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Plasma Technology
Monday | 23 March, 2009 | 8:50 am

Three’s company

By Lisa Rummler

March 2009 - Some say a new store’s success boils down to three words: location, location, location. Want a profitable bait shop? Open one by a fishing hole. If cookies and cakes are the name of the game, don’t open a bakery near a gym or fitness center.

Manufacturing facilities operate under a different set of rules. Although location is important--it makes good business sense to set up a shop where there’s a solid customer base and demand is high--three different words help maximize a manufacturer’s success: efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. This is especially true during tough economic times, when every dollar needs to go twice as far.

It’s no surprise, then, that a plasma system that allows companies to do three kinds of cutting, as well as marking, such as the m3 plasma system from Esab Welding & Cutting Equipment, Florence, S.C., would find its way into many manufacturing facilities.

The system’s efficiency stems from years of developing manufacturing technology, one result of which is automation, says Ruben Chico, product manager of mechanized plasma at Esab Welding & Cutting Equipment.

He likens the evolution of the plasma system’s automation to the improvements to office equipment that streamlined front-office operations.

"Fifteen or 20 years ago, computers were a bit more clunky," he says. "You had to have air conditioners and all kinds of things to keep them going. And the computers weren’t compatible with one another. Now everything is done on a single PC because the automation works. The same thing has happened on the shop floor with the automation equipment. A lot of the promises that the engineers were making to us 20 years ago are actually true--you can reliably turn on one of these things, and it’s easy. You hook up our plasma system to that machine or to that robot, you turn it on and it works. And it’s easy for the operator."

New horizons
The aforementioned automation and corresponding ease of use have allowed companies to take plasma systems where they’ve rarely been, according to Chico.

"Plasma is gaining favor because the high levels of automation make plasma easier to operate," he says. "Other processes require much more operator skill."

Chico cites oxy-fuel as a process that plasma can potentially supplant as it relates to heavy-plate cutting. Although he says oxy-fuel cutting is a well-established process, it’s more difficult to automate than plasma.

"[With] the easier-to-automate plasma system, the operator can just push a button, and the system sets itself up," he says. "All the gases, the flows and the pressures are fully automated. He simply selects his setup condition, and then he makes sure the correct consumables are in the front end of the torch. And he hits the 'Go' button, and it cuts the plate. The system is fully automated. That’s pushing plasma into areas and into thicker materials that previously would’ve been cut with oxy-fuel."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Chico says some companies are pushing plasma for thinner materials and more precise cutting.

"The machine shops are all now fully automated machining centers, and the repeatability and the accuracy of the component parts that go into the front end of our torch are all made on these modern, CNC-controlled turning machines," he says. "So the accuracy and repeatability that we get out of our torches today are drastically better than what we were getting, say, 15 or 20 years ago because of improvements on the shop floor."

A triumvirate, plus one
The m3 plasma system provides these capabilities. Specifically, the modular system allows end users to perform standard, precision and thick-plate cutting with a single plasma torch. Accordingly, it can operate in precision, production and sever modes. It also does precision marking.

"These modern, automated plasma systems are multifunctional," says Chico. "The torch is built to precision standards, and it’s heavy-duty so it can accomplish production cutting and sever cutting. By simply changing the parameters of the gases flowing through the torch, you can enter precision mode and produce fine cuts, as well. We’ve taken all of these different tools and combined them into one, kind of like what people did with the office PC. You don’t have to buy separate pieces of equipment to perform multiple tasks."

Almost any conductive metal can be cut using plasma, according to Chico, and mild steel, stainless steel and aluminum are the most common.

In terms of thick-plate severing, the m3 can handle material 3 inches thick to 6 inches thick at 600 amps. For precision cutting, it can accommodate material as thin as 1 millimeter.

The m3 plasma system has multiple components mounted in different places, depending on the cutting machine, robot or other automation equipment into which it’s integrated, says Chico. The system can be configured with four power supplies, depending on the power levels customers require.

The torch is 2 inches in diameter, which is a common size for large, fluid-cooled systems, enabling it to be used with existing torch holders and lifts, according to Chico.

The m3 plasma system also delivers a controlled, consistent flow of gases to help maximize consumable life and ensure the cutting meets specifications.

"In precision plasma, we’re going to constrict the arc aggressively, and we’re going to be aggressive on our gas pressure," says Chico. "It produces a high-quality cut. In conventional plasma, it’s the same torch and the same nozzle. We simply back off on all of those settings so that the nozzle and electrode last longer, and it’s more economical. You sacrifice a little bit of quality, but the cost of operation drops significantly."

Through thick and thin
One company that has found success with the m3 plasma system, as well as other Esab equipment, is Temtco Steel, Louisville, Miss., a subsidiary of Namasco Corp., Roswell, Ga. Haley Ward, operations manager, says Temtco’s long relationship with Esab, combined with the need to stay on the cutting edge of technology, prompted the purchase of the m3 about two years ago.

"We’ve had Esab equipment for 15-plus years, and we have a great relationship with Esab," says Ward. "[And we were] adding value-added equipment that we knew we could get a good return on as our business has grown."

Temtco is a supplier of steel plate and high-strength steel, primarily serving the heavy equipment, mining and rail industries. Additionally, it supplies the military with armor for mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles and similar equipment.

This armor is bullet-resistant ballistic steel, and Temtco carries the material in thicknesses from 0.125 inch to 4 inches.

The company uses its m3 plasma system for producing the armor at its Louisville and York, Pa., facilities as well as for other applications at its Tumwater, Wash., facility. (Temtco has five U.S. locations.) It uses the system to cut carbon and alloy steel, with an emphasis on the latter.

Temtco performs plasma cutting every day for many other products that use material down to 16 gauge, according to Ward. For products that require larger parts, Temtco plasma cuts material up through 1.5 inches.

Ward says Temtco has had a positive experience with the m3 plasma system, mirroring the nature of its relationship with Esab over the years.

"We have no complaints," he says. "It’s the latest and greatest out there, [even] with all the competition, which is why we continue to support Esab." MM

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