Tube & Pipe
Monday | 08 April, 2019 | 12:58 pm

Rich niche

Written by By Corinna Petry

Above: Machine purchases are based on the ability to boost productivity and capture market potential, CTI’s Steve West says.

Tube processing platform advances as the latest tech solutions meet diverse application requirements

April 2019 - It takes millions of dollars of investments to provide value-added solutions beyond cutting and distributing metal. Chicago Tube and Iron Co., in business 104 years, has the long experience of adapting to the times. It also takes finesse to balance the requirements of the customer base without stepping on its toes, says CTI President and CEO Donald McNeeley.

The company, with locations in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Mexico, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin, inventories and processes carbon and stainless steel bar, pipe and tubing; aluminum pipe, tube and bar; and valves and fittings.

Winning new business is “a very strategic process,” says McNeeley. “It is walking on the edge of a knife. We don’t want to compete with fabrication customers. But a lot of things we get into are, by design, distinct and different than what customers do, in which case they are niche processes that customers cannot do themselves because of financial or volume limits.”

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The BLM LT8.10 can cut 288 different features in a piece of tubing, including holes, slots and notches.

Very recently, CTI purchased its ninth tube laser, a BLM Group LT8.10 model, which was installed at its Romeoville, Illinois, service center.

“We were looking at two factors with this latest tube laser,” says Steve West, vice president of Engineered Products. “The first is productivity and, secondly, to expand market potential. We had a tremendous amount of inquiries, and work is being done on longer parts. We sought both to capitalize on market needs and to run our current products faster.”

West acknowledges that all three major laser tube machine manufacturers (Mazak, Trumpf and BLM Group) are very good, but CTI chose BLM “because of what we do, supplying a wide variety of industries, the LT8.10 better suits our needs across market applications. It does a good job of manipulating tube. All of them can cut the same for gauges and diameters, but when loading and unloading, BLM does a better job over a wide range of products.”

The LT8.10 is made to process round, square,  rectangular, I-beam and other special shapes. The standard laser cutting head configuration of the LT8.10 has a tilting 6 axis (± 45 degrees), which makes it possible to perform complex cutting patterns. Tilt cutting is particularly useful for making weld prep cuts in thick-walled tubes, according to BLM.

Romeoville Operations Manager Raul Saucedo explains other attractive features. “To punctuate one of the reasons we purchased these machines: Technology. The new machine has active scan, a new technology on laser equipment. This allows us to process the tube faster. Instead of using probes, it uses laser technology to locate the tube and determine outer dimensions so geometries can be accurately placed on the part.

“From an operations standpoint, the faster you process a part, the more competitive you can be as a company.” So the considerations for a new tube laser investment were “the ability to process parts faster, cut longer parts and use less manpower to improve the cost,” Saucedo says.

Training, flexibility

To operate the high-tech equipment throughout its multiple processing operations, Saucedo says CTI tries to hire people with a CNC background and who know how to read blueprints. “We then train them in house.”

West says CTI searches for students studying industrial technology at junior colleges because “they understand how CNC machines work and they have some level of blueprint and quality training. So we can get them up to speed in half the time that it takes bringing in someone off the street.”

Saucedo notes that BLM Group sends in a specialist who “trains the trainer” on its new equipment “to get to a high competence level with the machine.”

Using multiple pieces of equipment from the same maker allows CTI’s tube cutting operations to work smoothly even in crises.

“We built our platform around BLM because we can move operators from machine to machine. It helps us with the flexibility to supply a variety of products,” West says.

CTI Process Engineering Manager Elidia Vazquez says, “We had a machine down yesterday, but we were able to continue running parts because the machine has backup technology.”

According to McNeeley, “With multiple machines, we eliminate any vulnerability when a single machine goes down.”

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CTI processes tubes and pipes that go into commercial oven frames, dairy tank ladders and agricultural equipment.

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Capacity boost

Since 2010, says West, “We tripled our tube cutting capacity because demand is increasing. We aren’t spending money to spend it but to satisfy the needs of the market. In addition to lasers, we have seven other CNC-controlled machines—a couple in Minnesota, cut-off and high-speed finishing equipment plus CNC tube bending capabilities.”

Every month, says Vazquez, the sales teams meet to review what’s going on in the market. “We might bring in a vendor, have an account representative talk about a customer, and future opportunities. Participants “get midterm and final exams. It’s a classroom,” she says.

“It’s either product knowledge or selling skills they are learning,” says McNeeley. “Our test results tell us where to focus curriculum for the next year.”

He and West both indicate that adding equipment actually helps create jobs at CTI. “Our manpower is up,” says West. “We have 75 people involved in day-to-day manufacture of products in all our facilities. With expanded engineering and scheduling capabilities, we probably have close to 90 people total.”

Says McNeeley, “When we talk about 90 people, that is just in the value-added portion of our business. So most of those are new jobs since 2010. If you bring machines in that are more efficient, that may eliminate certain jobs. Steve says we tripled productivity and doubled employment. Most important of all, they are significantly higher paying jobs,” he notes. “We have positions open right now,” West says.

Vazquez describe the range of product sizes CTI processes in house. “Our capacity ranges from 1⁄2-inch to 14-inch diameters and everything in between. Some machines manage 1⁄2-inch to 4-inch OD. Others manage 1-inch to 8-inch, and then we have a jumbo machine that goes to 14 inches. Wall thickness ranges from 0.065 to 5⁄8 inch. So we are processing heavy steel.” Standard processing lengths on most machines  are  28 feet but the “jumbo” can process 41-foot-long parts.

The BLM LT8.10, Vazquez says, can cut 288 different features in a piece of tubing, such as holes, notches and slots. Secondary processes like beveling, chamfering and threading are performed off-line.

End-use applications

“We have one customer that makes fire trucks,” West says. “Our tubing supports the extension ladders. We have another long-standing customer that makes portable saw mills. We are cutting 32-foot-long tubing with 200-plus features, such as holes, slots and notches. We are producing 100 units-plus per month for that customer,” he says.

One customer produces arena lighting systems that use tubing for its support systems. Another uses CTI processed tubing to build the framing for commercial ovens. “You’ll see our product in Caterpillar, Polaris, John Deere parts. We process polished stainless steel tubing that make up the supporting legs for dairy tanks that store milk prior to shipping,” West says.

“The tolerances on what we are cutting are  to +/- 0.005 inch, really tight tolerances on products that require perpendicularity, for ends that are square,” says Vazquez. “The active scan gives us that.”

With the laser cutting, “you don’t need a secondary operation like deburring.” A part taken off the line can be fed directly into an assembly operation, without turning or facing. “Our products look amazing going out the door,” Saucedo says. MM


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