Data takes center stage at Italy’s LAMIERA sheet metal trade show
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Data takes center stage at Italy’s LAMIERA sheet metal trade show

Jul 22, 2023

About 19,000 people visited Milan to attend LAMIERA, Italy’s manufacturing show focused on sheet metal. After an irregular schedule during the pandemic, the trade show returned to its biennial format this year.

About 25 years ago, Ann LoCicero took the opportunity of a lifetime. Working in America at Texas Instruments, she transferred to a company position in Italy. She’s no longer with Texas Instruments, but she never left Italy. Today, she’s president of Milan-based smartFAB, a company that collects disparate data across the enterprise and presents it as a cohesive whole.

“We take data that’s collected in the manufacturing environment, most of which is not used and were never meant to be connected, and we transform it into information that can be utilized, to provide insight to engineers and technicians to improve the manufacturing process.”

LoCicero made that comment in the Italian Startup area of LAMIERA, Italy’s biennial trade show dedicated to sheet metal and plate fabrication. About 19,000 people came to peruse more than 400 exhibiting companies from Italy and around the world. Many focused not just on cutting and bending faster and better but also on connecting the dots across the fabrication plant.

Cut and bend quality matter, as does the associated software and machinery automation, but how those processes fit into the larger fabrication picture matters even more. Better data gives a fabricator a better picture of shop floor realities and, not least, where a fabricator’s technological and labor needs truly are—no small feat, considering the challenge of finding qualified people in an increasingly competitive landscape. As this year’s LAMIERA proved, the perennial issues in metal fabrication, including the lack of skilled labor and the drive toward automation, are truly global.

In mid-May, the Italian Trade Agency (ITA), working with the UCIMU, the Italian machine tool association, invited members of the trade press from across the globe to attend—and for good reason. The world has an appetite for Italian manufacturing technology, especially those in the U.S. According to data UCIMU presented at the show, the U.S. is the No. 1 export market for Italy’s sheet metal and plate cutting and forming machines. Between 2021 and 2022, total exports to the U.S. of Italian sheet metal cutting and forming machines increased more than 52%.

“There are many reasons [for the increased exports],” said Barbara Colombo, UCIMU president and CEO of Ficep, the plate-cutting and structural fab machine maker based near Milan, with U.S. offices in Maryland. “A lot of it is connected with infrastructure, the military sector, as well as the current reshoring trends.”

Italy’s machine tool manufacturers have experienced several years of strong domestic sales, driven in part by financial incentives offered by the Italian government. The incentive program is coming to an end, but it’s having a continuing impact on Italian manufacturers.

“About 10 years ago, the average age of machines in Italy was more than 12 years old,” said Giovanni Zacco, market development manager for BLM Group, based north of Milan, with U.S. offices in Novi, Mich. “That made it difficult for companies to compete, so the government pushed for new machine investment.”

At the show, BLM featured its flat laser cutting machines. Best known for laser tube cutting and tube bending machinery, BLM never stopped producing flat laser cutting machines since it entered the laser cutting arena decades ago. “We just kept a low profile,” Zacco said, adding that the company now has put a renewed focus on the flat sheet cutting market.

Whether it’s tube or flat sheet, though, data-driven manufacturing is at the heart of the government initiative. “The government support [in Italy] really focused on Industry 4.0, and the new market opportunities from robust software connected to machinery,” Zacco said.

Visitors peruse the Italian Startup area on the show floor.

Better data helps fabricators get the most out of the people they have—a good thing, considering finding and hiring more people quite often just isn’t an option—a truth in the U.S. and throughout Europe.

“We are witnessing an increased demand for automation for multiple reasons,” said Simona di Giovanni, brand marketing communications manager at Prima Power, based near Turin, with U.S. offices outside Chicago. “The market demands faster delivery and higher quality, of course, and automation helps achieve this. And then there’s the labor shortage. It’s hard to find qualified labor, and it’s true in Italy like everywhere else. Automation investment is on the rise. In Italy, automation investment accelerated with government incentives. Today, the demand for automation is coming not just from large plants but also from smaller and smaller workshops.”

“In smaller Italian companies especially, there’s a deep level of knowledge,” said Stefano Cera, software product manager at Salvagnini, based in northern Italy, with U.S. offices in Ohio. “The person talking about the balance sheet and company strategy is the same person commenting about the quality of bending and the cut edge.”

Cera made the comment while demonstrating Salvagnini’s software that streamlines programming and scheduling, considering the big picture of future demand as well as the minutiae of reliable processing (like, say, monitoring the grid or slat locations on a laser cutting bed, and the potential for slag buildup).

Throughout LAMIERA, software was everywhere, with most exhibitors preaching a common message: No longer should anyone need to check on the shop floor just to know a job’s production status. Dashboards in the office (and throughout the plant, for that matter) should tell them what job is where, where jobs are coming from, where they’re going, whether they’re on schedule or not (and why), along with the associated costs, material consumed, and even the environmental considerations.

Considering that last point, Luca Ronchetti pointed to a screen showing a graph at his booth. The CEO of REM Software & Automation, based in Modena, Italy, described how connected software can reveal “both production data with consumption data. We’re measuring the total cost of the labor and consumption.”

That consumption figure includes not just material, gases, and machine consumables, but also the amount of energy the processes consumed. Ronchetti added that what the company’s software measures depends on the application and customer requirements, but whatever the application, the idea is to collect and interpret the right data to reveal an operation’s true cost.

Back at the Italian Startup area, a few stations down from smartFAB, Francesco Gaetarelli of Komete, based in Collebeato, demonstrated his company’s tracking technology that, analogous to Apple AirTags, attaches to a job cart (or any physical asset) to track its movement though the facility. “It’s plug and play,” he said. “All we need is electricity for our gateways, and we communicate wirelessly with software.” He added that the company has application protocol interfaces (APIs) to talk with various enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, manufacturing execution systems (MES), and other platforms.

Komete isn’t tackling the U.S. market yet, but similar technology—tracking the physical location of jobs as they flow through different steps on the routing—has made its way to North America. Regardless, the idea shows how big-picture thinking, focusing on how jobs move from the initial order release to the final shipment out the door, is really taking hold.

So is the idea of reducing the number of steps on the routing. In the plate fabrication arena, for instance, Christian Colombo, Ficep Corp. president, pointed to a tool changer on one of the company’s multifunction plate processing machines that offers oxyfuel, plasma cutting, and drilling. As a cutting tool descended to the plate to create a blind hole, Colombo pointed out the specialized hold-down tools that secured the workpiece. “The plate is secured in more than one point. It’s a one-stop-shop work center, where you can cut, drill, mark, and perform weld prep.”

Attendees head toward the reception area during the show’s first day. This year’s LAMIERA drew 19,000 people over its four-day run in mid-May.

Similar systems can be outfitted with robotic deburring and offloading. “While we do the unloading, we can perform deburring [of edges and holes] and quality control,” he said.

This goes back to that big-picture thinking: Yes, a process can be automated, but what are the implications downstream? Why automate plate cutting only to create a deburring bottleneck downstream?

Andrea Dallan also knows about freeing bottlenecks. The CEO of Dallan Spa—based near Milan with U.S. offices in Ohio—described a coil-fed punch/laser system that cut long products (longer than the typical bed length of a flatbed laser), and another setup that integrated downstream processes like forming. “One application we have goes from coil to punching to forming and packaging,” he said, with the entire line managed by a single person.

Software has permeated every level of metal fabrication, from system-wide MESs and other platforms to the algorithms driving the latest laser cutting heads faster and through thicker materials.

“We have special software we developed with a new-generation algorithm that’s able to model the focusing, depending on the angle of the cutting head.”

That was Andrea Falaschi, export sales manager at Cutlite Penta, based near Florence, with U.S. offices outside Atlanta. He made this comment pointing at a 30-kW fiber laser at the show as it bevel-cut a thick workpiece. The company is looking to penetrate (so to speak) the precision thick-plate-cutting market now dominated by plasma and waterjet.

“Cutting a bevel like this [with a laser] is no joke,” he said, explaining that cutting such thick stock makes strategic use of assist-gas mixing (some combination of air, oxygen, and nitrogen), unique use of proportional valves inside the machine (no external bottles), and a custom cutting head designed to support high laser power. He added that the company is planning to introduce a 40-kW fiber laser at FABTECH in Chicago later this year, and R&D is already in the works on developing a 60-kW fiber laser system.

Falaschi added that increasing laser cutting power to such extremes presents a plethora of technological hurdles. “For example, we design our own optics and nozzle tips, and the optics and nozzles that work for 30 kW are not suitable for 40 kW.” Tying it all together, Falaschi said, is software that allows the optics, gas flow, and everything else to adapt to the workpiece at hand, depending on its thickness and grade.

If fabricators know anything, they know how this business can change on a dime. A large customer can pull its order just as fast as it can ramp up demand. Automated systems offer incredible capacity, but they remain just a piece of the puzzle. Manufacturers need skilled people to manage technology and ensure they’re not just needlessly adding to bottlenecks downstream.

Adapting to the challenge at hand—be it a thick plate of carbon steel, part flow across the factory floor, tracking machine uptime, labor costs, energy consumption—is at the heart of the global metal fabrication business. It’s evident at every FABTECH stateside, and it was evident across the pond at LAMIERA. For those who work in sheet metal and plate, maintaining the status quo just doesn’t cut it anymore.