Automation helps structural steel fabricators tackle the future.
After declining through much of the last decade, structural steel fabricators are growing again, albeit modestly. Estimates by Grand View Research, a market research and consulting firm, project the global structural steel market will top $119 billion by 2022. Translated into volume, Grand View projects the industry will go from using 120 million tons of steel today to more than 164 million plus tons a year in 2022. That’s a lot of steel that needs to be formed, fabricated, and erected.
Structural steel fabricators are already seeing more work come through their doors and many are struggling to keep up. Part of the problem is that they have fewer workers. As more and more baby boomers retire, company managers are finding there isn’t anyone to fill the void.
More work, fewer people, and increasing competitive pressure are adding up to one thing for many of these companies: the need to automate. Despite this, companies are finding the path toward automation isn’t always smooth. Choosing from among the various options and finding the money needed to finance automation is a challenging prospect for someone just trying to meet existing business needs.
I really like the layout of The 900, and the ability to have one piece of equipment do two different operations. Otherwise, I’d have to purchase two different machines, worry about two machines, and teach people how to use two different interfaces.
Brandon Bell, the owner of Bell Steel in Arizona, was grappling with how to move his company forward when he attended the FABTECH trade show several years ago. Bell, like many FABTECH attendees, was there to learn and better understand what new technologies might be available. “We knew that if we wanted to take our business to the next level we needed to process beams faster. Our method of cutting beams with a band saw and then using a punch was holding us back,” Bell says.
While walking the show floor, Bell stopped at the Inovatech Engineering booth. He was intrigued by the systems this Canadian company had on display because they combined a traditional X-Y table with a highly sophisticated robot.
“The SteelPRO machine had a robot, plus Hypertherm’s True Hole all combined in a really small footprint. I thought that would work perfectly for us,” Bell says. After discussing his needs with Inovatech partner Miguel Clement, he purchased the system and hasn’t looked back.
Pittsburgh Steel Group, among other structural steel fabricators, purchased its first piece of automated equipment about six years ago in a bid to lessen man hours and increase capacity. As was the case at Bell Steel, automation delivered.
“It exceeded my expectations actually. I can’t imagine working without it,” Danny Goboitsios, general manager at Pittsburgh Steel says. “The SteelPRO machine works four to five times faster than anybody doing it manually, man-hours wise. It’s cutting beams, cutting holes, getting everything done four to five times faster and the quality is so much better. It has totally revolutionized the way we fabricate steel.”
We landed a job cutting 4,000 solar posts out of wide flange steel beams. The Inovatech team quickly wrote a software program that took our beam processing time from minutes to seconds. Now we can process a whole beam—cut, cope, and add holes—in the time it takes to do a single cut on the band saw.
Quad Steel in Canada decided to automate after more than 20 years in business. “For us it was about growth,” says Dennis Marijanovic, a co-owner at Quad Steel. “We had to find a way to stay competitive with both the smaller fabricators who have lower overhead and the larger fabricators who can handle volume.”
Quad decided to purchase an Inovatech SteelPRO 900 system equipped with a Hypertherm HyPerformance 400XD system. The system is capable of doing the work of seven fabrication machines—a beam drill line, band saw, angle line, marking machine, a bevel plate table, coping machine, and bar line.
“I really liked the layout of the SteelPRO 900 and the ability to have one piece of equipment do two different operations,” explains Marijanovic. “Otherwise, I’d have to purchase two different machines, worry about two machines, and teach people how to use two different interfaces.”
Even though its shop flooded during installation, Inovatech and Quad worked hand in hand to get the machine up and running quickly. Within a week, Quad was rapidly cutting beams.
“I can now cut up to 150 tons a week—or 74 tons in structural steel in 3 days,” Marijanovic says. “I was able to complete a job I’d allocated three weeks for in a week. Originally by hand, I planned for 11 working days. The robot did it in three days. Cuts I’d allocated an hour and 15 minutes to do were done in a minute and a half.”
All told, Quad reduced the man hours on that job from its original estimate of 1,600 hours to 800 hours, helping the company easily meet its delivery schedule. Quad is also happy with how easy the system was to learn. “The software is incredible. It’s so easy to learn. It’s foolproof,” Marijanovic. “I was able to train an operator on a Saturday morning. I started teaching at 7 a.m., went to my son’s soccer game at 9, and by the time I got back the guy I had just trained was already running the system.”
With the exception of the past 2½ years, Acier Nordfab, another Canadian based structural steel supplier, always did its cutting using manual methods. For nearly its entire 30 year history, the company used a magnetic drill to punch holes, a band saw to cut everything down to length, and another manual machine for coping.
Its methods were working well for the company, however, Acier NordFab president Jean-François Charron kept running into one big problem: labor. “It is getting harder and harder to find people. Our company really had no choice if we wanted to stay competitive.”
It also chose Inovatech, taking possession of Inovatech’s first SteelPRO 900 system. “Our choice was really quite easy,” Charron says. “The company was close-by, clean; I liked the way it operated. There was nothing else like it.”
Today Acier NordFab is cutting plate, beams, and tubes with the system. It can cut steel down to size, and then add holes, notches, and bevels using its one machine. The time savings it is seeing are significant. As an example, programming for bevel parts takes one-tenth the time it did before. In addition, the overall quality of its product is higher.
“The precision is better than what we were doing by hand,” Charron says. “We have fewer problems than before and are making fewer mistakes. In addition we’re finding the erection time on site is so much faster. There is less error on site.”
SteelPro Line a Boon for Structural Steel Fabricators
All four companies—Bell Steel, Pittsburgh Steel Group, Quad Steel, and Acier NordFab—are reaping clear benefits from their decision to automate. Collectively though, they agree their success is due in large part to working with a responsive partner.
“The support we get from Inovatech is phenomenal. Inovatech doesn’t sell and walk away. They are always there for us,” Brandon Bell tells this story to illustrate what he means. “We landed a job cutting 4,000 solar posts out of wide flange steel beams. We had to slot holes in the smaller posts, cut the posts down to size, and put in four holes. It was taking us 3 to 4 minutes per beam. I told Miguel (Clement at Inovatech) and he and his team quickly wrote a software program that took our beam processing team from minutes to seconds. The system can now process a whole beam—cut, cope, and add holes—in the time it takes us to do a single cut on a band saw.”
I can now cut up to 150 tons a week—or 74 tons of structural steel in 3 days. I completed a job I’d allocated three weeks for in one week. Cuts allocated an hour and 15 minutes were done in a minute and a half.
Inovatech Engineering Corp. Praised for High Quality Service and Support
Pittsburgh Steel’s Goboitsios echoes Bell’s praise of Inovatech, “They are impeccable with their service. You call on their cell and they answer right away, and if on the off chance they don’t answer, they get back to you within minutes.”
Though Inovatech has helped Pittsburgh Steel streamline its operations in many ways, one thing that stands out in Goboitsios’s mind is how Inovatech helped the company cut the amount of money it was spending on consumables in half. Pittsburgh Steel is routinely cutting holes—hundreds of them—into 2 1/2 inch thick base plates that are used to anchor large columns. As anyone who has cut holes in steel knows, all of that hole cutting requires lots of piercing, which creates a pile of molten metal on the plate that can splash up and stick to the torch, quickly ruining the torch and consumables inside.
Inovatech helped Pittsburgh overcome this issue by writing a software program that instead has the torch pre-pierce the plate. Within three days, Pittsburgh had gone from an average of 15 pierces per set of consumables to 1,200 pierces.
Charron agrees. “In talking to current Inovatech customers, they all raved about the customer service and how Inovatech was always willing to work with the fabricator to improve the process.”
Adds Bell, “Inovatech really took us to a whole new level. We can now complete bigger jobs faster using the same amount of people. Really, it’s made us so much more efficient. They took us from a small ornamental fabricator to the second largest structural steel company in Arizona today.”