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Wednesday | 06 November, 2013 | 1:22 pm

Bones of steel

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Passengers can exit or board the Memphis Queen at the Beale Street landing using a steel corkscrew fabricated by Quality Iron.

Growing fabricator uses pass-through technology to bring plate processing in-house

October 2013 - Great bone structure slows aging by creating what dermatologists call the upside down triangle or face of youth. In construction, buildings also are said to have good bones when they exhibit features like a quality edifice and sound infrastructure. Buildings such as the Memphis International Airport Tower, Omni Hotel and the University of Memphis owe their good bones to the skeleton frames manufactured by Quality Iron Fabricators. The 35-year-old Memphis, Tenn., company supplies structural steel framework and miscellaneous steel to local and regional industrial and commercial markets. But Brian Eason, the company’s president and second-generation owner, is building more than just columns, connector plates and I-beams. Eason and his partners Craig Salabor and Jeremy Harrell have been aggressively growing the company and its crop of employees through expansion, modernization and the addition of equipment like Voortman Corp.’s V-320 C pass-through system for plate processing.

“During the last five years we’ve grown tremendously,” says Eason. From 2011 to 2012 Quality Iron enjoyed a growth rate of 100 percent. Eason explains that prior to this growth spurt, the company had peaked. “We had to ask ourselves if we wanted to stabilize and plateau or pursue even higher levels of growth,” he says. “We talked with our employees to see how they felt about taking on more risk. Everyone was in agreement but it meant making significant changes to corporate infrastructure, processes and markets.”

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Room to grow

In addition to its plant in Memphis, Quality Iron opened plants in Louisiana and Mississippi in 2011. While layoffs escalated at other companies, Quality Iron continued to hire. “We’re a diverse company and a quick responder,” says Eason. “Our work covers everything from hospitals, churches and prisons to schools, office buildings and industrial plants. This versatility allowed us to skip the slowdowns by shifting our focus from one market to another to maintain a good backlog of business. If you can get the work, a downturn is an excellent time to grow because it allows you to cherry pick skilled, talented people.” 

Quality Iron’s growth strategy also meant looking at ways to improve workflow. “As a service-driven company we bring a complete package to the contractor,” says Eason. “There are a lot of different elements to consider with large projects. Once we bid on a job, we detail it using special software. Everything that is steel—support columns, connector plates, handicap ramps, staircases, handrails—is ours.” 

The fabricator bought plate from suppliers to support project requirements but found quality control and on-time delivery challenging. Quality Iron took a look at what it was paying for plate versus the cost of bringing the process in-house. The cost analysis led the company to consider automation. “Until recently Voortman had enjoyed a larger presence in Europe than here in the U.S.,” Eason says. “We were not as familiar with them but our research led us to the conclusion that Voortman’s technology had taken a significant step forward. When we considered features and capabilities we found there was a big difference between Voortman and its competitors.” 

The Manteno, Ill., company designs, develops and manufactures machinery for steel fabrication and plate processing for customers in North America. In November 2011, Voortman purchased a German company that primarily sold its plate processing equipment regionally. “We redesigned and remanufactured the equipment and changed the name to Voortman,” says Adrian Morrall, president of Voortman.

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Return on investment

Quality Iron installed a Voortman V-320 C pass-through system in 2011. The machine form-finishes plate for applications that include subparts for built-up members, base plates for columns and stiffener plates. It uses flat plate in A36 and A50 grade steel 6 feet wide by up to 20 feet long, 1⁄4 inch to 3 inches thick. “Initially we thought we might run the machine about 20 hours a week,” Eason says. “But once we got the 

V-320 C pass-through system in place, we have not stopped using it. The machine feeds processed plate to all three of our facilities. We also take in projects from other fabricators and run their plate. When we first ran the numbers, we expected we would pay off the machine in roughly 11 months. The machine paid for itself inside a year. It’s very effective and efficient at moving plate out.”

Unlike other systems, the V-320 C is equipped with a measuring system that compensates for mill tolerances and material edge condition. Because the system holds plate from the end of the sheet, the metal can be processed all the way to the end. “In addition to offering superior accuracy, our system allows customers like Quality Iron to use the full plate,” says Morrall. “Scrap is minimized, and there is no skeleton to remove so material handling also is significantly reduced.”

The ability to move plate through the system without loss of material was a deciding factor for Quality Iron. “With other systems you do experience loss of plate at the end,” says Eason. “Even if you are running a 20-foot-long plate and just five percent of it is scrap, that adds up to a significant sum over a year’s time. We don’t have that problem with the Voortman pass-through system.” 

Carbide tooling for high-speed processing, a 40-horsepower spindle and automatic 10-tool changer increase productivity and capability. The pass-through system can make drill bit changes in about four seconds. The machine also keeps track of how many inches of material have been drilled before a drill bit has to be sharpened or replaced. “The V-320 C literally schedules its own maintenance,” says Eason. 

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Bigger makes better

A scribe feature allows Quality Iron operators to select automatic piece marking when needed. The pass-through system’s ability to respond to the fabricator’s work variables and use each of these elements interchangeably means operators don’t have to reset the machine or retool.

Once plate is processed, it’s either finished for a sub part that will be used in a larger assembly or sorted and palletized for shipment and integration into an assembly that is being built on site. “Accuracy is critical for us because these plates are associated with connection pieces,” says Eason. “We get accurate, superior finished edges with the V-320 C.”

Depending on material thickness, the pass-through system easily can be set for oxy-fuel or plasma cutting. Quality Iron tends to use plasma cutting for thinner plate, reserving oxy-fuel for thicker material up to 3 inches. The machine’s flexibility allows the fabricator to handle the wide range of variables that can accompany a project. “We may have a large, thick sheet that is being finished as a base plate and only receives four holes,” says Eason. “There is not a lot of processing for that type of part. We also use the 3-inch material for base plates for columns. These parts require holes for anchor bolts and have to be accurate. The V-320 C’s oxy-fuel cutting option works well for these parts. On the other hand, we may get a 1⁄4-inch-thick sheet that weighs less but requires a higher degree of processing because it’s being processed for an elaborate connection. As far as the system is concerned, handling these variables is effortless.”

If Quality Iron has to turn a job around quickly, the V-320 C’s seamless operation and responsiveness support the fabricator’s service-oriented goals. “If a customer has a problem at the job site and needs something in a hurry or if corrective work is needed, the pass-through system allows us the in-house capability to control these situations,” says Eason. 

Since 2007, Quality Iron has increased its employee base from just 35 associates to a workforce of 350. In addition to this tenfold increase in jobs, Quality Iron has established a steel erection company and a second fabrication company. “We’ve 

always worked to become better,” says Eason, “not necessarily bigger.” “But the drive to become better has led to bigger most of the time and pretty much in that order. Voortman has been an important part of our evolution.” MM

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