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Aluminum

From forethought to fruition

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Pull straightening through water quench.

After years of planning, Sapa’s latest investment is up and running

November 2013 - Embarking on a $135 million capital investment only happens after going through a series of plans and approvals. After listening to employee suggestions cultivated through years of experience and customer demands, Sapa Extrusions North America came up with a technology strategy to help it leapfrog the competition. “Customers are constantly asking for leaner supply chains,” says Charlie Straface, vice president and general manager of the company’s Industrial Extrusions group. “They also want less human intervention from the beginning to the end of the process, giving them the speed to get to market faster, more efficiently and without sacrificing quality.”

The company is part of Norway-based Sapa Group, which has U.S. offices in Rosemont, Ill. Sapa offers customers aluminum extrusions, building systems and precision tubing. Its latest capital expenditures, a new press and related systems at its Cressona, Pa., facility, are resulting in more automation and less handling of material. The company uses indirect presses to make the majority of its machine-grade rod and bar products. 

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As technology continues to advance, Sapa recognizes customers will need material to meet certain expectations. “Existing customers might not need this product today, but the potential for growth into new markets is huge,” Straface says. “What we’ve added here is technology. The advanced puller system, advanced quench system and highly automated packing and handling additions to our press line are really going to benefit customers.’

The newest 4,500-ton press line replaces an older press line at the Cressona facility. “The idea here wasn’t to increase capacity,” Straface says. “Rather, we wanted the latest technology. Machine shops are asking for materials that machine more efficiently as they move to more automated and less handling processing.”

Lining up trials

The new press system started running in early October, and Sapa wasted no time showing customers what the new equipment can produce. “Over the past year, Sapa has lined up trials with some of our larger customers showing them high speed and sophisticated machining,” Straface says. “These head-to-head trial comparisons give us the opportunity to show customers how our new product will give them an advantage.” 

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With growing demand for aluminum from the automotive industry, the need for improved machinability in aluminum products is on the rise. “Automakers want to put more aluminum on vehicles, and they’re looking for a superior product, especially on higher-volume product,” Straface says, adding Sapa sees an opportunity to expand as an industrial supplier for the automotive sector. 

Sapa’s latest press system will produce its Acc-U-Line product, which first made its debut in 2012. Acc-U-Line’s aluminum grain structure remains uniform during the machining process from the front of the extrusion to the back and from the center to each side. Its consistent grain structure is a critical attribute for machining operations from piece to piece. “That uniformity is something we strive for,” Straface says. “In particular, this new press line enhances our ability to consistently do that.” 

The press system also will allow Sapa to give customers material that is easier to fabricate for automated systems. “When it comes to straightness, flatness and twist-free aluminum, it’s extremely important that the material we produce will work for customers running lights-out operations. The rods really need to feed into the machine uniformly without jamming in the machine.

“With the flex system, we believe we’re able to achieve what customers need,” he continues. “You want that uniform grain structure as well as straight, flat and twist-free aluminum, enabling easy handling of the rods by the machining center’s equipment.”

Worker well-being

Surface quality also is a highlight of Sapa’s Acc-U-Line product. Sapa’s equipment uses state-of-the-art automated material handling equipment, including pullers, robotic packers and bundlers. It runs pullers while robots work on material that is transferred using an automated handling system. “I was watching one of our robots as it set material onto a packing jig,” recalls Straface. “The robots lay the material down very softly, so there’s no banging. A lot of machine shops find their operations are more efficient if they don’t have to machine the surfaces of material [after surface damage due to transporting material].” 

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To minimize surface damage while saving both time and manpower, Straface says a high-quality extrusion surface is of maximum importance. “The broad extrusion surface has to be high quality enough so as it goes through automated processing it does not need additional surface machining; customers don’t have to clean it up later down the line.”

Another beneficial aspect to the new press system is the water quench. “In the past, after processing hot extrusions, operators had to drop it into water, resulting in pretty distorted material,” he explains. “Then we’d stress relieve it for straightness. In that state, the aluminum is hard to handle when moving it to the stretcher. I was watching it come out of the new water quench and the material came out straight. Even the stretcher operator said he thinks he can move to the press without any physical intervention. This was not the case before.”

As operations get more automated, it is less physically taxing on workers as they won’t need to handle heavy and cumbersome material. Improved safety has been a major benefit from the new press in Cressona. 

While talking to an operator on the floor, Straface received positive feedback because operators can shift from manually moving material to monitoring progress instead. “Some of these rods and bars can be very heavy and workers have to manually take and put the material in bundles for packing,” he says. “So from an ergonomic standpoint, this employee really saw the benefits of increased automation and mentioned, ‘I’m not getting any younger.’

“Four and five inch rods get pretty heavy,” he continues. “There is a tremendous amount of handling that workers needed to do. That will go away.” MM

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