Plasma Technology
Monday | 26 October, 2009 | 3:53 am


By Abbe Miller

October 2009 - When sparks fly at Alro Steel Corp., Jackson, Mich., it’s nothing out of the ordinary for the people who work there day in and day out. Bring a few visitors through, though, and the sight is more than impressive. Undoubtedly, the company’s plasma and oxy-fuel machines are crowd-pleasers. And when the equipment is cutting through 14-inch-thick plate, the steel service center might as well sell tickets.

"When you walk around and see a bunch of 1/4-inch plate, you say, ‘Sure, that’s a big stack of steel,’" says Randy Glick, vice president of Alro. "But when you see a piece of 6-inch plate or 8-inch plate, it’s a big deal. That piece of material weighs 20,000 pounds--five times what your car does."

And the end markets that use these massive pieces of metal are equally oversized and deserving of attention. When a steel plate exceeds 2 inches, it’s processed on an oxy-fuel machine. Anything less, other than ultrathin material, is handled by plasma equipment. Messer Cutting & Welding, Menomonee Falls, Wis., manufacturers both.

A proliferation of plasma
No matter what size material a service center is producing for its customers, plasma and oxy-fuel machines are sure to be used. O’Neal Steel Inc., Birmingham, Ala., has 59 Messer machines in its 31 locations. Actually, the company has 64 machines, if its subsidiaries are taken into consideration. With its locations and equipment, O’Neal’s reach is wide. Mitchell Harrison, vice president of operations, barely remembers a time before the company had plasma and oxy-fuel machines.

"We’ve been at it so long now that these cutting processes just exist," he says. "There wasn’t really a ‘before.’ As time passed, the controls and the technology have certainly improved, and there’s now a lot more computer-controlled operations."

Brian Kluge, director of operations at Ryerson Inc., Chicago, has also witnessed the evolution of plasma and oxy-fuel equipment. Ryerson, one of the nation’s largest steel service organizations, has Messer equipment throughout the company. Machine models include Messer’s MetalMaster Plus, Titan II and TMC 4500 series. The company primarily processes carbon on its equipment, but the machines also handle several grades of stainless steel.

"Plasma technology over the past 10 years has been like a PC," says Kluge. "Wait a couple of months, and a faster, thicker-cutting, more cost-effective model is available. MG has had the challenge to build a machine to harness this continually improving cutting technology, and I believe [it] has risen to the task."

One new addition to Messer’s laundry list of capabilities is beveling, a technology many service centers have adopted to fulfill customer requests and eliminate downstream finishing operations.

"We specifically purchased beveling machines for parts that go into excavating machines for the construction industry, earth moving equipment industry and for railcars, and we’re also using it for wind towers," says Harrison. "The transportation industry is also a large market for it, as well."

On the leading edge
As growing markets drive the need for increased capabilities, plasma and oxy-fuel equipment is also growing and improving. The beveling technology fits into that idea. Messer provides beveling heads for both its oxy-fuel and plasma machines.

"The ability to cut and bevel in the same pass has been a huge benefit," says Kluge. "A significant amount of hand beveling as a secondary process has been incorporated into a single cut, and the quality of these potentially complicated curved bevels is impeccable. Another attractive feature [with beveling] is the new Global Control. This controller has really simplified the setup time and given the operator the ability to perform some pretty complex functions right at the machine, including nesting, consumable life monitoring, initial torch settings and machine troubleshooting."

But it’s not just the features that have improved. Cutting in its purest form has progressed.

"The ability to cut thicker material has certainly improved in the past 10 years," says Kluge. "We can continually move thicker and thicker material to the plasmas from the oxy-fuel machines, which provides productivity improvements. The quality of the cut has improved, as well. Minimizing the bevel of the cut and improving small-hole quality has pretty much allowed us to cut any profile on the plasma. We’ve even been able to move a handful of previously laser-cut parts onto the faster-cutting plasma machines. Plasmas are certainly cutting a much larger percentage of our material today." 

Bigger, better, faster
Alro has 40 locations, with the majority in the Midwest. Thirteen of the company’s facilities have Messer equipment, which has been a staple almost from day one. And Alro has been working with Messer since before the plasma and oxy-fuel manufacturer made major inroads in the United States.

"We’ve been in business for 62 years," says Glick. "And Messer made machines back in the 1950s and 1960s, so we’ve had their machines for 40 or 50 years, depending on what the name of their company was in Germany before coming to the States."

As with O’Neal and Ryerson, Alro is using the equipment primarily for heavy plate cutting. And with heavy plate cutting comes hurdles that Alro has learned to avoid by strategically placing plasma and oxy-fuel cutters in 13 of its locations.

"We don’t do plate cutting everywhere," says Glick. "We do it in all of the geographies but not in every building because of the inventories and the space that it takes. It’s a specialized world, and it’s advanced equipment that you have to know how to run. It’s easier to run multiple ones in one location. With the overhead to run one, you can almost run two because you have to have the inventory and the people to operate the equipment. Maybe it takes two guys to physically run the machine, but we have to have all of the inventories and all of the drops. That’s why we don’t do it everywhere."

To remain on the cutting edge, Alro works closely with Messer to take advantage of new technologies as soon as they’re available. The versatility the company’s collection of Messer equipment provides is invaluable.

"We have diverse customers, from automotive manufacturers to general machine building," says Glick. "We have aerospace customers and construction equipment customers. Some of our customers make equipment to cut down trees. To a certain degree, we’re just a big job shop. We don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow, but the Messer equipment certainly helps." MM

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