Tube & Pipe

Cutting out finishing

By Nick Wright

Fast, four-axis pipe cutting makes mechanical contractor more competitive

April 2012 - Think of mechanical contractors as industrial multitaskers. They must execute exact engineering and product delivery for myriad customers. When contractors invest in the right machinery, they can eliminate secondary processes and free up manpower. This makes them more competitive.

It’s no different for the pipe-processing arm of Quality Plus Services Inc., Hillsboro, Ore., a diversified mechanical contractor in design, engineering and construction based in Petersburg, Va. In an effort to pinpoint ways to be more competitive, QPS recently installed a W-244 automatic pipe cutter from Watts Specialties Inc., Puyallup, Wash.

With its W-244, QPS cuts pipe for primarily the semiconductor, pulp paper and bio-pharmaceutical industries. For example, the semiconductor industry requires stainless steel and carbon steel with edges suited for high-purity welding, says Bill Grassl, division manager of Quality Plus Services. Chemicals flow through the pipe for the tools that process semiconductors. Before installing the W-244, the QPS crew was cutting pipe, beveling with a torch and grinding—all by hand.

Now, the W-244 makes such a clean cut that QPS can take its pipes directly to its spray-arch welders, says Grassl. “There’s no finishing. The machine is so fast, so now I need double the welders to keep up with it.”

Watts’ W-244 pipe cutter is characterized by its four-axis computer-controlled drive, which can accommodate up to 24-in.-diameter pipe. However, the majority of its processing occurs in smaller dimensions. Plasma and oxy-fuel cutting heads are interchangeable depending on factors. For instance, if a company is cutting 80 percent of the time with a plasma cutter and encounters a pipe with a wall thickness that exceeds the plasma’s capability, “they can stick in the oxy-fuel cutter and go to town,” says Dave Collins, president of Watts Specialties.

The W-244’s four axes can achieve a wider range of bevels, Y-cuts, T-cuts, K-cuts, saddles, notches and essentially any structural shape where multiple pipes will intersect at a single point.

Grassl witnessed a similar manually operated two-axis model, the W-242, in action at another mechanical contractor’s facility. “I saw the machine and said, ‘I need to have one of those,’” he says.

“We’ve used it down to 2-in. or 3-in. pipe in carbon steel, but the majority is 6-in. and 10-in.-diameter carbon steel pipe,” Grassl says. “Then we’ll cut lengths. We’ve got this machine set up where we nest them, so we cut a whole length of pipe at once, we put the program in and it’ll just go.”

Feeding material
QPS customized the W-244 pipe cutter with a 20-ft. feed conveyor attachment, bringing the overall length of the machine to about 56 ft., which QPS placed in its 20,000-sq.-ft. shop. With the feed conveyor, which is a long, cradle-like pipe loader made up of rollers and metal stays, an operator can cut a pipe while a material handler queues up a second.

“As I’m done with one pipe in the machine, I push it out back and the feeding conveyor feeds me a new one in,” Grassl says. “It saves me time. It’s an expensive option but worth it for material handling. Otherwise, I have to take an operator off the machine.”

After an operator loads a length of pipe, the material handler—a forklift, in this case—can have pipe ready for the operator. When the first pipe is cut, “all he does is sit at the controls, slide a piece of pipe in and he’s ready to go.”

In addition to the feed conveyor, QPS installed a customized, state-of-the-art smoke hood to contain the fumes from cutting both carbon and stainless pipe. “We have to keep it clean,” Grassl says. “We have one of the cleanest fab shops in the country.”

Functional four axes
The W-244’s four computer drive axes, driven by the machine’s parametric program, enable QPS to cut pipe easily once parameters are entered, Collins says.

“Because there are a finite number of cuts you’re ever going to cut on a piece of pipe, we’ve established virtually anything you’d ever need to cut on a pipe,” Collins says. “You input parameters that the machine needs to establish the cut factor, and it makes the cut. You can link 50 cuts together.”

The W-244’s moving cutting head also floats mechanically on the pipe surface for accurate control of torch tip standoff. “Since pipe is never completely straight, we have the ability to mechanically track the pipe not only up and down but perpendicular to the pipe axis,” Collins says. “The torch stays in the middle of the pipe, not necessarily in the middle of the machine. This will provide a higher degree of accuracy.”

With such a wide range of cuts, the machine’s accuracy and reduction of required finishing allows for a streamlined operation. Within two or three minutes, QPS cuts 10-in.-by-6-in. saddles, for example, whereas before the W-244, it would take hours. “Four to six hours by the time you laid it out, prepped it, cut it with a torch and grinded it. I don’t have to do any of that anymore,” Grassl says.

In one instance, QPS cut a saddle instead of using a T connection.

“We saved six 10-in. Ts, which each of those is two 10-in. welds. So we saved 12 10-in. welds by machine cutting a hole in pipe then cutting a 10-in.-by-6-in. saddle, and it was perfect,” Grassl says. The four-axis capabilities allowed for such crucial savings.

“Four-axis is the way to go,” he adds. In particular, the four-axis provides keyhole cuts inside pipe where a bevel would be needed to fit-up another pipe. “The two-axis [machine] will do the same thing but you’d probably have to do some grinding to get it to fit. With four, you don’t have to do [any] grinding.”

Saving costs, adding capacity
Since selecting the four-axis model to accommodate its complex cuts, QPS has noticed savings in the form of costs, labor and added capacity. On the first job with the machine, Grassl budgeted two workers for a week to prepare 10-in. pipe. Instead, he accomplished it in one day with one worker on the W-244.

“It cuts pretty fast,” he says. “When you can do a 10-in. bevel by bevel on whatever length, it probably takes five minutes. Basically, say you wanted a 6-ft. piece bevel by bevel, we’re talking five minutes. It’s fast.”

On that first job, QPS’ weekly rate realized roughly 75 percent savings on 500 ft. of 10-in. pipe. And, as far as quality, it’s “within 0.001 on every cut,” says Grassl.

QPS is working to keep up with new gains in capacity as a result of its faster pipe cutting. “Now our challenge is that it stacks up pipe so quick we have to have more welders, which also increases how much we can take in now,” Grassl says. “We can do more production out of our shop, so we’re not only saving on labor, I’m now able to book more jobs and bring more quantity into my shop instead of saying I can’t take any more.”

Because QPS can be more competitive, Grassl can reassess some of his costs and negotiate his price down. “It’s a big time saver right there. When you can take a week’s worth of work and consolidate it for a guy, that’s huge.”

Collins says the newest developments of the W-244 will be in the form of new interface software, with which pipe can be programmed and auto-nested from a remote source. Watts offers training at its facility in Washington for customers sourcing a machine—an opportunity QPS took to boost its viability as a competitor.

“The crew that came up here was a very professional, knowledgeable group,” Collins says. “The guys all had a great attitude.” FFJ

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  • Quality Plus Services Inc.
    Hillsboro, Ore.
    phone: 503/640-4326 
    fax: 503/640-6547

  • Watts Specialties Inc.
    Puyallup, Wash.
    phone: 253/848-9288
    fax: 253/848-9295


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