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Plasma Technology
Tuesday | 01 August, 2006 | 3:43 am

Performance without a premium

By Lauren Duensing

In 1968, Keller & Son Industrial Contractors Inc., Spartanburg, S.C., was operating out of a 5,000-square-foot facility. From these modest beginnings, it burgeoned into a 100,000-square-foot operation that runs 7 days per week and has 40 employees. With this steady growth came change, and the company took on more custom metal fabrication work in addition to its millwright and plant relocation services. In the beginning, the company spent 70 percent of its time in the field and 30 per­cent of its time in the shop, but today more than 75 percent of its focus is on manufacturing. It was an evolution made profitable through an investment in technology.

“We have changed from a sheet-metal fabrication facility that outsourced into a competitive manufacturing business,” explains Trent Keller, vice president. The redirection began when the company landed a large job and had only three months to find a solution for a sizable increase in production. It considered outsourcing, but it was cost prohibitive and time consuming. Keller also looked into other metal cutting technologies, yet these solutions had drawbacks: namely, the high cost of investment, operation, maintenance and consumables.

Plasma provides a solution
Keller needed a system that was accurate, offered high repeatability and was powerful enough to cut mild steel up to 2 inches thick. The company also wanted a system that was easy to program and operate and that de­manded little by way of operator training. After much research, it decided upon the Plasma Automation Vicon 2001 plasma cutting system with an Innerlogic 200 ampere high-density plasma power supply and ViSoft cutting system software. In 2002, the system was delivered within 9 weeks and was up and fully running in less than three days.

The choice seemed practical as plasma cutting technology has maintained a well-defined niche in the manufacturing arena since the 1950s. Keller recognized that his initial investment was reasonable, that operating costs were moderate and that a machine can run for years without the need for expensive overhauls or replacement parts. What may be viewed as unexpected, however, was Keller’s decision to enter the realm of precision, high-density plasma systems. The choice granted him something that has remained elusive to manufactures for decades: the union of affordability and performance in one machine tool.

"We have realized a tremendous increase in part accuracy and repeatability with the Vicon 2001 as compared to our original plasma cutting system," says Keller. "We can match a part from today’s run to another processed yesterday, and they are absolutely identical. We have achieved a level of tolerance that we never expected." In response to a demand for more capacity, the company purchased a second machine in January 2006. This was a Vicon Elite plasma cutting system with a unique 10-foot-wide-by-20-foot-long cutting table and an Innerlogic 260 ampere high-density plasma power supply.

Newfound abilities
"Our capacity and ability to handle a range of projects has grown," says Keller. "We can process a 10-foot-by-20-foot piece of material. "Most of the tables he encountered prior to purchase were 8 feet wide, so the Elite’s extra width has created a nice differentiation for the company. "We are the only manufacturer within a 100-mile radius with such a wide cutting area," Keller says. "Our customers are amazed when they see it." The larger table offers processing flexibility and the produc­tivity advantages of a shuttle table as two standard-sized sheets of material can be placed on the machine simultaneously. After the first sheet is processed, the gantry quickly moves the plasma cutting torch to the opposite end of the table to cut the second piece of material. The operator is then free to unload the finished parts while the machine is still pro­cessing. "We have far more production time with this machine," Keller explains. "It has been a real asset. Whereas it may have taken us a full day to build one wall, for example, we now are building three to four walls per day. We are more competitive and efficient than ever before."

The high-density plasma power supply, coupled with the machine’s rigid frame, has created its own set of advantages. "We now achieve exceptional repeatability," explains Keller. "We need to provide our customers, especially machine shops, with parts that are highly accurate and similar run to run." The new machine, with its higher amperage, has enabled Keller to control edge quality and part tolerance. It also can pierce materials on the fly from 1 inch to 1.25 inches thick. Keller says, "On our original plasma table, if we needed to cut a hole in the center of a piece of plate material, we would have to lead into the hole from the edge or we would have to use a drill bit to pre-drill 50 percent of the hole before processing. Now, we burn multiple holes easily, quickly and accurately."

When asked about part quality, Keller reached behind him and placed a cut part made out of 1.25-inch mild steel on the table. "This part came straight off of our Vicon Elite table without refinishing," he says. "Not only is it accurate but also the edges are smooth without a drop of dross. Nine times out of ten, the parts that come off of our table look this way. Customers today are not only looking for tight tolerance and fast turnaround, they also want their parts to be smooth and to look nice." Before the high-density cutting systems were installed, the company had to spend time refinishing every part. There was also the risk of marring or damaging the part in the grinding process. The new technology eliminated the refin­ishing step from their manufac­turing process, saving time and labor. Keller says, "No matter what the thickness, when we take a part off of the Vicon, 90 percent of the time we do not have to do any refinishing."

Greater efficiencies
Keller & Son has also handled work for customers who have laser cutting machines. This is partly because one’s eyes must strain to discern the difference between the two technologies in terms of edge quality on a plate part. It is also because when materials approach the 1-inch-thick mark, it is more cost effective to use a plasma cutting system. "When a laser cuts thick plate material, the process can be very time consuming and costly," Keller explains. "The Elite, for example, can cut material thicker than 1 inch at a speed of 65 inches per minute." Since installation, Keller & Son has realized a 70 percent increase in its overall productivity and throughput. This was a result not only of cutting speed but also of efficiencies gained in part program­ming and in downstream processes.

The Elite’s ability to mark or pierce a bend point on a part has helped stream­line the part’s transition from cutting to bending. Previously, the team would have to cut a pattern out of thin galvanized steel, place it upon a given part and mark or "prick" the bend line by hand for the press brake operator. Keller explains that this would guide the operator to prevent the hydraulic press brake’s automatic backstop from getting knocked out of square by an incorrectly placed part. Now, the operators program the bend lines directly into the ViSoft cutting system software and the plasma table marks the part automatically.

Software advantages
The system’s Windows-based cutting system software has provided Keller with enhanced processing capabilities. Plasma Automation designed and programmed the ViSoft software, something that has helped expedite and simplify training and phone support for the company. "If you have a question, whether it’s about the table or the way in which it’s handling an application, you only need to call one company," Keller explains. "Because the manufacturer has intimate knowledge of both the software and the cutting system, solutions are found much faster and with far less effort. This saves us an incredible amount of time."

With this software, the company can either program parts tableside or in the engineering department. "For basic nesting, the program does really well," says Keller. He estimated that the software’s nesting capabilities have reduced the facility’s material waste by 15 percent to 20 percent. In addition to the system’s cutting speed and large table size, the software has increased the company’s actual processing time considerably. It has also expedited order fulfillment.

When handling industrial contract work on location, Keller has drawn a needed part and faxed the illustration back to the facility. His programmers would then input the dimensions into the cutting system software. Programming was so quick and easy that his staff could program, process and ship the part out to him that day. "We like the software because it’s really easy to use, and the system and software work together so well," Keller says. "It is so user-friendly that we can train people to use the plasma cutting system in less than one day. All in all, it’s very simple.

"Going with a small, cutting-edge manufacturer has been a good move for us," Keller says. "The value that this manufacturer has provided us by way of service and support has been tremendous. The high density plasma cutting machines have helped us reach our goals and control our destiny." MM

From the August 2006 issue of Modern Metals.

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