Saying yes

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by Kip Hanson

BC steel processor bets on plasma for happy customers

The Problem: A lack of plasma capacity
The Solution: A new single-head plasma cutting machine


Eric Taylor doesn’t like to say no. As president of Valley Cut Steel in Surrey, BC, he takes pride in providing the best customer service he possibly can. “I used to work on the sales desk at a large service centre,” explains Taylor. “I found myself saying no to a lot of customers, and saw the need then for a small, flexible shop that would provide service the big guys could not.” In 1998, that vision became reality. Taylor opened the doors on a 232 sq m (2500 sq ft) facility, and then doubled it a few years later. “We have 14 people on board today, all of them focused on making our customers happy. Our shop mantra is Find a Way to Say YES.”

Valley Cut Steel offers a number of plate processing services, including flame cutting, forming, rolling, weld prep and beveling. It’s built a reputation on difficult jobs and rush orders, the sort of work Taylor’s former employer would turn down quicker than Mayor Ford’s temper after a night on King Street. But over the past couple of years, Taylor recognized a big shortcoming in his shops’s capabilities. “Most of our cutting has always been done in house on our oxy-fuel machines, but for anything under 3/8 in. [9.5 mm] thick, we’ve had to subcontract it to a plasma or laser house.”

As Taylor explains, this is because oxy-fuel produces poor edge quality and unacceptable accuracy on thinner gauge materials, as well as warpage and a large amount of slag that must be removed by grinding. Worse, sending work to potential competitors was risky, and the added delay and cost made it more difficult to win some business. “We recognized a lack of plasma capacity was holding us back. Buying a machine of our own meant it would be that much easier to say yes.”

Taylor contacted his local Praxair representative, who put him in touch with Tass Hamstra, Machitech Automation’s technical sales lead for Western Canada. Since Machitech sells both plasma and oxy-fuel machines, it was able to provide the pros and cons of both, ultimately leading Taylor to purchase a 2.4 x 3 m (8 x 10 ft)single-head machine powered by a Hypertherm HPR400XD plasma torch. “Valley Cut Steel had some exposure to plasma cutting about ten or fifteen years ago and were not very pleased with the results,” says Hamstra. “A lot has changed with the technology since then.” Today’s machines are faster, more accurate, and less expensive to operate than ever before. In fact, one might argue that, for all but very thin and very thick plate cutting, plasma is the clear solution. “Plasma machines are no longer dependent on a skilled operator like they were ten years ago. We can teach most anyone to run one in an hour or so. They’re quite simple to operate.”

Maybe you won’t be sticking your Aunt Martha in front of a plasma machine, but given the shortage of skilled labour these days, ease of operation is music to any shop owner’s ears. Another advantage to plasma is its productivity—oxy-fuel simply can’t compete. “In one-inch material, for example, we can pierce a hole with plasma in about half a second and then cut at ninety-five ipm,” says Hamstra. “With oxy-fuel cutting, we’d need roughly sixty seconds of preheat time before piercing, and cut at about ten ipm after that.” Oxy-fuel shops get around this limitation by putting more heads on the machine, allowing them to cut multiple parts at once, but that assumes you have the sales volumes to support it and the need to cut multiple parts the same. In any event, these shops are probably whistling past the oxy-fuel graveyard: according to Hamstra, a single plasma machine can often produce as much as a five or six-head flame cutter.

All those heads means much higher operating expense as well. Taylor hasn’t had his machine long enough to get a firm grip on consumable cost, but he’ll tell you it’s much less expensive than feeding his old flame machines. “Our two flame machines go through around 700 liters of liquid oxygen per week. Last time I checked, the plasma had gone through 230 liters in a month.” That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and roses. Aside from oxygen, the new machine consumes electricity, nozzles and electrodes, a cost Taylor has never had to consider. Considering the additional sales they are seeing as a result of the machine purchase, however, it’s unlikely he’ll complain. “It took a little while to get the word out, but more and more of our customers are sending us work. We’re even picking up some new clients who need light-gauge cutting that we couldn’t do before. We just closed the books on October, and it was the best month we’ve had in years.”

So far, Valley Cut hasn’t processed any aluminum or non-ferrous material, but it’s good to know it can. With a simple swap of the gas bottle from oxygen to nitrogen and some small setting adjustments, Valley Cut Steel will be able to process material it was previously sending down the road. Another thing that makes Taylor grin is the programming of his new machine: after nearly fifteen years of flame cutting, he had a mountain of G-code he wasn’t sure what to do with. “Our old burning machines use a homemade design, built by a friend of mine who’s into robotics. They don’t use a proper CNC program. When I showed the code to the people at Machitech, however, they were able to adapt the new machine to use those programs. It saved us a ton of time.”

That wasn’t the only adaptation Valley Cut Steel required. Since the space available in Taylor’s shop is limited, the standard machine wouldn’t fit. “We load material with a forklift rather than an overhead crane. The way the machine was originally oriented, there wasn’t enough room,” says Taylor. By turning the slats 90° and relocating some of the electronics, Machitech’s service engineers were able to accommodate the cramped quarters. “The way it ended up, the plasma head is all the way at the back of the machine when in park mode, keeping it clear of any possible damage. They did a beautiful job.”

Taylor summarizes his new investment like this: “We service a high demand, fast paced portion of the industry, and need to make parts accurately and quickly. That said, it was a difficult decision, especially with the poor economic conditions of late, but good service and never having to say no finally convinced us. We’re still learning, but plasma appears to be the correct tool for us. As we adapt our systems and processes to the new machine, and learn how to deal with parts coming off the table much faster than ever before, I expect that we’ll be able to keep another, even larger machine busy in the next year or two. I’m incredibly pleased.” SMT

Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]

Valley Cut Steel

Machitech Automatiom


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