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Plasma Technology

Going low and slow

By Tom Klemens

Plasma cutter helps fabricator customize cars with attention to detail and individual taste

April 2013 - Personalized automobiles are a central part of lowrider culture, with its roots in the 1930s Mexican American experience of the American Southwest. In the post-war prosperity of the 1950s, the rising supply of used cars made them more affordable for younger people who at the same time were searching for ways to assert their identity. In addition to meticulously detailed painting and upholstery, these young people also wanted vehicles with an aesthetic different from the hot rods and sports cars popular among other groups. The result was the lowrider, and cruising was born.

The original lowrider look came from loading cars with sandbags and cutting down suspension components. Then in 1956 Ron Aguirre, just recently out of high school, equipped a new convertible with a hydraulic system—surplus parts from World War II fighter planes—that allowed the car to go low and slow, for cruising, but rise to a street-legal configuration at the flip of a switch.

Over the years, such systems have been refined and extended to provide a variety of chassis movements, sometimes making one or more wheels hop off the pavement. The ensuing hydraulic systems have been used to do even more amazing things.

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Ontario, Calif.-based Hoppos Custom Suspension Works has been serving the lowrider market for more than 20 years. Working in a 9,000-sq.-ft. facility that includes a fully equipped machine shop, an experienced staff specializes in turning customers’ dreams into reality. 

“Whatever the customer’s feeling, whatever he envisions in a car, we help him modify that,” says Art Tuason, founder and owner of Hoppos. “It could be fabbing the brackets, making the whole chassis, whatever it takes,” he says.

The company deals strictly in the custom car market with a fairly even mix of structural and cosmetic work, most of it on older cars. Some of the most popular are the Chevrolet Impalas of the 1950s. They were the first to use an X-frame chassis, which is well-suited to suspension modification, and have a classic look that is much in demand. “We take them to beyond the point where they’re stock,” Tuason says. “We make them look fully boxed in, molded, dimple dyed, with cut patterns. And we go beyond the standard chassis. We upgrade it.”

In December 2012, Hoppos purchased its first CNC plasma cutting table, a DHC2 from PlasmaCam, Colorado City, Colo., and what a difference it has made. “Before we used to outsource,” Tuason says. “That meant downtime of a week or two. Then when we got the bracket or material back, if there was anything wrong or it didn’t fit, we’d have to wait again.” With a CNC plasma cutter right in the shop, there’s no waiting.

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“We used to have to buy flat bar material to make a bracket, or run down the street to the local tap guy and buy a bracket,” Tuason says. “We’re actually making all that stuff now, and some of those guys are having us cut parts.” He says for now only he and his son, Alex, operate the plasma cutter, even though it’s easy to use.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out,” Tuason says. “ It’s very practical. If you’re a car guy and you’re into building chassis and have a basic knowledge of teardown and fabrication, you could run that machine.”

Ease of use is one of the prime reasons Tuason chose the PlasmaCam product. He says he studied the available equipment for two years, both online and by visiting vendors at trade shows. After narrowing it down to three possibilities, a demonstration at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show was the deciding factor.

At the PlasmaCam booth, Tuason challenged company personnel to download a logo from his website and cut it. They quickly did, also cutting his name into the metal. “They did it right in front of me, and I was sold,” he said.

Tuason also says the unit is both economical and compact. The standard 4 ft. by 4 ft. setup is less than $10,000, with the tallest part—a gantry holding cables for the torch and the X- and Y-axis servo motors—only 90 in. tall. The standard cutting table can be expanded and a variety of upgrades are available.

“I chose the advanced software, and also upgraded to the advanced height control,” Tuason says, noting that he went with almost all of the optional upgrades but didn’t get the pipe cutter.

Using the CNC plasma cutterffj-0413-plasma-image3

Hoppos has cut up to 1⁄4-in.-thick steel on the DHC2, but mostly works with 1⁄8-in. and 3⁄16-in. material. “We make all the custom chassis brackets, suspension components, control arms—anything that’s factory-made now,” Tuason says. “We custom make them for the customer to have that different and creative custom look. We’re not reinventing the wheel— we’re modifying it.”

The plasma cutter not only allows Hoppos to make parts in-house, it also saves time and material. “I can do a test sample on thin gauge material and test the fit and be sure that it works,” Tuason says. “Then I make any modifications or changes to the thin piece and check it again before I cut the thicker material so I don’t waste a sheet. It makes it so practical.”

A lot of what goes into a Hoppos customization includes logos of various sizes. PlasmaCam’s digital input capabilities make that easy, too. “We can use CAD and design something,” Tuason says. “But we also can use the software that comes with the plasma cutter.” Adding an inexpensive, off-the-shelf black-and-white scanner to the PC connected to the plasma cutter simplifies working with more complicated images. For one recent project, he scanned in a logo “then we took that and made brackets with that logo in it.”

PlasmaCam’s proprietary software, DesignEdge, both runs the plasma cutter and provides graphics design and editing capabilities. “Of course, a person who knows CAD can use the software,” says Josh Wikberg, a sales representative with PlasmaCam. “But it’s great for a person like me who’s more into just drawing things. If you can use a simple drawing program, you can use this machine.”

The upgraded version allows users to import graphics files, including those in JPEG format. “It automatically turns it into vectors and you can have it cut that picture,” says Wikberg. “The beautiful thing is you do not need to know G-code, which is what CAD users use to program all the vectors and make a picture. If you can draw, if you can imagine, you can use the table.”

“The plasma cutter makes everything that we need for suspension parts,” Tuason says. “It’s a very clean and simple machine to use. For the fabrication stuff, I don’t know how I got by without it.” FFJ

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