Ficep’s history of automation in structural steel processing

Adopting automation has been an ongoing goal for the steel processing industry for the last two decades. The need to move away from labour-intensive operations whilst improving productivity and reducing operating costs is an increasingly pressing issue. Recent events highlighted once more the need for wider and faster adoption of automation in the steel processing sector. In this blog we look back on our own automation journey and consider what the future of our industry could be.


The awakening of automation in structural steel fabrication

Prior to the early 60s structural steel was fabricated by manual processes with assistance from ironworkers, magnetic based drills, portable hydraulic punches and radial arm drills. Productivity was increased in bigger operations by using large mechanical punches alongside mechanical gauging systems, otherwise known as a duplicating table with motorized positioning carriage.

In the late 60s the industry began turning towards technology and a shift towards electronics. Ficep technical department took the first stride towards automation and in 1968 the first of its kind, automatic CNC controlled steel fabrication line was produced, the Ficep Planetarium. It was this introduction to automation concepts for metal working machines which defined the expectations and future standards of the steel fabrication industry.


Automation and the rise in productivity

Traditionally, even with powerful nesting software, there were four scenarios in sawing processes that were not addressed: the automatic removal of trim cuts, scrap, short parts, and handling of return stock. In 2010, we introduced to the market this industry-first level of automation for structural steel drilling & sawing with our DZB. The machines integrated automatic loading / unloading cycles with the relevant material handling operations. We then developed the use of a magnetic, moving datum system to remove material automatically. In 2019, we improved our processes further with the release of The Valiant and now in 2021, we’ve introduced the Valiant Pro and Katana 100E providing further benefits including electronic rather than hydraulic operation.

Mastering material handling using fully automated systems

During the early 2000s Ficep collaborated with Mabey Johnson (now known as Mabey Bridge) to develop the one of the worlds first automated material handling system for steel fabricators. Ficep developed this pioneering invention and continued to evolve over the years and is now a fully integrated piece of comprehensive system engineering. The system automatically multi-tasks all the different aspects of material handling, meaning operators can focus on monitoring overall processes rather than manually driving each process individually, this frees up operator time, limits the amount of labour needed, avoids human errors, improves health and safety and takes productivity levels to the max. Today, our intelligent steel fabrication software allows production data to be viewed in real-time on a PC or Smartphone. Learn more about our material handling systems available today here.

Revamping steel fabrication with robotics

The 80s and 90s heralded the rise of the robots.

In the late 80s Ficep became the first european company to begin using robotics for thermal cutting of structural steel shapes. Fast-forward to today after years of continuous development of these systems and we have our Nozomi robot introduced in 2017 which provides automated fabrication of structural shapes and pipes using plasma and oxy fuel thermal cutting and anthropomorphic robot technology.

Traditionally we’ve always opted for cartesian robots over articulating which tend to be more simple to operate and less sophisticated to service, In the last few years we have introduced the first anthropomorphic robot option for our thermal cutting systems which provide for less space and more effective cutting quality with the latest plasma technology.

In 1995, our forging system technology began to evolve and robotic systems were implemented, increasing productivity specifically for the pressing industries. In 1998, we officially introduced this innovative “Direct Drive” technology to the market, which consists of spindles designed with fully programmable motors. Over the years we’ve continued to develop this technology further which enabled us to incorporate Direct Drive within our drilling machines in 2009.

In the 90’s we introduced our first tandem drill and robotic coping system which has the benefit of a fully robotic programmable motion for weld prep in flanges and web.

In 2019, we partnered with the Austrian machinery manufacturer, Zeman who match our passion for developing fully automated systems, such as their system to assemble, tack and finish weld structural members. The partnership with Zeman is also enabling us to introduce their impressive SPS automatic system which uses a robot for picking fittings and transferring to storage systems, which drastically reduces operator involvement and increases productivity.

Bringing stellar software solutions to steel fabricators 

During the 70s and 80s, Ficep focused on producing software solutions that would revolutionise steel processing operations by amplifying performance and productivity. In 1985 we entered the global market with the first in our innovative software solution that was applied to our machines “Fenice”

Moving along to 1985 Ficep changed the game in steel processing when we seized the opportunity to bring greater flexibility to steel fabrication projects by producing our now world-renowned “Intelligent steel fabrication” integrated automatic systems, which maximised performance for steel producers like never before.

In 1994 our collaboration with a French software business led to the creation of our partner company, Steel Projects. We worked together to develop and launched our first range of CNC software products including WinSTEEL, Winser, WinBar, WinNEST and WinCN. In 2011, a new platform was developed, Steel Projects PLM. They entered the market and changed the industry with the most sophisticated, business-specific software available to improve production management, specifically for the structural steel industry.

In 2013, Steel Projects became wholly owned by Ficep S,p,a and since then have continued to develop the software to meet the changing needs of structural steel users as we progress through Industry 4.0. Currently, over 2,000 steel fabricators worldwide trust Steel Projects to manage their production across a wide range of CNC machines..

Supercharged service and tooling 

In the past year, we’ve made huge changes to our service, parts and tooling processes. We’ve used technology to automate aspects of service engineers’ roles, including adopting the use of tablets with BigChange software installed that has drastically improved the speed at which our service team can work.

We’ve also recently teamed up with tooling partner’s and hardware provider’s, including Supply Point to introduce our first-ever tool vending machines for customers which has allowed automatic control of tool stock inventory, to provide a more convenient tooling supply service.

These changes are helping us to improve the speed at which we can support customers, limit site visits and eliminate paper trails in relation to our operations.

What the future holds

As more people turn to automation adoption over the coming years, we will see new digital technologies be introduced that continue to streamline the structural steel fabrication industry for optimised production. Recent events have shocked the world and accelerated the switch to automation so factories can continue production, even when faced with minimal operators and continuing economic uncertainty.

From machinery to service and tooling, every aspect of steel processing businesses are going to be looking to improve safety of workers, and become a more lean operation as we aim to reduce operating costs, emissions and survive in an ever-changing environment. At Ficep, we devote 5% of our annual profits to the development of new products that meet the needs of modern fabricators, and we will strive to help companies adapt to the challenges current circumstances have caused.