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Nesting Software Propels Part Programming Productivity

Pat Waurzyniak
By Patrick Waurzyniak Contributing Editor, SME Media

With the latest software for nesting parts, fabricators and metalcutters significantly boost manufacturing productivity

Smarter, faster nesting software programs with better automation and other major improvements are helping fabricators and metalcutters at job shops and other builders inject a jolt of productivity into their factory operations. Speeding up plant processes is always key, but doing so with optimal efficiencies gained through new nesting tools and techniques gives shops an edge over the competition.

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Operator at a CNC using ESAB Cutting Systems’ Columbus III nesting software with flat-sheet metalcutting job. The Columbus nesting software features fully automatic, true-shape nesting that can automatically nest jobs at night, and it also includes a bevel module enabling straight-line programming of oxy-fuel, plasma and laser bevel heads. Image courtesy ESAB Cutting Systems

Nesting software systems are employed by a wide swath of the manufacturing industry, ranging from small job shops to mid- to large-sized manufacturing operations that deploy an array of metalcutting systems from laser welding and cutting equipment to waterjets, plasma and oxy-fuel cutting systems. Getting the right yields from cutting flat-sheet metal is a key goal for shops, along with ensuring high levels of safety, keeping costs down, and speeding up operations with the latest in new networked systems and automation equipment.

Nesting for Top Yields

While manufacturers always want to get the best yields from their nesting programs, it’s not the only factor that managers should be looking for when seeking out the best nesting solution for their particular operation, noted James Lindsey, SigmaNest product manager, SigmaTEK Systems LLC (Cincinnati).

“Typically with nesting software, there are several things people will look at in how to gauge the productivity,” Lindsey said. “Nesting yield is one of those. It’s the easiest one. We take things a little further. It’s not all about yield, it’s about getting the parts ready for downstream.”

Getting three or four orders close together can help when possible, he noted, to get good yields—the most possible parts from a given sheet of material stock. Automating the process with NC optimization, automating the nesting and the NC toolpath, also help immensely in boosting productivity.

“With yield, it’s all over the board,” Lindsey said. “Depending on the parts that you’re running, it might be 80–90%, but it can range anywhere from 60–90%. If you’re doing largely rectangle parts, that 90% is where you’d want to be.”

If a shop’s cutting circular parts, there isn’t any great way to get high nesting yields. “Just take a disk, there’s not much I can do about nesting round parts. There’s going to be some scrap. We take that piece out, and that’s what we call a remnant, and some people elect to scrap-cut it. If it’s mild steel, typically we’re not worried about that, and we have tools to manage that.

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The SigmaNest X1 software from SigmaTEK Systems offers uses automated nesting in an updated 64-bit package. The software, which has flexible links to MRP and ERP systems, will get another refresh soon with its new 3D version, called SigmaNest SX. Image courtesy SigmaTEK Systems LLC

“Our customers typically have a wide range of machine types and brands, and they want a software that will run all of their machines without losing any functionality of the machines capability,” Lindsey added. “Importing data with existing systems, and exporting data to MRP systems is always important.”

The latest SigmaTEK SigmaNest X1 Version 1.3 added 64-bit Windows operating system support, which gained speed, and more nesting improvements bumped up yields by 2–4% or higher, Lindsey said. Further nesting yield improvements are expected in SigmaTEK’s next release due out this month. That update will add further NC toolpath improvements in the part-handling systems, Lindsey said, as well as NC function with the latest fiber lasers. “We also have started to release portions of SigmaNest SX, which is a 3D version of SigmaNest,” he added.

Automated Nesting, Cloud Options

When shop managers consider whether or not to nest parts, there’s really only one good answer. The only way to fully optimize the material, and the machines involved, is to have good nesting capabilities. “It doesn’t matter what process you’re using, the answer would be the same. When you talk about nesting, you’re talking about utilizing the material in the best way possible,” noted Laura Blackmon, manager, software programming, ESAB Cutting Systems (Florence, SC), a builder of welding, plasma and oxy-fuel cutting systems.

At fabrication shops, factory-floor workers have to pull in large pieces of plate steels and metals, which are often pieces as large as 10 × 20′ (3 × 6 m) in size, using cranes and other automation, Blackmon said. “You have quite a bit of loading and unloading, there are a lot of safety requirements to consider,” she added. “During that time, there’s no utilization of the machine, no cutting going on. What nesting does is collect all the parts, collect those on a piece of plate, and with nesting, you get much higher utilization of the material. You also decrease production time by at least 50%, maybe even 75%—so there is a huge difference between nesting and not nesting.”

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The latest ProNest 2017 v12.1 software from Hypertherm, developer of waterjet and plasma cutting machines, offers more efficient CAD import, faster nesting, and cutting techniques that reduce total cut time. Image courtesy Hypertherm

With ESAB’s latest Columbus III nesting software, operators can use its automated nesting capabilities to set nesting tasks at midnight, she said, and a shop’s jobs are programmed with optimal nesting for each job, and each customer. “Without a nesting program, you cannot do this efficiently. Another big thing with customers is ensuring worker safety. When we talk about safety, that is part of the cut costs,” she said. “Workmen’s compensation costs are going through the roof, and when you get into the costs of safety, it becomes a very, very big issue.”

Nesting also enables shops to dramatically reduce the amount of time workers use for picking and placing material, Blackmon said. “If that machine is not running, that plasma is not running, I’m not getting any payback,” she stated. “Anything less than 75% [machine runtime/utilization] is very unproductive.”

Two new features have helped Columbus users, including a new Job Wizard and new cloud-based software tools, Blackmon said. The Job Wizard allows order-entry departments to easily drop their orders into Columbus for the nightly nesting operations. “Columbus understands the company’s inventory; at midnight it will start the nesting and by the time the shop opens in the morning, the nests are already done. We’ve gone completely with automation.” The software automatically nests jobs and is able to account for several different materials and material thicknesses, and the program’s drawing tools work with all of the major 3D CAD solid modeling packages available.

The second major advance is with the company’s new CutCloud and WeldCloud data services, which ESAB demonstrated at a show in Düsseldorf, Germany, in September, and will have on display at November’s FABTECH show in Chicago. The CutCloud and WeldCloud cloud-based data-sharing tools eliminate the person with the clipboard analyzing the process, she noted, and instead crunch real-time data with Web-based tools to more quickly and fully analyze factory processes.

“The technical advance in the CutCloud is it allows the companies to close the loop back to the managers,” Blackmon said. “Our customers are getting smarter and more productive and the way to do it is to understand your process. This is going to make a big difference.”

Boosting the Bottom Line

Automating the fabrication line with better mixes can often lead to lowering cut costs for fabrication shops. “Traditionally, fabricators have taken the approach of running jobs separately. It makes it easier to keep the parts/customers separate for tracking jobs throughout the shop and assigning costs,” said Doug Wood, Radan general manager, Americas, for Vero Software (Cheltenham, UK, and Tuscaloosa, AL). “Nesting solutions today have really progressed to allow sheetmetal fabricators to combine the jobs of multiple customers and keep track of the parts.

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Radan’s 2018 software release includes a new Nesting Engine and the Radmanager, a new product addressing challenges for nesting with multiple engineers and multiple machines. Image courtesy Vero Software

“Combining jobs and producing the parts you need when you need them helps with material utilization and machine run times,” he added. “The nesting systems can also integrate with a company’s MRP or ERP system to pass production requirements. Once the nests have been generated, labels can be produced or parts can automatically be etched for identification purposes.”

Fabricators not only benefit from increased material utilization, Wood said, but also benefit from increased machine efficiency by keeping the machine running with full sheets when possible—manufacturing the parts and quantities needed.

Some of the latest improvements to Radan’s 2018 release include a new Nesting Engine in the updated version that rolls out this month, Wood said. The software will address per-sheet utilization and the overall nesting job, or nest project, he said.

“Additionally, we have developed Radmanager, a new product that addresses challenges for nesting with multiple engineers and multiple machines,” Wood added. “Radmanager provides a solution with visibility across multiple machines or workcenters for multiple operators that allows for flexibility with production requirements. If one machine is down for preventive maintenance or repair, you can quickly see if any of the other cutting equipment has availability and shift production. Radmanager also provides functionality to reject parts for quality or tolerance and have them added back into the nest schedule.”

Manufacturers in the fabrication industry primarily are looking for ease of use, nesting solutions that can quickly and easily import 2D and 3D data, and software that also handles the production requirements from MRP systems, Wood said. “Once the parts have been nested, performance can be tracked for what was achieved for material utilization and machine run times. Additionally, generating the necessary reports and part-label information, or automatically etching the part number for identification purposes, are capabilities that manufacturers seek.”

Today’s nesting software is used for any industry that processes multiple shapes and quantities, he added. “We have had requests to nest components for wood, plastic, nylon, glass, sheetmetal and plate—and we have even had a request to nest on chocolate.

“Each different machine will have its own characteristics, required sheet borders, part spacing, and rotation angles,” Wood said. “A good nesting solution should be able to make adjustments on the fly. So if today my waterjet is down for service, all of the parts required today will have to be redirected to my CNC punch press, and parts nested with different spacing requirement and tooling [have to be] applied to produce the parts on the punch press.”

Efficiency also requires that nesting must be connected to the company’s CAM software, he added. “Move a hole, change a lead in, or accommodate a last-minute change—these are a reality in a fabrication environment,” Wood noted. “Ideally, it’s integrated into your design system, as well, to be able to drop an assembly straight into your nest project and calculate the flat patterns during the process without the need to export/import part files.”

Speed, Accuracy Deliver Productivity

Many new features in today’s advanced nesting software deliver part productivity with faster cut times and better accuracy, noted Derek Weston, product marketing manager for CAD/CAM products at Hypertherm (Hanover, NH), developer of waterjet and plasma cutting machines, with these gains coming from more efficient CAD import, faster nesting, or cutting techniques that reduce total cut time. For example, he noted that Hypertherm’s Rapid Part technology can provide up to a 100% increase in parts per hour, and its True Hole technology can deliver plasma-cut, bolt-ready holes in mild steel, eliminating the need for secondary drilling operations.

Improvements in faster programming, ease of use, and cost reductions with material savings add up, and Weston said that advanced nesting software can be surprisingly easy to learn and use, requiring fewer steps and allowing users to complete tasks more quickly. “This not only speeds up the programming process, but makes it easier to train new employees,” he said. “When switching to an advanced nesting software you may see an instant improvement in material utilization. This is due to the sophisticated algorithms and optimization techniques used in automatic nesting, and efficiencies gained from plate management, and work order processing. Even a small improvement in material utilization can save tens of thousands of dollars per year.”

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The latest nesting software from OMAX offers waterjet users improved automatic toolpath planning for nested sheets. The OMAX Automatic Array Nester includes basic array nesting and it other features for high-production part cutting. Image courtesy OMAX Corp.

New technical breakthroughs include the Hypertherm ProNest software full support for its SureCut technologies, including True Hole and Rapid Part, he added, which are delivered automatically without operator intervention, and True Bevel, which greatly reduces bevel set up time. SureCut technologies are applied without the need for highly-skilled operators, he noted.

Some new features available in ProNest 2017 v12.1 include Dynamic Align, which creates a connected column or row of rectangular type parts, aligned on one side, and aligned parts can be connected with a common line or bridge. This enables part drop with a single cut pass down the aligned edge, and it avoids collisions as parts are freed as the cutting head moves away from part. Other new features of ProNest are its Data Sync, which exports ProNest job data in the format needed by ERP systems as nests are completed, and the Solidworks Bevel Detection, for identifying beveled edges on Solidworks parts and automatically assigning ProNest beveling to them during import.

Nesting Needs for Waterjets

Not every fabricator needs to immediately jump into nesting software, noted Carl Olsen, director of software products, OMAX Corp. (Kent, WA). “Nesting is something I actually discourage waterjet folks from jumping into right at the start, because when folks ask about this, it is often a fantasy about how they will use their machines that does not always line up with reality, and they don’t know what they don’t know, so they end up buying the wrong $20,000 piece of software,” Olsen said. “There is a wide variety of nesting software out there that has a variety of use cases and feature sets, so which nesting software is best depends a lot on how it will be used. So it’s something to evaluate carefully, typically best after one has a few months of experience with their machine when it becomes clear what is actually needed.

“There are a couple of primary reasons to nest, but not every fabricator needs nesting. However, here are the primary things nesting software can do for a shop,” Olsen said, including “fill material efficiently with parts in order to minimize the amount of waste material, and maximize the amount of parts cut into a plate of material.” Secondary functions of nesting software include management functions such as tracking remnant sheets, job scheduling, and other functions, he said.

The latest OMAX software offers users improved automatic toolpath planning, specifically considering automatic toolpath planning for nested sheets. “This can be used to enable the use of third-party nesters that do not have their own toolpath planning,” Olsen said.

For many users, ease of use is often important in nesting software, Olsen said. “The ability to maximally fill a sheet of material with minimum scrap is often a differentiator,” he said. “Sometimes it is integration and automation opportunities. Other times, it is some unique feature for a particular process.” The shops that cut a variety of shapes in high production can put nesting software to best use, he added.

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Updated nesting software from waterjet builder Flow International expands its ability to import a wide variety of modeling formats for both 2D and 3D cutting along with improved nesting efficiencies. Image courtesy Flow International Corp.

Nesting software is crucial for efficient usage of material and operators’ time, noted Kurt Mueller, director of product management for waterjet builder Flow International Corp. (Kent, WA). “Being able to efficiently combine different customers’ jobs that utilize the same material allows for better throughput for the fabrication shop and lower scrap material,” Mueller said. Finally, nesting software allows for tracking and reuse of any remnants of a size suitable for other jobs.”

Flow’s latest software updates expand upon the ability to import a wide variety of industry-standard modeling formats including working with solid models for both 2D and 3D cutting, he added. “Being able to take in a wide variety of formats allows fabrication shops flexibility and doesn’t require them to purchase many different CAD tools in order to cut parts on their Flow waterjet machines.”

Key features of good nesting software include efficient packing of shapes onto a material, an easy way to track remnants and bring those back into the software for future nests, as well as ease of use. “To derive the most benefit from nesting software, it needs to be accessible to programmers with as little barrier to learning as possible.”

Metal fabricators certainly benefit from better material utilization, but nesting software is useful in any industry where flat stock material is used—no matter the material type, he added. “Companies processing high-value materials such as titanium and other alloys will realize even greater benefits when efficiently nesting parts.”

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