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Plasma Technology
Thursday | 17 December, 2015 | 11:15 am

Rapid robotics

By Lynn Stanley

Above: For structural steel, robotic plasma cutting proves to be fast and cost efficient.

Structural steel fabricators slash processing time with plasma-fueled robotic cutting systems

December 2015 - More than 3,500 grades of steel populate the market, each with its own profile of mechanical, chemical and environmental properties. About 75 percent of the steel grades in use were developed within the past 20 years. In 2014 world crude steel production reached 1,665 million metric tons. 

According to the Worldsteel Association, 2014 also marked a new phase of market shifts. In the last decade China has dominated, but forecasters predict a lull before demand from developing regions other than China lead a resurgence in sales and production activity. 

Urbanization is expected to play a key role: Experts anticipate that more than 1 billion people will move to towns and cities between now and 2030. The migration will create an insatiable appetite for structural steel for public projects ranging from water, energy and mass transit as well as commercial and residential construction.

U.S. steelmakers produced 98 million tons for shipments valued at $75 billion in 2014. Nearly 150,000 people are directly employed by the domestic steel industry which, in one way or another, further supports more than 1 million American jobs.

Structural steel fabricators are already feeling the pinch with the growing influx of work. Coupled with increasing competition and continued loss of skill sets, rising orders have compelled a number of companies to consider automation. But making the right equipment choices is rarely easy. Just ask Brandon Bell, owner of Bell Steel in Chandler, Arizona. The company provides fabrication and erection services using structural steel and miscellaneous metals. 

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One production cell performs the work of seven fabrication machines: beam drilling, sawing, angling, marking, plate beveling, coping and bar cutting.

Plasma power

Bell understood that, “If we wanted to take our business to the next level we needed to process beams faster. Our method of cutting beams with a band saw and then using a punch was holding us back.”

Walking the floor at Fabtech, Bell spotted a traditional X-Y table fitted with a high-performance robot. “In addition to the robot, the system was driven by Hypertherm True Hole technology,” Bell says. “Its small footprint was another plus. I bought the system and haven’t looked back.”

Inovatech Engineering, headquartered in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, designs and builds integrated robotic solutions for manufacturing applications. Hypertherm plasma units power Inovatech’s SteelPRO robotic cutting machines. The technology pairing allows manufactures to cut, saw, drill, slot, mark and cope structural profiles up to 3.2 inch thick. New Brighton, Minnesota-based Hypertherm designs and manufactures advanced cutting products for use in a variety of industries. 

Operators use nesting or CNC software to manipulate True Hole technology, which now allows plasma machines to cut perfectly round and cylindrical holes.

When Quad Steel of Bolton, Ontario, decided to automate, “it was about growth,” says co-owner Dennis Marijanovic. The company designs, fabricates and erects structural steel for developers of commercial, industrial and institutional properties. “We had to find a way to stay competitive with both smaller fabricators that have lower overhead and larger fabricators able to handle volume.” 

Quad Steel installed an Inovatech SteelPRO 900 with a Hyperthem HyPerformance 400XD system. According to Marijanovic, the production cell performs the work of seven fabrication machines with its beam drill line, band saw, angle line, marking machine, bevel plate table, coping machine and bar line.

“I really like the layout of the 900 and the ability to have one piece of equipment do [multiple] operations,” says Marijanovic. “Otherwise, I’d have to purchase two different machines, worry about two different machines and teach people how to use two different interfaces.”

Inovatech’s service proved an added advantage when Quad Steel’s plant flooded during installation. “They worked side by side with us to get the machine up and running,” he recalls. “Within a week we were cutting beams.”

Quad Steel operators can cut up to 150 tons a week or 74 tons of structural steel in three days. “I was able to complete a job for which I’d allocated three weeks in just one week,” Marijanovic says of the time savings. “Originally I planned for 11 work days. The robot [assisted line] did the job in just three days. Cuts I’d allocated an hour and 15 minutes for were done in a minute and a half.”

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Hypertherm plasma units power Inovatech Engineering’s robotic cutting machines.

Quad reduced labor on the job from 1,600 man-hours to 800 man-hours, allowing it to meet customers’ stringent delivery schedules. The Inovatech/Hypertherm hybrid also proved user friendly. “The software is incredible,” says Marijanovic. “It’s easy to learn. It’s foolproof. I was able to train an operator on Saturday morning at 7 a.m. I went to my son’s soccer game at 9 a.m. and by the time I got back the operator I had just trained was already running the system.”

Acier Nordfab, a Saint-Eustache, Quebec-based structural steel supplier, used manual cutting methods for 30 years. This was effective in that the finished material was satisfactory, but the problem was labor. “It’s getting harder and harder to find people with the right skill sets,” says Acier Nordfab President Jean-Francois Charron. “Our company really had no choice but to automate if we wanted to stay competitive.”

The fabricator uses an Inovatech SteelPRO 900 system driven by a Hypertherm plasma to cut plate and beams to size, add holes and notches and create bevels. “We’re seeing significant time savings,” says Charron. “For example, programming bevel parts takes one-tenth of the time it did previously and overall quality is improved.”

Acier Nordfab has been able to eliminate the errors that are associated with hand work and is finding that erection time on site is faster.

Streamlining

Pittsburgh Steel has been streamlining its operations as well. With the SteelPRO/Hypertherm plasma, the company has cut its costs for consumables in half. Pittsburgh Steel cuts holes—hundreds of them—into 2.5-inch-thick baseplates that are used to anchor large columns. Hole-cutting requires a lot of piercing, which creates a mound of molten metal on the plate that can splash up and stick to the plasma torch, destroying both the torch and consumables. Inovatech helped Pittsburgh Steel eliminate this issue by writing a software program that directs the torch to pre-pierce the plate.

The new program helped Pittsburgh Steel graduate from an average of 15 pierces per set of consumables to 1,200 pierces.

Bell Steel, Quad Steel, Acier Nordfab and Pittsburgh Steel all agree that the marriage between Inovatech’s robotic system and Hypertherm’s plasma cutter allows them to accept bigger, more complex jobs using the same number of people. In addition to greater efficiency, the automation of this compact system enables these companies to function smarter. MM

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