by Mary Scianna
The Problem: Lagging plate processing operations
The Solution: Nesting software to optimize plate fabrication
BC structural steel fabricator improves productivity with nesting software
When it comes to plate processing, the owners of XL Ironworks don’t spend a lot of time calculating material cost savings. Instead they calculate time savings.
That’s because they’ve placed their trust in nesting software from Shop Data Systems and equipment from Peddinghaus that has helped the company improve productivity and improve customer order delivery times.
“We’re a unionized shop and we have to be cautious about how we use our time,” explains Gino Patrignani, operations manager, who co-owns the company with partners Rick Hounslow, general manager, and Jan Solheim, sales manager. “The nesting software has helped us eliminate the need to track plate waste because it has virtually eliminated scrap.”
XL Ironworks has undergone a transformation since its humble beginnings in 1973. Back then, three different owners, one of which was Patrignani’s father Silvano, purchased a small ornamental steel shop to fabricate rails and gates. Small jobs turned into bigger jobs and railings turned into beams as the company morphed into a structural steel fabricator.
Today, the 9,290 sq m (100,000 sq ft) facility (under crane) in Surrey, BC, which sits on two hectares (five acres), operates a structural steel fabrication operation for beam and plate processing that services customers in the commercial, institutional and industrial markets. The company’s jobs have ranged from oil sands buildings, large shopping malls and schools to small warehouses and US Navy Seals facilities in remote locations such as Hawaii and Alaska.
Although the current owners are relatively new, having purchased XL Ironworks in 2010, all three are long time employees of the company. They retained their roles when they purchased the company, with Patrignani as operations manager, Hounslow as engineering manager, and Solheim as chief estimator.
Despite a climate of economic uncertainty Patrignani says he and his partners have a positive outlook about future growth.
“The climate is the best it’s been in the last three years; we’re bidding jobs in the US and we haven’t done that in some time.”
The CNC transition
XL Ironworks steel beam and steel plate processing operations have evolved significantly in the past decade. Among the biggest change was the shift from manual to CNC machinery.
Before purchasing the Peddinghaus plate processing machines that operate with Shop Data Systems’ nesting software, a 30 ton gantry crane would load steel beams or plates and a combi lift with 8,165 kg (18,000 lb) capacity would drive the steel into the facility. Steel would be sheared and cut into required squares or rectangles, then be transferred to a table where workers would manually draw shapes out, then cut corners and punch holes with manual machines.
“Now everything is done automatically. Detailers model structures in 3D and send files in the form of DXF or NC1 and we import them into the Shop Data Systems software. The software then generates the visual form of a finished part that comes up on the screen with all the relevant details such as size and thickness of plate, grade of plate, finished holes and plate weight.”
Today, all raw steel beams, channels and HSS that enter the facility are cut to length on one of two band saws. Any products requiring holes get transferred via cranes onto a drill line and large sheets of plate are loaded on infeed rollers and transferred into the shop. Three CNC machines are used for plate processing to burn and drill holes. The two Peddinghaus machines are capable of drilling holes in plate up to 76.2 mm (3 in.) thick. The company also operates an ESAB burning table for processing materials up to 127 mm (5 in.) thick. All three machines use the Shop Data Systems nesting software.
Once beams and plates come off the processing line, they’re assembled, undergo 100 per cent dimensional inspection, and then flux core welding using Lincoln Electric equipment.
Nesting for productivity
“Shop Data Systems and machinery go hand in hand and you couldn’t run one of these CNC machines without a program,” says Patrignani.
XL Ironworks’ first Peddinghaus CNC plate processing machine was purchased 15 years ago. That machine was subsequently traded in for a Peddinghaus FDB (Flat Drill Burn) 1500 and then it 2009, the company purchased a second high speed version of the Peddinghaus machine, the HSFDB 2500. The machines drill holes and burn them to size in one process.
The nesting software from Shop Data Systems has helped XL Ironworks improve productivity, says Patrignani.
“Nesting can be a challenge when you’re dealing with different parts, shapes and sizes, but with nesting software, the more variety you have the better you are because the software helps you fit virtually any part onto a plate. A lot of fabricators spend a lot of time working on this but with software it’s automatic. And we can also override it if we want to tweak the program. This has allowed us to virtually eliminate scrap,” says Patrignani, noting it’s a significant saving in time and money.
XL Ironworks is in the midst of upgrading to Shop Data Systems’ latest nesting software upgrade. Patrignani says it offers faster programming. More importantly, Patrignani says he and his team like the product and the service.
“A lot of people will consider cheaper products to save money, but it means you have to build a new relationship with a supplier and we choose to stick with who we’ve worked with for many years. We can phone or email the company and they’ll troubleshoot directly linked to our plant.”
In fact, the current upgrade will be installed remotely on a new PC XL Ironworks plans to purchase so the company can continue to operate the shop on the older software program.
“Once the new version is installed on the new PC and tested, Shop Data’s people will come up here for training in-house.”
Growing in a competitive market
When you operate in a competitive market, having the right technologies in place helps, but it’s not enough to grow a business. A reputation for high quality workmanship, and loyalty to employees and customers alike is essential, and it’s what has propelled XL Ironworks’ growth. “We rely on feedback from the field and it’s why we do 100 per cent dimensional inspection on the products we fabricate. Feedback from steel erectors has been incredible; we’ve had massive tonnage jobs and have had close to zero non-conformance,” says Patrignani.
He adds that long-term relationships with steel erectors in the field and suppliers has helped to build XL Ironwork’s strong reputation for quality.
“We’re very loyal and have people we’ve worked with for many years. We still buy corm brooms from the same guy we purchased from 20 years ago; there are certain relationships you just don’t break when they’re working.”
XL Ironworks’ long-time employees are also a point of pride for the company’s owners. Last Christmas, the company recognized five 30-year employees and one who has been with the company for more than 35 years.
The company also invests in apprenticeship training. Of the 40 people working on the shop floor in two shifts, nine are apprentices: three welders, one millwright and five metal fabricators.
“It’s common knowledge that we’re running out of skilled trades people to the point that some have been pulled out of retirement to work on the shop floor. Four years ago, we made the decision to invest more heavily in apprentices.”
Diversification helps XL Ironworks stay competitive.
Recently, the company had an opportunity to diversify into more production type work building trailer frames that measure 15 m (48 ft) long by 4 m (12.5 f) wide and weighs 9,072 kg (20,000 lb).
“We’re currently sending one out the door every four days finished. It’s been a learning curve because when you’re manufacturing production type parts, you have to be careful not to batch manufacture and build too many components that are just waiting to get into assembly; we’ve had to train ourselves to manufacture lean so we can get finished products out quicker. We’ve just pushed number 122 out the door. We’re close to having one of these units finished and out the door every three days and the goal is to get to one a day.” SMT