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Tuesday | 25 August, 2015 | 2:40 pm

Shape shop

By Corinna Petry

Above: O’Neal Manufacturing Services installed an ARKU Flatmaster 120 to make perfectly flat parts for OEM customers.

Manufacturer finds heavy-duty leveler is just what’s needed for perfectly flat, precisely profiled parts

August 2015 - Do you remember reading “The Little Engine That Could” as a child? Parents love the story because it emphasizes the values of a positive attitude, dedication and hard work. O’Neal Manufacturing Services, a business unit of O’Neal Industries, the largest family owned metals distribution and processing company in the United States, may be only four years old as a freestanding entity, but it has grown into a force to be reckoned with as sales topped $285 million last year.

Like the little locomotive, OMS is relatively young as a standalone company. But it developed for many years within existing O’Neal Steel plate processing operations to build up an expertise in repetitive parts production and in producing complex assemblies for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). It now has nine U.S. facilities and one in Monterrey, Mexico.

“Our major customers are builders of construction and agricultural machinery, railcar and transportation, and industrial equipment,” says Jim McGill, director of commercial strategy. “We also make parts for the renewable energy and power equipment industries, access equipment and material handling markets, and more. It’s a wide spectrum [of customers to service].”

Such a variety of applications requires OMS to possess a broad range of capabilities. According to McGill, its shops employ a combination of oxyfuel, plasma and laser burning equipment. “All facilities are proficient in machining and all have forming capabilities that are supported by press brakes ranging in size from 50 tons to 1,250 tons. Most have welding capability.”

Tight relationships

Birmingham, Alabama-based OMS does not produce to fill spot orders nor does it perform short job runs, says McGill. Rather, OMS cultivates long-term agreements to support customers’ production lines from start to end. “If you are Caterpillar, we supply you with a family of parts for the lifetime of a specific model of equipment. We produce the same parts over and over and ship them directly to the production line.”

As such, he explains, “we have a relatively small customer base for a company our size but that is intentional: Our strategy is customer intimacy. We partner with specific customers where we have a business alignment and who understand our brand. We don’t have the philosophy of ‘build it and they will come.’ Instead, we match up with our customers’ values and acquire the tools necessary to make what they want.”

When its customers develop new products, OMS is already on the ground floor. “We are ingrained in those companies. We understand the quality standards, the production lead times, the operational needs and we know the key people,” says McGill.

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Tight tolerances

The past two decades have continually brought fresh challenges to suppliers of parts and assemblies made from steel plate, according to Gerald Brockman, OMS vice president of sales and marketing. “The flatness requirements we see from end users have become more stringent since the 1990s. The producers of plate and plate from coil have improved their own processes but there is still a bridge, at times, where the end user’s flatness requirement proves more exacting than can be achieved through steel rolling and leveling processes.” 

These flatness requirements have migrated upstream in the supply chain, he says, due to the drive toward lean manufacturing and the desire to eliminate waste at final assembly. “Twenty years ago it may have been up to a welder or fitter to figure out how to make a non-flat part work. The expectation now is that the assembler or robot needs a perfectly flat part, ready to use without any additional labor,” Brockman says.

Using its array of tools, OMS transforms tens of thousands of tons of plate per year into parts that meet the stringent demands of original equipment manufacturers.

“The flattening equipment we use was purchased or made in-house. These include hydraulic presses that push on the parts that aren’t flat in the appropriate place to make it flat. We move the parts around and press it using hydraulic pressure. Once one part is flat, we move on to the next one, but it is a manual process,” Brockman says. That method, because it remains effective and flexible, is still in use at several locations to produce flat parts. 

However, one “very good customer” sought to reshore some outsourced parts production to the U.S. by bringing that business to O’Neal, says McGill. So O’Neal went to ARKU, based in Baden-Baden, Germany, to obtain the largest FlatMaster parts leveler available in North America, allowing OMS to level parts up to 78 inches wide. (OMS already operates a FlatMaster 88 in Greensboro, North Carolina, commissioned in 2013.) 

With the FlatMaster machines, operators can set controls and each part comes out flat on the first pass, without needing further manipulation.

Filling a gap

The new Flatmaster 120 model handles mild steel plate with a minimum yield of 36 to 50 ksi. Parts are cut from the material by laser or plasma machine and vary widely in size and shape, some with openings. A typical flatness requirement is 0.07-inch across a 60-inch diameter workpiece. 

The ability to adapt the leveling force to varying shapes is what sets the FlatMaster apart, according to ARKU. Each part presents a changing cross section as the leading edge, center and trailing edges enter the leveling rollers. These varied cross sections require different levels of force to maintain the leveling gap. The FlatMaster’s servo-hydraulic system recognizes any change in the required force in a fraction of a second and adjusts to maintain a precise gap.

All these features serve OMS well, says McGill, because “the product has to be 100 percent perfect every time.”

Notes Brockman, “We needed this leveler to correct the shape problems that are retained through the decoiling process and to improve the efficiency of downstream operations like forming, welding and assembly.

“The old way of doing this,” he continues, “was manual, was heavily dependent on the skills of the operator and was very time consuming.”

OMS sent leveler operators to ARKU’s North American showroom and trial site in Cincinnati for training on the new line before the equipment arrived. “They have a robust support system here in the U.S.,” Brockman says.

The company did its research. “We worked with our customer’s engineers regarding the parts they wanted us to produce, then investigated machinery builders and shared our intent of what we were trying to accomplish,” says McGill. “We worked on the manufacturability before we ordered the machine.”

Alexandra Schuldt, ARKU’s marketing communications manager, recalled that her company invited OMS to “our testing center in Cincinnati, to bring parts and we would flatten them” to demonstrate the machinery’s capabilities.

OMS began live production within three weeks of installation, says Brockman, and did not miss a beat getting the parts production process officially approved in the changeover from hydraulic presses to the ARKU flattener.

“Innovation won’t end,” notes McGill. “Other companies, other engineers, will want us to use that machine for their own parts and products. They will want similar tolerances. They will spec out products for those tolerances” achievable with the FlatMaster. “That’s the reason we invested in that machine—for this project and next evolution of projects.” MM

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