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Tube & Pipe
Monday | 18 January, 2010 | 4:51 am

Efficient, lean and competitive

By Lauren Duensing

January 2010 - Chicago Tube & Iron, Romeoville, Ill., a large, U.S.-based steel service center, was adding value to products long before many of its competitors installed their first laser, plasma or waterjet.

Bruce Butterfield, general manager of the bending and fabrication division at Chicago Tube & Iron (also known as the boiler fabrication division), says the company has been "bending and fabricating almost since its inception. The boiler fabrication niche is actually a special niche, but we also fabricate non-boiler fabrications, such as basketball supports, bike racks and soccer goals. We have the engineering capability, and frankly, we were the first steel distributor in the United States to buy a tube laser."

Butterfield’s division purchased a Mazak FabriGear 300 in 2003. He says the purpose of that laser was to serve specific customers who needed large-size tube sections (six-square and above) laser cut.

"After our first year and getting some inquiries and quoting almost 3,000 different quotes, about 65 to 70 percent of those were in the range of the BLM machine. That was our impetus to start looking at BLM to complement our other machines."

Chicago Tube & Iron currently has two Adige Lasertube 712D laser systems from the BLM Group USA Corp., Wixom, Mich. The company is processing a variety of shapes, including round, square and rectangular, for fabricators that "deal with large equipment manufacturers," Butterfield says. "We serve a broad range of customers, but most of our fairly large contracts are people that are dealing with companies such as Caterpillar and John Deere."

Why choose laser tube cutting?
These types of customers have strict tolerance requirements, and Chicago Tube & Iron can provide them with material that not only meets specifications but also helps customers run leaner operations.

"Laser technology is so far advanced compared to standard manufacturing from 10 years ago that involved saw cutting where your tolerance was plus or minus an eighth of an inch, plus the blade had a tendency to wander as it was cutting the material, so you wouldn’t actually get a square cut," Butterfield says. "The ability to cut any shape or geometry, the ability to hold accuracies of plus or minus five-thousandths of an inch and the combination of the accuracy and the repeatability opens up automatic welding and robotic welding. That’s where most of the people that we deal with are seeing big labor savings.

"Being a distributor, we’re able to help convert a lot of our customers that were using the old manufacturing to lean manufacturing," he continues. "We can take a lot of time out of their process by providing a laser-cut part right to their welding stations. Before, they had to bring in 5,000 pounds of material, and it would sit; it would go to a saw and get cut, and then it would sit. Next, it would go to a drilling station, get drilled, then it would go to a milling station. Finally, it would make its way to welding. By the time it got there, there would be an issue with the tolerances. We can deliver it just in time if they need it, we can deliver it right to the welding station and we can even kit it."

"Anytime you handle a part between machines, there’s an opportunity to lose control of tolerances," says Jim Rutt, president and COO, BLM Group USA. "With the laser-based tube-cutting machine, you’re nearly always handling that part once, while it’s in the machine being cut."

This type of efficiency is a cornerstone of BLM’s philosophy. The BLM Group USA is "wholly owned subsidiary of the BLM Group, which is a privately held company headquartered in Northern Italy," says Rutt. "Our parent company has been in business for 50 years and has been under the same ownership and the same management for the entire period. ... The company believes strongly in investment in market-directed new product development to support innovation on the part of our customers."

To achieve that goal, the company produces equipment that helps customers make improvements in productivity and quality. "We introduced the first standard, laser-based tube-cutting system in the United States in the year 2000," Rutt says. "Prior to that, there had really been little in the way of innovation in tube fabrication in the previous 30 years.

"Since the year 2000, there have been a number of installations of these standard, laser-based tube-cutting systems that have offered companies that use them significant improvements in the quality of the fabricated tubes that are coming off these machines. There are many verifiable installations that demonstrate upward of 75 percent improvement in productivity compared to conventional methods."

Compare processes
When a potential customer starts contemplating whether to add a laser tube-cutting system to his operations, the BLM Group can assist with a step-by-step comparison. "They should look at how they’re currently doing it, which typically is multiple steps on different machines, and compare it to the productivity and cycle times of these standard, fully automated laser-based tube-cutting systems," Rutt says. "Our company, with our independent accounting firm, has developed a computerized cost justification model that helps companies quickly and easily quantify the process and the economic benefits of laser-based tube cutting.

"Our folks go in and work with the manufacturing engineering folks and walk through the shop floor documenting each process step," he continues. "Typically this involves multiple material handling [processes] and multiple machine types. ... Compare that to the fact that the laser tube machine will consolidate up to five different fabrication steps into one continuous process."

After analysis, companies get results. Rutt says he has seen labor cost reductions as high as 85 percent, but the average cost savings depends on the complexity of the part. "Once we get through with walking the shop floor, we input the data of the parts they have to make into our separate cost cycle time software. We’re able to put a dollar amount to the cost savings per part using laser tube cutting versus the way they currently do it."

The right person for the job
In addition to its ability to consolidate processes, "the BLM machine has features on it that are operator friendly," Butterfield says. "It also has a good self-diagnostic system, which really helps when you do have a problem. It’s easy to find it.

"During the course of a day, especially if you’re running 20 hours to 22 hours a day, six days a week, things happen," he continues. "Because of the self-diagnostic system, it’s easy to backtrack and find out where the problem is. And with a lot of the problems, the operators can go in and correct it themselves."

However, he says it’s important that the operators of laser tube-cutting equipment possess the proper skill set, which includes "people with a machinist’s background because they’re used to interpreting blueprints, and they’re used to dealing in three dimensions. That’s the biggest difference. My first two operators were flat-sheet operators, but they had 10 to 15 years of experience. They understood the laser and how it worked. The next step is the three-dimensional laser understanding. Sometimes it’s difficult to look at a print and envision how it’s going to look. Like anything else, when you actually go to cut it, it doesn’t cut the way it was supposed to the first time, so you have to make some adjustments."

Ultimately, Chicago Tube & Iron’s long-term goal is to form relationships and partnerships with customers, Butterfield says. "Chicago Tube is a medium-sized company--we’re not quite as large as our largest competitors--and we believe this gives us an advantage in dealing with customers. We can react faster. And we’re looking at lasers as our main point of differentiation."

He points out that as a service center, he deals with myriad sizes and shapes of material. "If you walk through our plant, I have two Adiges and two Mazaks, so I’m running four tube lasers. During the course of the day, I’ll cut from 3/8 OD up to 10 square, 1/2-inch wall. And running two shifts, I can cut 15 different parts of every size and shape you’ve ever seen out of stainless steel and high-grade tensile steel and aluminum and low carbon."

"Many companies have adopted lean manufacturing philosophies," says Rutt. "Laser-based tube cutting is specifically aimed at helping customers achieve their goals with lean manufacturing. It supports reducing setup and changeover time in addition to consolidating as many as six different fabrication steps into one continuous process. These machines also reduce scrap, they allow you to produce one piece slow or high-volume production and they have the flexibility to process a wide variety of tubular shapes." MM

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