Fabricators step up growth with flexible, high-def fine plasmas
December 2013 - The most important outcome of an heirloom recipe can be the family tradition it creates for future generations. Mitchell Carr knows something about preserving tradition. When the company he worked for downsized in 2003, he started Benton Steel Fabrication Inc. using his father’s recipe for hard work, fairness, honesty and integrity. The Dunlap, Tenn., custom steel fabrication business is named for Mitchell Carr’s father, Benton Carr.
The fabricator first produced parts for battery racks, chargers and cabinets before expanding into medical apparatus applications. In 2007 Benton Steel won a large contract with a major industrial equipment manufacturer. “Our early expertise focused on processing thinner material,” says Joey Hicks, plant engineer for Benton Steel. “This new work required us to burn steel plate up to 1 inch thick for structural components used in earthmoving and construction equipment.”
A different approach
Hicks says the company rode out the downturn by keeping overhead low and limiting capital equipment expenditures. Looking to balance its lean profile with the need to produce good parts from thicker plate, Benton considered equipment that could provide a cost competitive, high-performance cutting solution. Its search led it to Komatsu. “The Komatsu Twister 3051 Fine Plasma cutting machine gave us high tolerance cutting at one-third the cost of a laser,” says Hicks.
Komatsu Cutting Technologies, a division of Komatsu America Industries LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Komatsu Ltd., engineers total turnkey metal plate cutting solutions. Hicks adds that Benton Steel also was attracted to the manufacturer’s cradle-to-grave support and its business philosophy, a set of values that could have been taken from the fabricator’s own playbook.
“Our approach is what makes us different,” says Stephen St. Hilaire, product manager for Komatsu. “Some equipment manufacturers use a systems integration model that sources different components from a variety of suppliers. We build a process, not a power unit that will be installed on someone else’s table. Our business, characterized by integrity and quality, is designed to build long lasting connections that become almost like family relationships.”
Benton Steel installed its first Twister Fine Plasma in 2007, adding a second Twister in 2011. Both machines are equipped with full size tables to accommodate Benton’s 5-foot by 10-foot plate. “With these Twister plasmas we’re able to run 1 inch thick plate all day long,” says Hicks. “These high definition machines give us a cut quality that is very accurate.”
Traditional plasma cutters typically lack precision and are plagued with the problem of producing a dirty hole that requires clean-up and secondary operations like drilling or machining. The Twister Fine Plasma delivers a clean cut that is flat on one side and angled on the other side. This is because it employs a powerful, ultra-high-speed downward spiral flow it generates around the plasma arc. Dross is significantly reduced and the need for secondary finishing
eliminated. “Our proprietary software automatically mixes proportions of the gas based on the application,” says St. Hilaire. “This takes the black art out of the cutting process by eliminating the guesswork.”
A lot of competitive machines incorporate a tractor device to capture and remove scrap and dross. “The Twisters’ pullout scrap drawers located at each zone make cleanup easy,” says Hicks. “Dross is significantly reduced and you are not out the added expense for a motorized tractor device.” The machines’ push-pull system and area dust collector system minimize fumes, smoke and airborne particulate.
The Twisters cut A36 mild steel, easily handling mill variations in surface quality. “We burn a lot of hot rolled, scaled plate,” says Hicks. “The Twisters seem to thrive on scale and rust but you couldn’t run this material on a laser. Lasers need temper passed materials that have extremely clean surfaces.”
Flexibility plus quality
Full size tables, a standard feature on the Twister, support nesting for maximum efficiency. Part sizes can range from 3⁄4 inch by 2 inches long all the way up to 60 inches by 60 inches. Of the thick plate Benton Steel cuts, 95 percent is formed and welded into assemblies. These weldments require tight tolerances. “Our high definition plasma cutters are more than capable of meeting the tolerances we have to work with,” says Hicks.
Hicks finds uptime on the machines is reliable and unlike laser, requires virtually no maintenance. “We run these machines pretty hard, [24 hours, 4 days a week] and we have not had to replace a torch yet on either machine,” he says. “Quality also is easy to maintain. We check machine settings each shift to optimize efficiency but they are always right on the mark.”
Producing structural parts for heavy construction equipment has grown, making up nearly 75 percent of Benton Steel’s business. “We’re in the initial stages of moving into a new facility to increase capacity for our current customers,” Hicks says. “The Twister Fine Plasmas are the key to maintaining our production flow.” Benton’s work ethic, ability to deliver short lead times and its team of skilled workers help maintain a stable business foundation. “We’ve been successful,” he says. “We’ve found our niche.”
Twister Fine Plasmas have been in the marketplace for nearly a decade, but Komatsu continues to upgrade the technology and consumables. The Twister Quick Gas Fine Plasma was introduced in 2012. Incorporating the standard features of previous models, the Twister Quick Gas Fine Plasma allows manufacturers to switch from gas to oxy-fuel by simply changing nozzles. “It takes about 30 seconds to go from Fine Plasma to oxy-fuel,” says Jim Landowski, vice-president for Komatsu. “Intoday’s market, to be competitive means you have to be flexible. Twister Quick Gas expands a customer’s cutting range without compromising cut quality.”
For Robin Olson, owner and vice-president of Olson Industries, Atkinson, Neb., the combination was just what he needed to support higher production requirements. “In order for us to be competitive, it was critical that we be able to cut 2-inch material,” he says. “Our older machines were loaded to capacity. We run carbon steel and stainless steel from sheet metal all the way up to 2 inches so the ability to cut these sizes on the same plasma cutter by simply switching out the nozzles was attractive to us.”
Olson Industries installed Komatsu’s Twister Quick Gas model in 2013 and uses it to cut material for all of its product lines, which include airport light bases, sometimes called cans, electric and utility poles, irrigation systems and containers. The Twister Quick Gas Fine Plasma runs two shifts, five days a week cutting parts as small as 3-inch circles up to those as large as 3 feet by 5 feet. “The precision cuts we get are twice as accurate as our older oxy-fuel machine,” Olson says. “Cut quality and edge condition are excellent. Quick turnarounds are the norm for us. The precision cutting we get with the Twister Quick Gas Fine Plasma minimizes the need for secondary operations, which saves us time.”
Olson also notes that tip life on the Twister is longer. “We get twice as many pierces versus our older machines,” he says. The Twister Quick Gas model also cuts material faster, a feature that supports Olson Industries’ core competency—its ability to make custom parts with quick turnarounds. “We pride ourselves on that.”
For Benton Steel and Olson Industries, the ability to tackle business challenges by teaming with its equipment manufacturer points to a growing trend. “Manufacturers, smaller job shops in particular, have been impacted by the recession and are taking the brunt of costs associated with policy changes like the Affordable Health Care Act,” says Landowski. “We offer a higher level of assistance because we know that companies need it. Many of our customers are dealing with new materials they have little experience with. They need help with processes and applications. That means we need to be prepared to provide that level of application expertise. Fabricators also are looking for suppliers with an established track record that have the engineering depth to provide total systems support. It’s no longer a buyer and seller relationship. It’s about partnership.” MM
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