Custom fabricator addresses welder shortage with robotic plasma cutting system
According to the American Welding Society, the welding industry will reach a deficit of 400,000 workers by 2024 as older welders continue to retire more quickly than younger welders can replace them. One way for manufacturers and fabricators to address this problem is by looking at advanced automation.
FIM, previously known as Fehrs Industrial Manufacturing, followed that course of action.
Since opening in 2012, the Seminole, Texas-based manufacturer, job shop, and custom steel fabricator has grown from seven to 85 employees. The company has three main divisions: Building Systems, manufacturing pre-engineered building components; Cranes and Service, providing overhead bridge cranes and runway systems with installation, service, and repair; and Fabrication, which provides steel fabrication services to construction companies, oil and gas companies, other steel processing fabrication shops, and the agricultural market. That’s where its bottleneck occurred and started to cause problems.
FIM relied heavily on skilled welders for layout, marking, band saw cutting-to-length of all parts, drilling of cut parts, and manual plasma cutting for parts preparation. From there welders were needed to fit up parts and perform subsequent welding operations. With Texas oil and gas companies competing for the same dwindling pool of skilled welders, the problem only got worse. As more customers required more work than FIM could handle, the problem got out of hand.
According to Stan Kornelsen, FIM general manager, “A large agricultural customer relied on FIM seasonally to manufacture and fabricate agricultural processing equipment, providing us with large orders three or four months out of the year. Using our skilled welder workforce, we could only handle so much of their work. Consequently, as the customer continued to send us as much business as we could handle, they started sending more and more of their business to other companies. We simply did not have the manpower to support their needs.”
Compounding the problem, FIM also had to turn away work from other manufacturers and fabricators during this same seasonal period, including oil and gas company customers.
After careful analysis of three different manufacturers with three competitive machines, FIM specified the HGG RPC-1200 robotic beam cutting line. Also known as the Beam Profiler, the plasma cutting machine cuts and prepares ready-to-fit parts for both welded and bolted connections.
While the machine did not provide the fastest cut part, it provided the fastest overall throughput on the fabricator’s 60-ft. beam and subsequent 10-ft. part. And once the part was cut, it required the least amount of secondary part preparation. On intricate, tight cuts where the flange and the web met on the beam, FIM discovered that other machines were not able to get the nozzle as close as HGG’s robot. This robotic feature eliminated additional cutting and grinding.
In addition, the laser beam measurement vision system automatically scans beams for common imperfections, including flanges that are not always perfectly straight and bodies that are off-center or twisted, resulting in better accuracy. An electronic measuring device system compares the actual outside shape and position dimensions of the raw material to the cutting program, automatically compensating for any deviation on-the-fly without interrupting material preparation or profile cutting time.
“No two beams are ever the same coming out of the mill, which means they can vary by as much as ½ in.,” said Kornelsen. “While other manufacturers use a probing method, which means the head of the robot comes down and then makes contact with the beam to determine exact size to make subsequent adjustments, the RPC-1200 accomplishes this by scanning the material as it enters the cutting cell, which reduces overall throughput process time.”
For the seasonal agricultural customer that started the process in motion, Kornelsen said, “The machine has dramatically improved throughput. We’ve been able to triple the amount of work we can perform for them and in a short window of time. It’s also reduced welder rework and almost eliminated any quality control issue, including holes that were laid out incorrectly or that were drilled in the wrong spot. We figure that the RPC-1200 saves FIM as much as 40% to 50% on additional welder rework. As long as the part drawings are correct to begin with and the part program that is downloaded from our offline center is correct, the [system] simply cuts what it’s programmed to cut.”
Kornelsen’s calculations indicate that for every hour the machine runs, five labor- hours of welding time are saved. In other words, for every eight-hour shift the machine runs, he “gains about 40 hours of experienced welding time.”