Daniel Schaeffler Daniel Schaeffler

Growing Your Business: Know How Your Customer Uses Your Product

August 23, 2019

We exercise customer choice daily, from the car we drive to the cell phone we use. Pretty much every vehicle can get you from Point A to Point B, and every phone can at least initiate a call. Price, features and quality primarily influence our decision to choose one product over another. Similar considerations are at play when a metal stamping company selects a sheet metal supplier.

Selection as a supplier requires availability of the right metal grade at the desired thickness and width. The lowest price helps, but is not required. One example: Apple products provide sufficient value to their customer base, allowing Apple to compete in the marketplace on facets other than price.

Value-Adding Opportunities for Sheet Metal Suppliers

Manufacturing companies order sheet metal to ASTM or SAE specifications, or even to their own specs. Many specs feature wide tolerances and allowable ranges that enable the greatest number of potential suppliers. Purchasing preference may be given to those suppliers having invested in equipment and processes that result in better control of thickness, flatness and tensile property distributions. These tighter ranges enable greater throughput and reduced downtime in the part-manufacturing operation. Improved manufacturing efficiency can lead to greater press availability to tackle additional jobs. More consistent properties also may reduce the frequency of tooling and press maintenance. Opportunities like these have value to any manufacturing company, possibly to the extent that justifies paying more for incoming metal.

Another way for suppliers to show value: teach their customers how to make more efficient use of their products. To maximize the potential for a mutually beneficial outcome, the supplier must understand how and why the customer uses the selected product.

An example: The maximum-width coil that can be produced at a sheet mill is a function of the available equipment and the targeted grade and thickness. Commonly available maximum widths typically measure 36, 48, 60 or 72 in. For a given grade and thickness, an order of less than the maximum width capable of being produced results in lower mill productivity as measured in tons/hr.

In certain conditions, this can be exploited to everyone’s advantage. Take the example of a stamped product specified as needing a 31-in.-wide coil. A mill with a 36-in. maximum width capability can produce this coil with a minor productivity penalty. Mills with maximum width capabilities of 48 in. or more probably will decide not to even quote on supplying this product.

However, what if the part can be nested differently to save 1 in. on the width? Potentially, this new layout will create more engineered scrap in the 30-in.-wide coil. Although more scrap is never desired, this change could allow for an even greater amount of cost savings. The sheet mill now can roll this product as a 60-in.-wide coil, followed by center slitting. This significantly reduces the cost of production, and some of this savings can be split between the customer and supplier.

Even without split savings, the part manufacturer benefits from an increase in potential suppliers, and the sheet mill benefits from the ability to quote competitively on new business.

Ideally, at the beginning of the part-development process, the stamping company surveys all suppliers to know their pricing at every combination of thickness and coil width for each grade of interest, with these constraints factored into their sheet metal requirements. Reality usually differs, where dozens or hundreds of parts must be processed, sourced and assembled by an understaffed team in a reduced time frame compared with the prior model. RFQs go out with constraints often dictated by what was used in that prior model, and not necessarily optimized to fit current supply options.

Bring Suppliers Into Design Process for Best Results

Mutually beneficial opportunities await those suppliers willing to learn how their customers process sheet metal and understand the rationale behind the choices made. Potential areas for cost savings include part consolidation leading to structural improvements, and balance of the grade selection against the selected lubricant. Suppliers included in the part-design process provide the greatest impact on cost and quality.

Stamped parts are joined using welds, rivets and other means. Fewer stamped parts mean not only fewer stamping and assembly resources needed, but result in cost and weight savings due to the elimination of flange surfaces for joining. Fewer joints improve structural integrity and reduce the opportunity for fatigue and vibration issues.

Several approaches result in structural improvement. One: tailor welded blanks, where flat sheets of the proper combination of grade, thickness and coating are welded together and then stamped. This contrasts with attempting to join already-formed parts, each with different levels of dimensional accuracy. Hydroforming is another mature process capable of facilitating part reductions using appropriate designs, with 50-percent fewer parts and 20-percent lighter weight having been documented on automotive radiator supports and engine cradles.

Applying engineered lubricants facilitates the use of a lower-cost metal grade having lower formability. While an engineered lube may cost more per gal. than the current approach, many of today’s lubricants are designed to function at very low application levels. This reduces consumption, with the additional benefits of a safer plant floor and lower OSHA-compliance costs.

Equivalent structural performance may be achievable with substitution of higher-strength metals, at reduced thickness, into the design. This approach saves weight, and perhaps without a significant cost penalty. While the higher-strength metal likely costs more per lb., its reduced thickness means less to purchase. Proper lubricants help overcome any decreased metal formability.

An internal team with knowledge of part development and die processing helps, as does access to forming and structural simulation software. Even with no necessary skills available inhouse at the metal supplier, several companies have the experience and expertise to assist with these challenges. Partner and learn from them to grow the talent within your company. Over time, you will see best practices while honing your skills. Soon you will become the indispensable partner sought out by potential customers.

Interested in certain topics for future columns? Let me know at ScienceOfForming@EQSgroup.com. MF

Industry-Related Terms: Scrap, Flange, Forming, Model, Point, Center, Die, Thickness
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: Engineering Quality Solutions, Inc., 4M Partners, LLC

Technologies: Lubrication, Materials, Quality Control


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