Fabrication Products staffClick image to enlarge

This Washington fabricator turned to a Canadian robotic beam line system for exponential efficiency gains.

By Michelle Avila

From its 1985 start as a one-man shop doing light commercial fabrication jobs, Fabrication Products today has a staff of about 40 people and continues to evolve. In 2016, the company was purchased by long-time employees Marsha Dee and Greg Sword, who recognized that in order to survive and thrive for another 30 years, Fabrication Products would have to leverage the potential of automation.

Working out of a 40,000 square foot fabrication facility with a 4,000 square foot paint building in Vancouver, Washington, the team fabricates a wide variety of projects. It is a well rounded group with fitters, layout personnel, welders, helpers, painters, inspectors and delivery drivers. Work runs the gamut from multi-story towers to increasingly sophisticated hydro projects like dams and fish management systems for many water district and government agencies.

Though Fabrication Products has enjoyed steady growth from ever larger and more complex projects, and has a highly skilled and certified team in place, it recently found itself in a bind. As Greg Sword explains, “We weren’t winning much on the structural side. The smaller guys had less overhead, and the bigger guys were more efficient because they had more automation.”

Sword could lower his overhead by reducing the size of his business or he could automate. He easily chose the latter. Hopping on a plane to San Antonio, Texas, and the 2017 NASCC Steel Show, Sword started shopping. Because Fabrication Products cuts a lot of wide flanges, tube steel, and channels, Sword suspected a beam line system would be a good addition for his company.

“Cutting that type of material takes a lot of time. And for us, it was all manual so we were not very efficient,” Sword says. He adds that his team had considered getting a beam line earlier but didn’t want to buy too early. “When we looked, they were still too new and not proven. Now though, we felt the time was right. They’ve come a long way in the last ten years.”

Sword met with a few different equipment manufacturers at the show, eventually finding Inovatech Engineering, a Canadian based provider of integrated robotic systems. After getting a better sense of Sword’s business and needs, Inovatech owner Miquel Clement knew one of his company’s SteelPRO systems would be a perfect fit. Sword and Clement chose the SteelPRO 600, one of Inovatech’s smaller offerings. Sword liked the fact that he could easily integrate the system into their existing fabrication process, while still having the ability to quickly process a wide range of material shapes and sizes.

Inovatech SteelPRO 600 (Photo: Inovatech)Click image to enlarge

In early June of this year, less than 2½ months after first meeting Clement at NASCC, Fabrication Products took delivery of its new system. Within a few days of installation, the company was burning beams using its newly automated system. With a nimble robotic arm zooming around the part being cut, Fabrication Products was suddenly processing parts faster than it ever dreamed possible. All the cutting, including the cutting of holes and precise bevels, was done in a fraction of the time it took to do manually.

Sword gave an example using a recent project. It required 8 inch holes to be cut at a 15 degree angle through the flanges and webs of a large structural wide flange. “Holes were taking 1 ½ hours apiece by hand. Now we are averaging maybe three minutes a hole. I can run a beam with 5 or 6 holes in 15 minutes,” Sword says.

Inovatech’s Clement explains it this way, “This client had 200-plus beams. Using the old method, he needed 10-plus man hours per beam. That’s 2,000 hours, or a year of work by a highly skilled, well compensated employee. Now the machine takes 15 minutes per beam. That’s four beams in an hour or all 200 beams in 50 hours.”

The SteelPRO at Fabrication Products uses Hypertherm’s XPR300 with X-Definition Plasma. This new plasma contains engineering advances including many patent pending technologies, that take high definition plasma to the next level. The result, Hypertherm says, is a highly efficient system that cuts and pierces faster than its HyPerformance HPR260XD system. The system is also capable of cutting thicker material than the HPR260XD and delivering squarer cut edges, markedly less angularity, and excellent surface finish on non-ferrous metals like aluminum and stainless steel.

Sword says, “The system has a huge range of capabilities as far as sizes. It has really transformed our whole operation. We are so much more efficient and competitive. Before, we would have to load material onto a saw with the forklift, cut it, take it off the rollers, and then bring it back around the building to begin the layout and fabrication process. It took a lot of time.”

Today, company employees still have to load material onto a machine, but they are able to do so while the system is busy cutting another pipe or beam. Someone can load new material while the robotic arm cuts or marks a second piece, and the third piece is unloaded at the other end. I-beams, H-beams, tubing, angle, channel, flat bar, and bulb flats can all be cut this way. As a bonus, the system is completely reversible, making it easy to switch direction if Fabrication Products ever has the need to do so.

It’s a big change from the way things used to be done. Sword’s start at Fabrication Products goes back to 2002. “When I got here, we used to do everything by hand. We would take the drawings, lay the part out with chalk marks, shear it, then use the punch.”

That changed in 2007 when Fabrication Products purchased a 10 x 40 foot CNC table from ALLtra Corporation. That table came with both a plasma and oxy set-up. Material less than 1-1/4 inches in thickness was cut with a Hypertherm HPR260, while anything thicker than that was cut using oxy. Ten years after first installing the machine, the system continues to work flawlessly. “We’ve had no issues with the system. It’s been a very reliable machine,” Sword says.

Sword says that while Fabrication Products continues to use the ALLtra table today, it’s used for the cutting of flat plate, leaving the SteelPRO open to do the heavy lifting.

“I’ve been able to bring in quite a bit of work based on the machine capacity. We are booked out at least six months. The difference is night and day. We are light years ahead of where we were. I can run the machine for a day, and it takes the welders in the shop 3 or 4 days to catch up. Before it was the opposite. The shop was always waiting for us.”

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