Tube & Pipe
Friday | 29 April, 2011 | 8:11 am

A direct relationship

By Lauren Duensing

April 2011 - To win one of the largest projects in Fast Lane Precision’s history, owner Barry Kitchen knew he would have to fabricate a quality product at a competitive price. Requiring up to 55,000 feet of tube for the job, he decided to work directly with a tube mill to help keep costs low.

"If I was buying 100 feet or 1,000 feet, I would go to a distributor," says Kitchen. "But when you are buying 50,000 feet, it’s foolish not to work with a mill."

Riverside, Calif.-based Fast Lane, a machine shop employing three to four people, ultimately won the government contract and currently is working to produce 98,000 bipod legs that eventually will be assembled and attached to machine guns. With two legs per bipod, the project ultimately will create 49,000 bipods.

"I take the raw material, and I make the parts. I send it to my customer, and they do the assembly. Then they send the bipod to whoever mounts it on the gun," he says, noting the government is very thorough in ensuring the work and the tube quality meet its stringent standards.

To make the bipod legs, the machine shop is using Swiss-style screw machines, says Kitchen. The process to create the products is quite involved and includes boring out one end of the tube, cutting it to length, drilling holes and creating pockets and grooves, he says.

Kitchen is working with cold-drawn 4130-grade seamless mechanical tubing with a 1/2 inch outer diameter and an 8 millimeter inner diameter from Plymouth Tube Co., Warrenville, Ill.

"We are making the material for him," says Rich Dickson, Plymouth Tube’s strategic marketing manager. "As with most of our customers, the product they order is to their dimensions, so we do not stock it. We make it to order."

The first order of tube Fast Lane received was for 5,000 feet. "I wanted to make sure everything was good before I ordered a bigger quantity," but the tube so far has met all expectations, says Kitchen. "It’s been great: straight, clean, consistent. It machines well. We haven’t had any bit of a problem," he says. His next shipment will be 20,000 feet. Ultimately, the complete order will include between 50,000 and 55,000 feet of tube.

Strength and quality
Strength is an important factor with 4130-grade chrome molybdenum tubing compared to alternatives like mild steel, says Bruno Oberle, a sales associate with Plymouth Tube. Customers in the oil and gas, automotive, military, race car and aerospace industries purchase 4130 for use in different applications because of its high-tensile strength, he says.

Providing tube for Fast Lane "is a nice marriage of both our strengths and abilities," says Oberle. "We shipped them some material [recently]. He received it, and he’s currently running it. He likes what he saw in terms of surface condition and quality."

Fast Lane began working with Plymouth after purchasing some of the mill’s products from a distributor. "To get qualified for the job, I bought some [tubing] from a local tubing supplier here in California to make some of the first parts. After I won the contract, because of the quantities, I went straight to the mill," says Kitchen.

Working directly with Plymouth has been a great experience, says Kitchen. "I haven’t had any problems," he says, noting not all mills are willing to work directly with machine shops.

The tube mill even helped arrange transport of the tube order from a Plymouth facility to Fast Lane, says Kitchen. "They found shipping for me, and they got it hooked up," he says. "I was very happy with their service and their product."

Creating tube
Plymouth Tube has been making tube for more than 85 years. It currently has 11 facilities nationwide. The company’s Streator, Ill., plant is providing material for Fast Lane.

"We produce carbon, alloy and stainless steel tubing in shapes and rounds, rounds being concentrically circle and shapes being anywhere from teardrop, hexagonal or rectangular," Oberle says, noting the company makes tube for multiple industries, including military and defense, performance racing, mining, construction, oil and gas, agriculture, industrial machinery and power generation.

Each of Plymouth Tube’s mills has its own specialty, says Dickson. "Some will process only stainless, because we don’t want to mix stainless and carbon in the same mill. Some focus mainly on the energy fields” or other markets, he says.

The company has multiple methods of making its tube, which include seamless, welded and drawn-over-mandrel (welded DOM).

For seamless, Plymouth workers heat and pierce a round billet to create a hollow. "We can then take that hollow or a purchased hollow and we’ll draw it down through cold drawing," says Dickson. "In other words, we run it through a die with a mandrel inside, which keeps the ID to a specific size and brings the OD down to a specific size as well."

For welded DOM tube, the company takes a sheet of steel and curls it into a tube, which is then welded together. "Then you have a welded tube that we then draw over a mandrel to give it more specific inner-diameter properties," says Dickson.

Part of what differentiates Plymouth Tube from other mills is its focus on customers and customer service. "We are a customer-centric, quality-driven company that produces tubing for various industries," says Oberle. If a customer is not happy with a product, the company will remake or repair it, he says." MM

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