The automated HGG pipe cutting system has eliminated the bottleneck Propak experienced with an older manual pipe cutting machine.Click image to enlargeby Noelle Stapinsky
Images courtesy of All Fabrication Equipment

Propak steps up its cutting game with automation

The Problem: A very manual pipe cutting process caused a severe bottleneck for fabrication flow

The Solution: An automated HGG pipe cutting system that increased efficiency and decreased manpower

For more than 40 years, Propak Systems Ltd. has been designing and building energy processing solutions and equipment–specializing in gas and heavy oil processing, compression and power generation units, engineering, modular fabrication, construction and energy services. Based in Airdrie, AB, with a shop floor space of 41,806 sq m (450,000 sq ft), Propak is one of Canada’s largest builders of fully modular energy processing facilities and oil and gas processing and treatment units.

“We are somewhat unique in the industry in that we have a full gamut of services, right from sales to engineering to fabrication. We also have construction and service,” says Andy McPike, Propak CFO. “We try to be a one stop shop.”

The company designs systems that meet transportation requirements which minimizes any field construction, which, of course, can be very expensive. “It also allows us to fabricate and construct everything in a controlled environment, which helps with efficiency in our climate,” says McPike. “You want to minimize any work being done out in the field. By having everything constructed and tested in a controlled environment means it’s a simple hookup when you get out to the field.”

The HGG pipe cutting line cuts 600 to 700 feet per day, depending on the size, thickness and grade of pipes going through the system.Click image to enlargeSprawled over a vast amount of real estate, Propak has seven different facilities, two, of which house its main modular fabrication operations and one where it manufactures large pressure vessels and other oil and gas processing equipment. 

Of course, as the demand for quicker throughput grows for any manufacturer, tried and true manual practices tend to become a bottleneck. Such was the case for Propak and why it started shopping around for an automated pipe cutting system. 

“The pipe cutting process was very manual for a long time,” says Rick Stevens, spooling general foreman for Propak. “We had five cutters using oxy-fuel with bevellers, as well as a plasma machine to cut all of our materials. The quality was there, just not the quantity.”

Stevens says that there are four or five companies that offer the kind of cutting machinery they needed, but it was Giles Young, sales manager of All Fabrication Machinery J.V. that introduced them to HGG, a Netherlands-based manufacturer that specializes in pipe cutting and profiling machines. 

HGG has been making these machines since 1985. They not only manufacture them but they also do their own self contracting, so they cut with their own machinery,” says Young. “It’s kind of a unique relationship because these end users are buying a machine that the manufacturer works with every day.”

Before purchasing the new machine, Young and the Propak team went to the Netherlands for a demonstration. “For the specific machine that they wanted, the only two I could show them in Canada were direct competitors,” says Young. “The machine Propak bought is the HGG SPC 660-1200 RB pipe cutting line. We look at what the customer wants and try to create a custom solution, so this machine is actually a hybrid because we combined a couple of technologies to fit their needs.”

This fully automated system is about 65 feet long, including the infeed, which was installed outside of the facility due to space constraints. It can handle anything from two-inch to 48-inch pipe diameters with a maximum of 40-foot lengths. How it works, explains Young, is they load the infeed or buffer table with the variety of pipe sizes needed. The software generates a cut list and the pipes are automatically fed onto the cutting trolley and cut to the length needed. 

“Instead of installing a large out-feed section, like a lot of other customers that have this machine, we stopped at the chuck,” says Young. “So their pipe comes in gets clamped in the chuck and then it’s cut back towards the automated infeed section and the operator takes the pieces off himself.”

For Propak, the set up was pretty plug and play according to Stevens. “We had a guide here for about a week to help us set it up,” he says. “It was something we had never used before and it was a footprint that required us to do a lot of in-house fabrication as far as the layout of it. But after that it was more or less training and learning the process and the capabilities of the machine.” 

The real challenge for Propak was more on the software side. “There were the usual hiccups you have with a new process,” says McPike. “We had to do a bit of work to integrate the HGG software and get our files exported from our drafting software.”

McPike adds, “since we are such a high mix job shop and we don’t have large volumes of repeatable activity, we needed software that was able to handle a large mix of cuts. That’s what impressed me [about this machine].”

Cutting materials such as carbon steel, stainless and nickel chrome, the pipes can range in size from two-inch schedule 10 to large 16-inch schedule 120. And now with the automated system, cutting speeds and efficiencies have been vastly improved.

The manual process required five workers–three on the day shift, two on nights–running six days a week. “We were cutting roughly 200 to 300 feet between those two shifts,” says Stevens. “With the accuracy and quality of the cuts, and the amount that the machine can process in a day, we’re somewhere around 600 to 700 feet per day depending on the sizes, thickness and grade of pipe.”

The pipe cutting line uses both oxyfuel and plasma, and can switch seamlessly between the two. “To lower costs on consumables we use oxyfuel on the thicker wall pipes with larger diameters. On the smaller diameter, thinner wall pipes we use plasma. That’s a fine balance,” says Stevens. “The machine has both capabilities and it can switch from one to the other with minimal downtime.”

Now, to cut piping that is three-inch Schedule 40, for example, it takes about seven seconds. “Larger stuff like 6-inch Schedule 120 probably takes about 1.5 minutes,” explains Stevens. “Before you would have to do a preheat. This machine actually integrates the preheat on our thicker diameter that travels ahead of the cut to make sure the pipe is warm.”

The bottleneck on the fabrication floor has certainly been remedied. But what’s more is that the new system has also allowed Propak to relieve some of the bottlenecking that was happening in its vessel shop. 

The Propak team is already considering larger capacity units for future growth. 

But for now, Stevens says, “just understanding its capabilities and full potential… I don’t think we’ve really tapped into everything the machine can do for us as far as the technology it holds. We have a lot to learn about what it can do. But right now, it’s fitting our needs and we’re elated with the machine.”

McPike adds, “the efficiency gains and decreased manpower make the benefits of this investment pretty clear.” SMT

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