- Created: 2018-11-12
One Belgium shop’s success lies in the niche market of large sheet metal processing
by Susan Woods, managing editor
Based in The Netherlands, Shapes Metalworks supplies sheet metal parts from prototypes to small and medium-size parts in steel, stainless steel and aluminum. The company supplies a variety of industries, including agricultural vehicles, machine tool building, lighting and electronics. What makes Shapes unique is its focus on large sheet metal plate.
Shapes Metalworks was founded in 2010 with the merger of Shapes Subcontracting in Roeselare with FP Metal in Gullegem. Today, Shapes Metalworks has 21,000 sq. m of production space, which includes a new building finished in 2014, and employs 95 workers. In 2014, the company expanded its sheet metal processing activities to the markets for plates larger than 6 m.
“2014 was really when the company started and we began our growth strategy to become a top player,” says Dirk Haerinck, co-CEO of Shapes. “There is a lot of competition in this area as far as sheet metal, so you have to provide smaller volumes with faster lead times or concentrate on a niche market. We noticed more and more of our customers were moving from welding 2- to 3-m sheets to 6-m sheets so we decided to focus on large plate. We are the only subcontractor in the area to process sheet over 6 m.”
Shapes’ success comes from three core divisions. First is sheet metal processing that includes laser cutting, bending and punching plate up to 12 m long and 25 mm thick in three shifts.
Second, the welding construction, located in Roeselare, is a mix of welding robots and experienced, certified welders on steel, stainless steel and aluminum.
Third, Shapes’ co-engineering capabilities help optimize customer designs in terms of metal use, sheet thickness and welding composition to work out and fine-tune the most cost-efficient production process.
“We’re always thinking about making the product better, if the company is open to it,” Haerinck says. “LVD is a good example with their covers for press brakes. We helped design a solution to reduce the thickness, which was beneficial for a few reasons.
Another example for the welder is the positioning of the sheets, which can be difficult to hold with larger sheets. By designing a tab-and-slot system, it makes it easier for the welder but is still the same cost as far as the laser cutting.
To make this three-prong strategy effective, Shapes keeps up with the latest technology, including machines from LVD. “In business, you always have to have a focus, and our focus is sheet metal,” Haerinck says. “We always want to be state of the art; our oldest machine is only 11 years old. And every year we invest €500,000 to €1 million in new machine capacity.”
As part of the focus on larger sheet metal processing, Shapes made two major investments in 2014: LVD’s Impuls 12530, a 12-m-by-3-m CO2 laser cutting machine for processing a maximum plate thickness of 25 mm in steel, 20 mm in stainless steel and 15 mm in aluminum; and an LVD PPEB-H 8-m hydraulic press brake with 1,000 tons of pressure capacity equipped with extensive tooling.
Shapes management also started thinking about automation for large sheets. In July 2017, an LVD 5-m press brake with robot automation with up to 200-kg payload with Starmatik automation technology was put into use.
“We found as we became a bigger player, we had to move to automation,” Haerinck says. “A lot of bending automation typically has an 80-kg or 100-kg payload, but we need the 200-kg system. LVD had the solutions we needed.”
In late 2017, Shapes extended its laser department with an LVD Phoenix 6020 6-kW fiber laser for 6-m-by-2-m plate with thickness ranges of 25 mm for steel, 25 mm for Inox and 30 mm for aluminum. “We were obliged to do it to keep up with the latest technology,” Haerinck adds. “Fiber laser is a revolution in terms of speed. A loading and unloading system comes with it.”
Delivery is tops
In addition to the latest equipment, fast delivery times are at the top of Shapes’ business strategy, followed by flexibility and then price point.
“Lead times are growing shorter and shorter,” Haerinck says. “Around 2006, lead times were about four weeks, Now, we’re lucky if we have one week. For the sheet metal work, you’re really thinking about delivery of spare parts and prototypes in 24 or 48 hours. That is the model in the industry. On the other hand, customers are also willing to pay a little bit more for those pieces.”
What is driving the reduction of lead times? Local companies can order smaller volumes because the deliveries cost less. Also, as the economy gets better, the pressure to produce at lower volumes adds this kind of pressure. While customers are prepared to pay a bit more, they expect faster delivery. Everybody is under more and more pressure to perform for their customers.
Flexibility, too, is key to the small to medium-sized-volume approach along with a variety of machines. “75 percent of our orders are from 50 customers,” Haerinck says. “We don’t tie up our machines on large orders for two or three months at a time for one customer. Our biggest customer is only 10 percent of our business and this is what allows us the flexibility.”
In addition, Shapes produces more than 10,000 unique parts monthly for a variety of applications. This means in moments of crises, the company is prepared by producing a variety of parts in a variety of industries.
As a local player, Shapes focuses on short delivery times, high-quality products and low prices. Thanks to state-of-the-art machines, the company can process a range of sheet materials and sizes for custom and production work. Attention to delivery periods for its diverse customer base is also part of the company’s success.