Streamlining tool costing and process planning

Flex-N-Gate, Michigan


Over six decades, Flex-N-Gate has established itself as a major player in the global automotive industry, specializing in the manufacture and supply of large stamped metal and welded components, assemblies, and plastic parts.

With OEMs putting unprecedented pressure on suppliers to cut costs, Flex-N-Gate wanted to drive greater automation in its costing process to deliver timely descriptive feedback to customers in a cost-efficient manner. The company implemented software that has led to major time savings, enabling two cost engineers to process between 3,500 and 4,000 quotes per year.

Founded in 1956, Flex-N-Gate started out specializing in aftermarket parts, before moving into original equipment in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, the company began production on a complete one-piece rear step bumper using the deep draw process. Almost fifty years since this watershed innovation, 84% of all metal bumper systems for North American trucks and SUV’s today are manufactured by Flex-N-Gate.

Since the 1980s, Flex-N-Gate has seen incredible growth. Supplying parts to some of the most recognizable brands in the automotive industry, the company operates 64 integrated manufacturing facilities throughout the world, driving $7.5 billion in sales in 2017.

A significant contributor to this success is Flex-N-Gate’s ability to adapt to the needs of its major customers, and this is exemplified in the transformation of the company’s tool costing process.

Flex-N-Gate-HeroFlex-N-Gate’s costing methods were primarily based on combining employee knowledge and experience with drafting parts, using length of line analysis and other methods to calculate geometries, flanges, and features of a part. But major changes in the automotive industry made this approach increasingly unsustainable.

As the major automotive companies continued to expand their global reach, the demand for greater product customization and personalization increased. In turn, designs became more complex. At the same time, steel prices increased, and dies got larger and more expensive, meaning mistakes were evermore costly. All this was compounded by faster lead times and customer demand for lower costs.

For Tony Gray, Flex-N-Gate Manager Tool Process & Engineering, automation and simulation in costing became “very much an adapt or die situation. To keep up with our growth and expansion, we needed a solution that could define consistent tool costing and processes throughout the company.” It was crucial for Flex-N-Gate that the solution drove efficiency by decreasing variation in quoted price points and enabling real-time information to be shared across the company’s global factories. 

Saving time and money with greater proactivity

After exploring the market, the company opted for FTI’s FormingSuite software solution COSTOPTIMIZER Professional (a combination of COSTOPTIMIZER Advanced and ProcessPlanner) in 2016. COSTOPTIMIZER Advanced enables the company’s costing team to reduce risk and draw die development time with a range of forming feasibility assessment tools, condition simulations and blank and nesting development optimization. ProcessPlanner allows Flex-N-Gate to document process plans, define the number of operations, their sequence and accurately calculate press requirements and costs.

For Tony, there were three key differentiators that led to Flex-N-Gate choosing COSTOPTIMIZER Professional. “Compared to other solutions available, FTI’s products were more cost-effective, user-friendly, and they didn’t require expensive hardware upgrades. You don’t need high processing speeds or in-depth knowledge of engineering principles to start using and getting the most out of the software.”

These solutions are used on a daily basis throughout Flex-N-Gate’s costing department, leading to major time savings. On average, quotes for parts are produced in less than half the time taken using previous methods. “It now takes between five to 15 minutes to perform our calculations and process the quote, so now we’re raising between 3,500 and 4,000 quotes per year between two operators,” says Tony.

“We can get product size, pictures, and other key information on a single sheet. Our OEM customers have actually asked other companies to create the same type of reports that we’re creating with FTI software. That’s how effective it is.”
Previously, quoted price points between suppliers could vary drastically, falling anywhere between 50-200% of the estimated amount. The Target Cost function of COSTOPTIMIZER Professional allows Flex-N-Gate to assess estimates against quotes from suppliers, enabling the team to increase the consistency of quotes. “We now have a scientifically-based, repeatable corporate standard for all costing, processing and stamping,” says Tony. “We can get product size, pictures, and other key information on a single sheet. Our OEM customers have actually asked other companies to create the same type of reports that we’re creating with FTI software. That’s how effective
it is.” FTI has continued working with Flex-N-Gate to produce reports optimized for its OEMs.

The software has significantly enhanced Flex-N-Gate’s capabilities for proactive planning. With automated, instant feedback on equipment requirements, the company can start capacity planning up to a year in advance to maximize the effectiveness of machine utilization. Tony says this has been particularly beneficial “when we’re taking on a big program for a customer. While the quotes are being produced, we can get information in real time about die sizes, shut height requirements, and press requirements to start basic planning for equipment and ultimately make decisions that are going to drive efficiency and cut costs. We can also simultaneously produce technical reports for customers that include blank layouts, material utilization and forming feasibility simulations.”

Driving growth

Flex-N-Gate continues to use FTI product and stamping training, enabling employees to build on the success of the costing and processing planning solutions and keep driving growth. Combining this skills development with the company’s increased confidence in costing results and enhanced efficiency helps Flex-N-Gate continue to cement its position as a stalwart and driver of the industry.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the opening in 2018 of its facility in Detroit, traditionally known as the automotive heart of America. At time of writing, the $167 million facility is expected to ultimately deliver 750 jobs, in what Detroit’s mayor described as the city’s largest auto supplier investment in over 20 years. Whether investing in tool costing software, factories, or a city’s economy, Flex-N-Gate is always accelerating continuous improvement and innovation.

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Forming Technologies (FTI)

Forming Technologies (FTI) provides software solutions for the design, feasibility and costing of sheet metal components. Engineers from OEMs and suppliers in the automotive, aerospace, electronics and appliance industries use these innovative software packages to reduce development time and material costs.