Fabrication Products with its highly skilled and certified team of about 40 people that includes fitters, welders, painters, inspectors, and delivery drivers, had a choice to make: Lower overhead by reducing the size of the business or automate. The company, which initially began as a one-man shop doing light commercial fabrication jobs in the mid-80s, chose to automate.
With that decision made, the next step was to figure out which automated system or systems to employ. Co-owner Greg Sword started by hopping on a plane to San Antonio and the 2017 NASCC Steel Show. Work at Fabrication Products runs the gamut from multi-story towers, to sophisticated hydro projects like fish management systems and dams for many water district and government agencies. To complete these projects, the company cuts a lot of labor-intensive parts such as wide flanges, tube steel, and channels. This led Sword to believe a beam line system was the way to go. He and his team had actually debated buying one several years earlier but ultimately decided to wait, as they felt the technology was still too new and unproven.
At the show, Sword met with a few different equipment manufacturers, eventually finding Canada’s Inovatech Engineering, a provider of integrated robotic systems. After getting a better sense of Sword’s business and needs, Inovatech’s Miquel Clement suggested one of his company’s SteelPRO systems. Sword and Clement chose the SteelPRO 600, one of Inovatech’s smaller offerings. Sword liked the fact that he could easily integrate the system into their existing fabrication process, while still having the ability to quickly process a wide range of material shapes and sizes.
Less than two and a half months after first meeting Clement at NASCC, Fabrication Products took delivery of the new system at its 40,000 square foot facility in Vancouver. Within a few days of installation, Fabrication Products was quickly processing parts faster than ever. A variety of cutting, from the cutting of holes and precise bevels, was done in minutes, rather than hours, thanks to a nimble robotic arm that would rapidly move around the part being cut.
Sword gave an example of the amount of time saved using a recent project. The job called for the cutting of 8-inch diameter holes at a 15-degree angle through the flanges and webs of a large structural wide flange. Before installing the SteelPro, it would take a skilled employee one and a half hours to cut each hole by hand. That’s nearly an entire eight-hour shift, assuming everything goes smoothly, to cut a beam with five holes, a number that is typical for Fabrication Products. With the SteelPro, each hole takes just a few minutes. Processing an entire beam, with five or six holes, takes 15 minutes.
“This client had 200 plus beams. Using the old method, he needed 10-plus man-hours per beam. That’s 2,000 hours, or a year, of work by a highly skilled, well-compensated employee. Now, the machine takes 15 minutes per beam. That’s four beams in an hour or all 200 beams in 50 hours,” says Inovatech’s Clement.
The SteelPRO at Fabrication Products uses Hypertherm’s X-Definition Plasma process. This new plasma found in two Hypertherm systems—the XPR170 and XPR300—takes high definition plasma to the next level. The result Hypertherm says is a highly efficient system that cuts and pierces faster than Hypertherm’s high-definition plasma systems, such as its HyPerformance HPR260XD. The system is also capable of cutting thicker material than the HPR260XD. It also delivers parts with squarer cut edges, much less angularity, and a smooth surface finish, including on non-ferrous metals like stainless steel and aluminum.
Transforming an Entire Operation
Sword says the system has a huge range of capabilities as far as sizes, so many in fact it has transformed the company’s entire operation.
“We are so much more efficient and competitive,” he says. “Before, we would have to load material onto a saw with the forklift, cut it, take it off the rollers, and then bring it back around the building to begin the layout and fabrication process.”
Even with the new system, employees still have to load material onto a machine, but they can do so while the system is busy cutting another pipe or beam, adding to overall efficiency. Someone can load new material while a robotic arm uses plasma to cut or mark a second piece, and a third piece is unloaded at the other end. H-beams, I-beams, angle, tubing, channel, bulb flats, and flat bar can all be cut this way. As an added bonus, the system is reversible making it easy to switch direction if Fabrication Products ever needs to.
The addition of the system and the way processing is handled today is a big change from how things were done just two years ago and an even bigger change from early in the century when Sword started at Fabrication Products. “When I got here (in 2002), we used to do everything by hand. We would take the drawings, lay the part out with chalk marks, shear it, then use the punch.”
About five years after arriving, Fabrication Products purchased a 10 x 40-foot CNC table from ALLtra Corporation. That table was a dual process table using both plasma and oxyfuel. Material less than 1-1/4 inches in thickness was cut with a Hypertherm HPR260, while anything thicker than that was cut using the oxy torch. More than a decade after getting the machine, it continues to work flawlessly.
“We’ve had no issues with the system. It’s been a very reliable machine,” Sword says.
Today the original ALLtra table is used to cut flat plate, leaving the SteelPRO open to do the heavy lifting. “I’ve been able to bring in quite a bit of work based on the machine capacity. We are booked out at least six months. The difference is night and day. We are light years ahead of where we were. I can run the machine for a day, and it takes the welders in the shop 3 or 4 days to catch up. Before it was the opposite. The shop was always waiting for us,” Sword says.
Fifty years ago, in a small two-car garage, Hypertherm began their journey with simple, powerful ideas about business and an invention that shaped the future of industrial cutting. The same ideals that fueled their inception all those years ago are still what drives them today: A passion for challenging what’s achievable with the products they create, the culture they foster, and the experience Hypertherm delivers to their customers. As they look to the horizon and the next 50 years, Hypertherm is proud that their people, partners, and innovations will shape the future with solutions that make anything possible for industries around the world.