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Plasma Technology

True grit

By Lynn Stanley

Above: The Peddinghaus high-speed plate processor’s plasma and oxy fuel configuration gives Cooper Steel the capability to cut plate 5⁄16 in. to 31⁄2 in. thick.

Plate processor helps steel fabricator stay ahead of the growth curve by bringing cutting, drilling and punching processes in house

November 2017 - Since the world’s first skyscraper cast its shadow across Chicago’s skyline in 1884, structural steel has formed the bone and cartilage of North America’s buildings and infrastructure. Kenneth Cooper also displayed a strong spine and steely resolve when he started Cooper Steel Inc. in 1960. His life story is the company DNA of Cooper Steel, its longevity and its ability to attract and retain skilled talent. “Mr. Cooper had an 85 percent hearing loss from infancy,” says W. Duff Zimmerman, P.E., president and chief operations officer for Cooper Steel.

“In those days, schools didn’t have accommodations for disabilities. He made it to the ninth grade before going to work at a local factory. Following a layoff, he attended Nashville Auto Diesel College where he learned to weld. By then, he was married with two sons, Gary and Barry. In 1960, with nothing more than a welding machine and a pickup truck, he started Cooper Steel. His wife, Faye, who joined him in 1966, handled accounts payable and accounts receivable. I can’t imagine the courage it took to start out like that.”

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Part quality is repeatable and consistency of hole patterns makes field fit-up flawless.

Strong genes

Today, the third-generation company’s plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee, processes A992 steel beams and A36 and A572 plate for general contractors. Its sales, engineering and project management support team is based in Nashville. Cooper Steel, which performs steel fabrication, erection, project management, detailing and estimation, has completed projects for large buildings, factories, offices and hospitals in more than 40 states.

Kenneth Cooper, now in his 80s, still visits the plant several times a week and has a discerning eye. He will question “why we are doing something a certain way and whether or not there is a better approach,” Zimmerman notes.

“We’ve stayed ahead of the curve because our owners aren’t afraid to invest in technology,” he says. “Gary Cooper, our chief executive officer, is a visionary who leads by example. Employees come to work with the attitude of, ‘What can I do to help Cooper Steel today?’”

The steel fabricator found a kindred spirit in Peddinghaus Corp. when growing pains prompted the company to consider a new equipment purchase in 2012. It chose a Peddinghaus high-speed plate processor [HSFDB].  Plate ordered cut-to-size from steel service centers often meant long wait times for deliveries. Cooper Steel then had to manually lay out and punch or drill holes in the material.

“In our business, dealing with change is the challenge, whether it’s the owner making design modifications or changes that are dictated by the work site,” Zimmerman says. “We have to be able to respond to that quickly.”

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Peddinghaus’ roller feed design makes it easy to place material handling outdoors and eliminate the need for crane operation.

The Peddinghaus high-speed plate processor allowed Cooper Steel to bring its cutting, drilling and punching processes in house, reduce scrap, and stock plate for quicker turnarounds. “We had other Peddinghaus equipment in our shop,” Zimmerman notes. “Consistency was important, but dependability and service were higher priorities. Peddinghaus really understands how important it is to a company to have a machine up and running. They man the phones 24/7. They can perform Webcam troubleshooting or access your machine remotely to run diagnostics. And they will ship components overnight.”

The machine’s plasma and oxy fuel configuration gives Cooper Steel the capability to cut plate 5⁄16 in. to 31⁄2 in. thick. Plate sizes can range up to 8 ft. wide by 20 ft. long.

“We handle some pretty big stuff,” says Zimmerman. “The speed, control and quality of parts is superior. The return on investment has been really fast.”

“Plasma technology is pretty much the same whether it’s a plate processor or a burntable with a drilling operation,” says Kevin Woods, southeastern regional manager for Peddinghaus. “Cutting speeds don’t change. The way to gain economies of scale is to incorporate more functions into the machine.”

Ahead of the curve

The Peddinghaus plate processor provides twice the production of a burntable. Able to drill, tap, countersink, mill and more, the machine eliminates redundant torch starts by using a single start to cut a variety of nested components.

“We produce a lot of plate,” says Zimmerman. “The first year we processed a million pounds of steel on the machine and saved 25 cents a pound including consumables, air and gases and the labor costs to run it. The machine imports from a 3D model and automatically nests different-size parts in the most efficient arrangement.”

Part quality is repeatable despite the machine’s grueling 20-hour-a-day, 5-day work week. “Because the plate processor is importing part data, bolt patterns of 9 or 12 holes are perfect,” Zimmerman says. “Our erection guys have commented on the improvement. The consistency of the hole patterns makes field fit-up flawless.”

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Because the plate processor is able to import part data, bolt patterns are replicated perfectly.

Patented roller handling technology pulls plate into the processor’s operating area, eliminating the need to maintain a rigid scrap skeleton. “The plate processor’s scrap ratio is a little less than half of what you would see on a conventional burntable with a drilling option,” Woods says. “You are also getting twice the capacity at half the labor costs when compared to a burntable.”

Zimmerman agrees, “We’re considered a medium-size fabricator, but the amount of steel we process is comparable to that of companies much larger than us. The plate processor helps us achieve those production levels.”

“I compare Cooper Steel to companies twice their size in terms of the amount of volume they produce,” says Woods.

The machine’s small footprint helps Cooper Steel conserve valuable floorspace. Peddinghaus’ roller feed design makes it easy to place material handling outdoors. Operators are able to feed plate to conveyors with forklifts, making crane operation unnecessary.

Looking ahead, Zimmerman sees continued growth for the company. “I think the industry is always changing,” he observes. “I see the use of automation expanding and I can see robots being added to our shop someday to perform cutting and welding. We have also talked about buying a second Peddinghaus plate processor down the road.”

A fourth-generation company, Peddinghaus knows the secret to retaining good employees and cultivating strong customer relationships. “We look at our customer as a partner not as a customer,” says Woods. “That mindset carries over to all our machines. If a machine isn’t functioning 100 percent, than they [customers] aren’t realizing the value of what they bought.” FFJ

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