Tuesday | 16 May, 2017 | 12:49 pm

Fine adjustments

Written by By Gretchen Salois

Above: Adding waterjet cutting capabilities opened up new venues of business for Reliable Hardware and Steel during tough economic times.

When the economy floundered, one shop revised its business plan

May 2017 - The Great Recession hit Americans hard in 2008. People left their foreclosed, bank-owned homes, and businesses shuttered windows as many workers found themselves without much income and limited options. Businesses that endured tough times did so by resisting the urge to panic. 

“When we went through the recession, our sales went down to close to half of what we would normally take in,” recalls Kyle Collins, vice president and jack of all trades at the family owned Reliable Hardware and Steel in Santa Rosa, California. The drop in sales didn’t spiral the business into a hole, but it got the Collins family thinking.

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Instead of lower-cost drive systems like rack and pinion, traction drive or belt drive, Flow Waterjet uses premium ball-screw drives on its machines, which appealed to Reliable Hardware and Steel.

“We immediately thought about how we could be different from everyone else in town—be able to consistently cut material so it’s done right the first time without gases, heat or deburring. We realized we needed a waterjet,” Collins says. 

Reliable Hardware and Steel carries products ranging from heavy-duty hardened abrasive resistant and bullet-proof metals to thin sheets, including stainless steel grades 316, 304, as well as aluminum and copper. The fabrication shop evolved into a full-fledged manufacturing operation with the purchase of its first waterjet from Flow Waterjet

Operation overhaul

The family heavily researched waterjets, considering all manufacturers, and soon concluded that Flow had the most local support personnel, the heaviest duty machines, and the happiest local customer base. They purchased a Mach 2b that provided the tolerance (+/-0.005-inch), quality and speed that propelled Reliable Hardware forward. “That first waterjet opened the flood gates,” Collins recalls. “Not only were we able to cut more material, but we were able to take on jobs we couldn’t do before with our old plasma. We no longer had to shop it out.”

Reliable Hardware found Flow’s network of local service technicians, as well as owning their own pumps and 94,000 psi intensifiers, compelling. Flow’s machines are made in the United States and are designed so that the waterjet never loads or unloads over the drive system, risking bumping the drive system or dropping material/parts on the drive system.

Instead of using lower-cost drive systems like rack and pinion, traction drive or belt drive, Flow uses premium ball-screw drives. 

Business grew steadily and the team at Reliable Hardware installed its second Flow waterjet in March 2017. This time, the shop invested in a Mach 500 with Flow’s dynamic taper compensating cutting head with 94,000 psi hyper pressure pump. “The timing of it just made sense,” Collins explains. “We’ve taken on so many jobs—this machine is a product of its own success. With so much return business, we found that sometimes we have to turn down jobs because we’re booked solid. We just couldn’t afford to turn away business any longer.”

The Mach 500 is “the most productive, most reliable, best supported, and fastest accelerating waterjet available in the world today,” claims Jesse Tilley, Flow’s regional manager for eight Southwestern states. The Mach 500 machines range in price from $250,000 to $350,000.

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Family-owned Reliable Hardware and Steel has adapted to the ebbs and flows of the economy during its 39 years in business. From left are Kyle Collins, Dale Collins and Jason Carroll.

“Of course, when you buy a large machine, if you can recoup your cost by the time your loan ends, that would be at the minimum, a good return,” says Collins. “However, my father would say, and I agree, that just as with our first Mach 2b machine, we recouped the cost within 18 months and the trend [on returns] just continued. We again [expect] that to be the story on the Mach 500 and we are very excited.”

Return business is the ultimate goal for shops like Reliable Hardware. “With the construction sector growing, we often need to be able to turn around jobs on that same day. Otherwise, that customer is unable to move forward with their project until they get what they need from us,” Collins says. “We want customers to be able to come back to us knowing they can get what they need cut in the set amount of time.”

The addition of the new Mach 500 will enable Reliable Hardware to continue taking large-volume runs as well as quick turnaround and design-intensive pieces. “We can handle intricate jobs because we won’t have to slow down the machine to maintain the expected tolerances,” Collins notes. Between the older and the newer waterjet machines, “40 percent faster cutting time is a big difference.”

Previously, Reliable Hardware used a plasma cutter. “It was really slow and very rough,” he says. “After we were finished cutting, we had to grind pieces and welds to make sure they’d fit the necessary specs. We had an 1⁄8-inch tolerance [with the plasma] compared to +/-0.0015 inch tolerance we have now with the [Mach] 500.” 

Preventive maintenance

The Flow waterjets “changed our world,” Collins claims. Reliable, now in its 39th year, “started out as a fabrication/install place. Now with the second waterjet, we’re seeing business shift over to our waterjet capabilities more than our welding/fabrication.”

Adjusting capabilities to match customer demand has been easier than anticipated, says Collins. “We were wary when we got that first Mach 2b, but we were pleasantly surprised to find how easy the software was to use,” he says. “And Flow’s tech support really helped us get comfortable. We can contact someone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

A major benefit to using Flow, says Collins, are preventive maintenance plans. “We would run our machines until they exploded,” Collins says. “Now, we’re not breaking things and waiting for maintenance help while the machine sits dormant.”

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Reliable Hardware and Steel recouped the cost of its first Flow Mach 2b waterjet cutting machine within 18 months and that trend on ROI just continued.

Support packages available with the Mach 500 include a visit from a local Flow technician every 500 hours: The machine is inspected and the technician replaces the pump. Flow supplies customers with the consumable parts needed until the next visit. “Instead of having to run the waterjet until it breaks or hope the part that will eventually need replacing is on the shelf, we replace it before it gets to that point,” plus there is no downtime needed with this maintenance schedule, Tilley says. 

Flow’s technicians are also available to pursue customer issues other than maintenance. “Customers aren’t running things until they need something fixed immediately, so we’re able to schedule our technicians much more efficiently,” Tilley says. “The machines can run well over the PM plan intervals, but this approach means more production and less downtime as the parts addressed by the PM plan are the ones that statistically cause the most downtime.”

With the bulk of new customers opting for PM plans, “emergencies are now handled more swiftly with local technicians available when needed,” Tilley continues. “Our customers’ shops can’t be down.”

Cutting approach

Flow continues to improve each generation of waterjet cutting systems. As Tilley points out,  “With waterjet, it’s not the highest possible contouring speed that will result in faster cutting, it’s about acceleration and deceleration.” With the Mach 500, “you can go in and out of corners faster and cut 20 to 30 percent faster, reducing cycle time, without any increase in operating costs.” 

The Flow Mach 500 motion system’s ability to accelerate and decelerate quickly, paired with preventive maintenance and 94 psi hyper pressure pump, are changing the waterjet industry, Tilley asserts. “Customers like Kyle find that the new machine cuts significantly faster, resulting in lower operating costs and less downtime. He doesn’t have to worry about repairing anything himself,” says Tilley.

“Flow isn’t going to wait until things fall apart,” Collins says. “For someone who has worked on revalves, or line repair on any of our machines, I know the stress isn’t worth it. Now I don’t have to think about it. I can just run the jobs as needed and know that we’re keeping up with deadlines.” MM


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