by Kip Hanson
The Problem: Small shop, lack of skilled workers
The Solution: Build an automated beam processing facility
Alberta structural steel fabricator aims high with automation
Fourteen years ago, Glenmore Fabricators Ltd. was a small job shop in southeast Calgary making handrails for buildings. Sales were around one million a year. By 2012, revenue was thirty times that amount, and the company was now a full-fledged fabricator with a reputation for structural steel. There was one problem: Glenmore had outgrown its facility. Faced with exponential growth, management decided to build the most technologically advanced shop the company could afford. “We were turning work away, so it was easy to justify the new facility,” says general manager Jason Gillen.
This wasn’t going to be the typical steel-framed box sitting on a massive slab of concrete. The people at Glenmore wanted what Gillen terms a high-flow shop, one with a high degree of automation. Where many companies put up a building and then fill it with equipment, Glenmore chose the equipment first and designed the structure to go around it. Gillen knew this would maximize throughput while minimizing material handling, and give Glenmore the ability to keep up with increasing customer demand in Calgary’s challenging labour market.
After months of equipment shopping, spec comparisons and a trip to a small town east of Amsterdam, Glenmore chose the MSI (Multi System Integration) beam processing system from Voortman Steel Machinery. Based in Rijssen, the Netherlands-based company offers a wide range of system options, but Glenmore settled on a 40 in. saw, a three-spindle drill line and a robotic coper, all linked together by a series of automated material handling units. Giles Young, sales manager for All Fabrication Machinery J.V., the Western Canada distributor for Voortman, says this is the first system of its kind in this area.
“The Voortman VB1050 saw and V630 drill sit in one bay; downstream from that area is the V808 coper,” Young explains. “All the machines are fed by a series of material rollers and cross feed drag dogs. There are two cross transfer loading zones on the in-feed side of the system, so the beams can go through the saw/drill or straight to the coper. From the out-feed side, work is sent to a pair of staging areas inside the shop, for pick up by a side load forklift or crane for transport to the welding stations. It can also go to a third cross transfer area for loading onto trucks if welding isn’t required. All in all, it’s pretty awesome machinery.”
Awesome it may be, but the learning curve was a steep one. The equipment arrived at Glenmore’s new facility in September of 2013, and was operational by early January. Since then, employees and managers alike have been dealing with a new paradigm in steel processing. Gillen says the first few months were spent learning how to operate the system, understanding the calibration routines and making the usual tweaks common with any new equipment, but the biggest challenge was setting aside old habits. “Everyone here has loads of shop experience, but this is no longer a standard shop. It’s much more organized. You really have to stay on top of things. If you don’t, the equipment is so fast that the steel will just pile up.”
Scheduling for automation
Good scheduling is part of this organization. Due to the size of the new shop—1,600 sq m (17,000 sq ft) of pre-processing room and another 2,800 sq m (30,000 sq ft) for fabrication—Glenmore is able to run much larger jobs than was previously possible. Not surprisingly, these jobs are often victims of compressed schedules and last minute changes, making flexibility an important factor in processing. Gillen says the Voortman equipment makes it easier to stay on track, and gives Glenmore a distinct advantage over its competitors. “The biggest fabricator in southern Alberta might do 30 pieces a day. Even running at half speed, our new shop can do 80.”
The reason for this is simple: reduced handling, which, as Gillen explains, was the goal of the company’s $3M investment all along. “In our old shop, you’d bring in one piece at a time. It could take two hours to lay it out with a tape measure, drill the holes and cope it, during which you might handle it ten times. Today that same piece takes five minutes, and the only handling is when you load the raw material in one end and pull product ready for finishing off the other. This has tremendous implications for throughout.”
Throughput isn’t the only thing affected by the new equipment. Since the Voortman system only needs three people to operate, labour costs have plummeted. That’s not to say Glenmore’s move to automation has created any layoffs. It’s just the opposite. Both old shop and new are busier than ever, and the fab side of the house is running two shifts just to keep up. Some of this is due to an unexpected benefit of increased production capability—smaller shops in the Calgary area, hesitant to grow because of fluctuating market conditions, have started sending work to Glenmore for processing.
Quality has improved as well. Rather than relying on error-prone hand layouts, Glenmore now uses NC1 files, which are generated directly from the CAD system. Setup is a matter of downloading these files to the Voortman CNC, where a batch processor matches job needs to available materials and immediately goes to work. Aside from the obvious timesaving, integration to the company’s software systems has made it easier to meet increasingly complex building requirements. “We can import whatever the architect dreams up into our modeling software, and from there it’s a straightforward task to cut the steel needed for those designs,” Gillen says. “It’s a completely different way of fabricating.”
Looking back, Gillen has but one regret. “Now that we’ve fixed the fabrication problem, we have a bottleneck in painting. Voortman offers a really cool system that cleans the steel, paints and dries it, all automatically. Instead of spending two hours on a rusted beam, you can load four of them into one end of the machine and six minutes later they come out painted and ready to ship.” Despite a little wishful thinking, Gillen’s not looking for a do-over, and expects the return on investment for the Voortman system will be five years or less.
“Buying the Voortman just made sense for us,” Gillen says. “What used to take three weeks can now be done in a week or less. Some beams get turned around in a day. You put a piece of steel on the conveyor and it doesn’t get lifted off until all the processing is done. It’s only been ten months since it was installed, but we’re probably at 95 per cent in terms of efficiency. Together with the new facility, we’re in a really good place.” SMT
Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]