years to make the system easier to fit to our business,” Isbister said.

The JobBoss system integrates shop processes including quoting, scheduling, routing, production planning, and purchasing, among others. It accommodates GenMet’s lean manufacturing operations, and its “paperless” functions.

“Two years ago we took the entire plant paperless. With the JobBoss system we can attach drawings to the job, and with one click it gets routed, with another click it gets the drawing. No welder’s spark landing on the drawing and burns a hole where a critical dimension used to be,” Isbister said.

Joe Beck, president of Beck Automation LLC, said the biggest advantage to using a good production management software is that that ability to have a “paperless” system. Beck Automation is a St. Louis company that designs controls and related products for the metal forming industry the metal forming industry.

The company has a software program – the SmartComm Office-to-Shop Production Management Download Program – that is designed to keep data handling to a minimum, and to keep the operator to focus on running production lines. The company said its program can improve efficiency and productivity by as much as 35 percent.

“Instead of generating a stack of production orders that are put on clipboards and handed to each operator, the job specifications are imported directly from the original sales orders and downloaded directly to a controller,” Joe Beck said. In addition, the program provides another major advantage – immediate feedback.

“With the paper-and-clipboard system, the production manager might not know of a problem until operators hand in paperwork on finished jobs at the end of the shift. With a download software package, he can get a visual update for every machine as the parts move through the various processes on the floor with a look at the computer screen for a particular job,” Beck said.

For GenMet, JobBoss’s scheduling function enables the company to execute its lean manufacturing initiative by scheduling to the shops bottleneck – welding.

Previously, the only way the shop could keep material from backing up at its welding department was to control the flow of work to the floor.

Now, the shop uses its JobBoss management program to schedule the amount of work it can get through welding in a shift, a day, or a week, then only let that amount of work into the system, and it works for small batch work and for high volume projects.

Over the past few years, the shop has invested nearly $4 million in new, high-speed laser cutting equipment and state-of-the-art press brakes that cuts and bends steel faster. That results in faster throughput for the company’s basic functions. With the cutting and forming operations moving at high speed, welders fell behind, even with two robotic welding cells, so the Isbisters decided to expand.

“Last year we bought another building about 20 miles away to accommodate just a welding operation, doubling the welding department,” Isbister said.

GenMet currently has 35 people doing welding, most of them at the welding facility and a few at the main facility.

“That’s still our bottleneck because we can cut twice as fast as the old equipment could, so welders can’t keep up. We support welding and make sure it’s as efficient as possible. Today, GenMet has a total of 80 employees and does $12 million in sales annually.

“Lean manufacturing, employee led continuous improvement, high-tech equipment – and hightech software – go hand-in-hand to make us successful,” Isbister said.