Tube & Pipe
Tuesday | 25 August, 2015 | 2:23 pm

Conquering complexity

Written by By Corinna Petry

Laser cutting gives contract manufacturer the ability to make almost anything from tubing

August 2015 - Customers always want more: Larger, heavier (or lighter), stronger, faster. When a contract manufacturer needed a piece of equipment that would best meet current demands while simultaneously anticipating the future of tube cutting, it chose a precision laser cutting machine with 6 axes. The applications manager for the machine builder says the technology allows tube fabricators to create anything they can dream up. 

Superior Tube Products Inc. is a family owned contract manufacturer that offers complete turnkey solutions in fabricating metal tube and pipe, parts and assemblies. Founded in 1991 with three employees, the Davenport, Iowa, shop has more than tripled its manufacturing footprint since 2002 and now employs 50 people.

This growth was made possible through flexibility and diversification, Superior Tube Products General Manager Keith Niebur says. “We are a one-stop solution for clients by offering bending, laser cutting and robotic welding capabilities.”

In the past few years, the competition to win substantial supply contracts has intensified, along with market trends and the exacting requirements of bent, cut and welded tubing. Based on Superior’s technological research and analysis of market needs, it decided to target a growing demand for larger structural tube applications. 

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“Our capabilities include multiple forms of cutting such as saw, laser and machining; and we consider our core competency to be tube bending,” Niebur says. “We bend metal tubes such as carbon and stainless steels and nickel from 0.23-inch OD all the way up to 10 inches, plus all sizes and shapes in between. Quite often we’re bending, laser cutting, and ultimately robotically welding a complex assembly for our customers.”

The laser cutting capability arrived in the form of the 3D FabriGear 400 II, built by Mazak Optonics Corp. in Japan, but installed and serviced by the company’s Elgin, Illinois, shop. The FabriGear 400 II can handle larger, longer, thicker and heavier material than similar machines due to its rigid workpiece handling system incorporating a four-chuck design.

‘We’re interested’

Superior Tube Products targets “diversification by design rather than targeting a specific industry” with its fabrication and subassembly services, says Niebur. “Our goal is to keep our revenue per customer and industry at less than 15 percent of our total revenue. We’ve been fortunate through the years to have no layoffs as a result of economic decline, thanks in main part to this strategy imparted by our CFO. The owner of our company has a pretty frank motto regarding our approach to customers: ‘If there’s metal tube involved, we’re interested in taking a look at your project.’”

Superior Tube serves a wide variety of manufacturing and construction contractor customers and produces bent and cut tubing and parts for myriad end-use applications. Certainly, says Niebur, “we make handrails,” both for architectural and industrial clients. “We have built very large tank supports, like for grain tanks. We also weld smaller subassemblies for roll-over protection structures in truck engine cabs.”

Over the past dozen years, he says, standards of customer service have risen. “In terms of demand, a lot of customers require JIT [just in time] delivery,” says Niebur, adding that 97 percent of Superior Tube customers are “now under JIT scheduling. In 2002, we weren’t doing that for anyone. Now it has become a standard for OEM contracts.”

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Decisive factors

Niebur’s team performed an “intense amount of research and vetting” before selecting the FabriGear 400 II, studying “factors including, but not limited to, industry trends and quoting activity. The FG 400 ended up fitting our needs best based on business we had earned over the years,” he continues, noting that the machine “is designed to laser cut thick-wall hollow structural sections (HSS) and that’s the area where we wanted to build capacity.”

Every customer, he says, “wants to hold tighter and tighter tolerances and we know this equipment can achieve it. It means that the customer, when they put this finished tube into their own line, can weld it with robots rather than using people who are hand welding.”

Superior Tube saw an immediate savings. “It has had a positive impact on our labor costs due to the material handling efficiencies of the system; basically what we were doing with two operators prior to owning the machine we’re now doing with one,” says Niebur.

By promoting its laser cutting skills, the company has been able to land more business with existing customers and secure new accounts.

“It has diversified our capabilities, giving us opportunities to enter new markets. With the Mazak, we are more aggressively targeting products made out of larger HSS both at larger diameters and greater thickness. We are also able to produce more quickly with the automation provided with the machine,” he says. 


The 3D FabriGear 400 II, available with a 2.5 kW or 4.0 kW resonator, will cut tube and pipes whether round, square, rectangular or triangular, from 3⁄4-inch up to 16 inches OD. It can also process I- and H-beams, C-channels, angle irons and additional user-defined shapes, Applications Manager Mark Mercurio says.

Regarding speed, the model can process a round pipe up to 16 inches OD at a traverse rate of 1,181 inches per minute. Apart from improved processing speeds, the unit offers automated load/unload functions, tighter tolerances and the ability to drill and tap. The 6-axis laser means an operator can cut at any desired angle for weld prep, plus achieve the highest accuracy for easy fit-up of assemblies—all in a single program cycle.

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According to Mercurio, the FabriGear 400 II is built in Japan, while Mazak’s Elgin, Illinois, site performs sales and service, stocks parts and conducts operations training for North American customers.

“We have one of these machines on our floor. Superior Tube operators spent two weeks on the machine here while we started their installation.”

Cutting speeds, he says, vary with the shape and thickness of the material. “Depending on the shape, if the geometries are difficult, there are only a couple other ways to cut a tube: Drilling and sawing,” Mercurio explains. “But compared with the laser, the only other method is to use a 6-axis machining center. They are quite slow to cut the same geometries. We know our machine cuts faster.”

What has really changed with the advancement of 3-D laser technology, he says, is that “I can cut anything I can dream up. Go back 10 years. If you needed tubing for an assembly, there were only a few ways to cut it [so component manufacturers] designed around that. But now, you can cut a tube like you would a flat product. It’s more aesthetically pleasing and the tubing product lends itself to greater accuracy.”

A tube fashioned through a laser cutting process “can be part of its own fixture, interlocking with the next piece in an assembly,” Mercurio suggests. “That alone can shave 30 to 40 percent off the time it used to take to finish a product because assembly is labor intensive.”

Fabricators have typically employed workers to fixture, weld and hammer for a perfect fit. “And they had to scrap material that didn’t fit,” he says. “With laser cutting, everything fits properly and the welding is faster. Your savings are mostly there. Looking at a whole line of fabrication and assembly, people are saving even more than what they estimated.” MM


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