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Wednesday | 05 February, 2014 | 11:15 am

Cutting through inventory

By Tom Klemens

Above: Kerf loss from cutting with even a thin circular saw blade would be much greater than the material lost cutting with a 1⁄16-inch band saw blade.

Like a deli for tool steel, Action Metals offers quick service and availability to stay competitive in a major market

February 2014 - As electronics have made their way into the field of metal sawing, plate saws have become a useful inventory management tool. “They’re popular with tool steel warehouses,” says Don Armstrong, national accounts manager for Marvel Manufacturing Co. The Oshkosh, Wis.-based company manufactures a variety of saws specifically designed for cutting different sizes and shapes of metal. “Instead of trying to stock every size their customers might want, they will just buy a large plate.” When a customer orders a small piece of that material, he says, “they’ll just put it on the plate saw, rip a long section off of it, then trim that down to the size they want.”

Traditionally that type of cutting was done with circular saws because they could generally make the desired straight, square cut and do it relatively quickly. However, advances in band saw blades and the electronic monitoring and controls now standard on higher end band saws allow them to cut just as well as circular saws, although still more slowly. The advantage when used with higher priced metals like tool steel is the much smaller amount of kerf loss when cutting with a band saw. “It’s often fairly expensive material, so the more of it they can save, the better,” says Armstrong.

This was one of the reasons tool steel distributor Action Metals, Aurora, Ill., decided in 2013 to purchase one of Marvel’s Spartan plate saws. The company wanted to be able to process thicker plate, but also wanted to stay with a band saw. “The circular blades used on Oliver plate saws are about 3⁄8 inch thick, so when you’re making a cut you’re losing all that material,” says Matt Lance, Action Metals’ vice president of sales and operations manager. “With this saw, the blade is only 1⁄16 inch thick. We’re not losing a ton of stock, and that’s obviously important from a cost standpoint.”

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Small but smart

Action Metals supplies tool makers, die makers, mold makers and others within the manufacturing industry in the Chicago area. President and owner Ray Lance started the company in 1999 on a foundation of tool steel distribution experience dating back to the 1970s. His son, Matt, joined the company as a machine operator in 2002. He moved to inside sales in 2004 while also pursuing an accounting degree, which he completed in 2007. “After a couple of years working in public accounting, I realized that was not the career path I wanted to follow,” Matt Lance says. He returned to Action Metals in 2011 to help his father and handle outside sales.

“Basically we are the middleman between the raw supplier and the end user,” Matt Lance says. “We buy mill direct and convert the hot-rolled steel into decarb-free material, which then gets sold to our customers.” Operating on two shifts, the company’s 15 employees cut, grind and square the material in its 20,000-square-foot facility in Aurora.

As a small, independent supplier, Action Metals focuses on service and availability to remain competitive, rather than trying to beat the competition on price alone. “Some of the larger tool steel distributors in this area obviously have more clout than we do when they buy steel,” Lance says. Buying ingots mill direct helped keep material cost low, but the company often found itself strapped when it came to storage space—and cash. “In tool steel, there are tons of different grades,” Lance says. “Having to stock all these different thicknesses and having to buy that much at one time can be cost-prohibitive, especially with the economy being shaky, as it has been.”

After mulling over the need to find a better inventory balance, Lance and production supervisor Ernesto Herrera decided to bring in a larger plate saw. Action Metals purchased a Spartan PS 2828 in June that provides much greater cutting capacity than its previous equipment, which was limited to material less than 21 inches tall and 42 inches wide.

“The Spartan allows us to cut 28 inches tall by 4 feet wide by 12 feet long,” Lance says. “Obviously it gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of our cutting, which is the first step in the process of what we do. This saw also has allowed us to change our philosophy in terms of inventory. We’re able to buy blocks of steel. For instance, we’ll get a block of 4140 in that’s 20 inches thick, 3 feet wide and 10 feet long. If we want to make 1⁄2-inch plate, we just make a 1⁄2-inch cut all the way down the length of that block.”

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Cutting overnight

The saw’s out-of-square detector is one feature that makes it a standout, according to Lance. “The shop foreman plugs in some parameters when he sets a piece of steel up there,” Lance says. “Then he can leave at night and let it run while he’s gone. If the blade starts to cut out of square, beyond the parameters that he set on the machine, it stops cutting. Otherwise we could come in in the morning and find some expensive material completely ruined.”

“The electronics today make all the difference in these saws,” Armstrong says. “The combination of sensors and monitoring the amp load provides a control system that is much more sensitive than they used to be.”

Another advantage to Action Metals’ new saw is its moving head design, which optimizes use of the equipment footprint. “There are basically two types of plate saws,” says Armstrong. “One is the moving head, like ours, where the material is stationary, secured to the table, and the head moves along the length of the table. In the other type, the head is stationary and the entire table moves, carrying the piece to the blade. The disadvantage there is you have a lot of wear parts because you’re putting a lot of weight on that table.” In addition, a moving table saw takes twice the floor space to cut the same size material as a moving head saw.

Two other things actually helped clinch the deal, Lance says—service and warranty. “Ross Ploeckelmann, who works for Marvel Manufacturing, has a long-standing relationship with my dad, going back probably 30 years. He suggested a certain model, and offered to have me visit another service center nearby to check it out.” Although the application was somewhat different, Lance could see that the PS 2828 would be a good fit for Action Metals.

“Ross has been in the industry servicing saws for years, and knows saws up and down, left and right,” Lance says. “He makes himself available with regard to questions about the machines, and that’s helped tremendously in getting to where we are right now.” The fact that Spartan saws are covered under warranty for two years, for parts and labor, was a very attractive feature as well. “Until we get to know the machine as well as we need to, we’re going to need that backup in the event that something goes wrong,” Lance says. “Especially since we’re using it in an unorthodox capacity.” MM

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