Plasma Technology

Convenient coping

By Caitlin Tucker

Above: Automating beam coping cuts hours of production time down to minutes, and reduces the chance of error.

A plasma machine saves time and labor for structural fabricators

July/August 2013 - As part of World War II rationing, the U.S. banned sliced bread, causing nation-wide outrage. In a 1943 New York Times letter to the editor, Sarah Forrester, a mother of four, wrote: “Without ready-sliced bread I must do the slicing for toast—two pieces for each one—that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least 20 slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!”

Any fabricator can relate to the war-era mother’s desire for technology that eliminates inconvenient, time-consuming tasks from the daily routine. Although it may be an exaggeration to call Controlled Automation’s combination coping machine the greatest thing since sliced bread, for Herrick Steel, Stockton, Calif., it’s pretty close. 

The structural steel fabricator and erector mostly copes steel members and columns with the machine, but also uses it for cutting holes, and  end and weld preparation. The Revolution Coper, from Controlled Automation, Bryant, Ark., is ideal for structural shapes, I-beams, channel and some plate. The material cutting window is 48 in. by 24 in., with a maximum plasma thickness of 2 in. and a maximum oxy-fuel thickness of 6 in. A fully automatic tool changer with software determines whether plasma or oxy-fuel is the best application for the material. The plasma is about five times faster than the oxy-fuel.

“If you go beyond the thickness capacity of that plasma, you can switch to the oxy-fuel, which has a smaller diameter tool to get into tighter corners,” says Travis Rogers, senior software engineer for Controlled Automation. “But it’s really built for structural fabricators.”

Saving time

Most fabricators purchase the Revolution Coper for coping. “It really does take the place of a lot of hard-to-find skilled labor,” says Kris Sikes, vice president sales and marketing. “Even with skilled labor it takes a long time to actually cope a beam.”  

For one customer, the machine reduced beam coping time from two or three hours to two minutes. “A different customer has one machine where they’re feeding their whole shop; it does everything for them,” says Sikes. “They had a big area in their shop of just people coping and they got rid of it by putting in the coper.” The workers who had been doing the coping could then do welding instead.


The system is capable of more than beam hole placement and coping. In layout, the machine marks future welds, eliminating the need for fitters and welders to pull a tape when welding on the beam and making connection pieces. “The guy just walks up to the beam and starts welding,” says Sikes. “He doesn’t have to look at a drawing, pull the tape and figure out all that information. It speeds up a lot of different processes downstream.”

Before purchasing the coping machine, Herrick used another manufacturer’s beam line in conjunction with hand torches. The coper has eliminated many steps from the process. “Previously we would have a guy go over and lay out any copes that needed to be coped, or bevels that needed to be put on. Then you would have a burner follow behind him and cut it with a hand torch,” says Larry Riley, beam line foreman for Herrick. “When it goes through this machine, it’s in the program, so it does it all in one shot.” 

Automatically versatile

Automation is typically associated with the mantra do more with less effort, but when a machine replaces staff, safety also improves. “If it breaks the plane the machine will shut down. If one of the guards is pulled open, the machine won’t run. In general it’s safer than doing it manually,” says Riley. “You can’t tell the difference in size and weight when a beam is running through the machine, but for a guy to hand burn or drop a rather large piece of iron, you always run the risk of injury. So if you’re able to do that with the machine and get it out of the way safely, it’s a lot better.”

The Revolution Coper self-calibrates without touching the material, unlike other robotic systems that must touch off to locate the beam in space. “Our machine has a laser scanner that scans the member and immediately starts cutting,” says Sikes. A laser scan also finds camber and sweep in a beam and relocates holes accordingly. “By scanning that beam we’re a lot faster and a lot more accurate.”

Controlled Automation specializes in software, manufacturing and machine design specifically for automated structural steel drilling, punching and shape cutting machinery. “Really this machine is designed differently than any other machine out there,” says Sikes. “Most thermal processing machines are using a generic robotic arm.” 

Using a robotic arm to process beams requires manufacturers to tie into the robot control system, which typically is not suited for structural fabricating. “Unlike just buying a robot that has a lot of movement and axes of motion to actually cope something, we can move a lot faster and cope a lot more accurately with this machine because it’s designed for structural shapes,” says Sikes.


Software savvy

Controlled Automation’s software eases workflow transition because of its compatibility with detailing software like Tekla, Design Data’s SDS/2 and AceCad. “We go directly from the modeling software right into our machinery and we show it all in 3-D and generate all the connections of all the material in our software,” says Rogers. 

Pesky file conversions can create a major time burden for fabricators. “The software works rather well. Especially when they’re combining it with some of the stuff we get from detailers, one software will back check another software,” says Riley. “It’s easy to learn and is constantly being developed. If we have ideas [Controlled Automation] takes them into account and they’ll install or reprogram, and help us with anything we think might make it easier or faster for us.”

From the ground up

Controlled Automation builds its machines in the U.S. and most, if not all, of its parts are American-made. “There’s really no third party,” says Rogers. “If you bought a robotic arm you’d have to use their controller, and sometimes their software, to control the arm. We write all of our own controls so even the motion of everything is out of a Windows PC.”  

If an issue arises with the computer, the fabricator can send the PC to any computer repair store. “The plasma torch comes from Hypertherm, that’s probably the only outside system we have to get help with,” he adds. 

Eliminating middlemen also reduces the cost of the machine. “By building it all ourselves, we can tie in to our own controller and software, which saves a lot of [money] and headaches too,” says Sikes. All machines are sold turnkey, at the same cost, and include software training and installation. “We install the machine, do all the training and we don’t leave until the customer is satisfied and they can operate the machine,” he says.

FFJ-0708-plasma-image3Training is fairly easy if workers possess basic computer skills, and setup is quick. “I’ve never had a problem getting hold of anyone at Controlled Automation and I’ve never been down for an extensive period of time,” says Riley. “It seems like pretty much anytime that we need them, somebody will be there to help us out.”

Like sliced bread

Beyond customer service, Riley says he is happy with the machine’s accuracy. Herrick has integrated three Controlled Automation machines: a marker, drill and coper. “We use three separate machines but you can dial and tune them individually to where they all are within 1⁄64 of each other in accuracy,” he says. “And in our industry that’s pretty good; that’s well within our tolerance.”

Many customers fail to realize the potential of plasma cutting. One of Controlled Automation’s customers no longer uses its beam punch line because the coper is so efficient. “The diversity of what the machine is capable of, it really is a big advantage over just having a single machine that does a specific thing like just put the holes in the material,” says Sikes. 

Plasma cutting is a growing technology and increasing numbers of fabricators are learning to appreciate its value. Herrick uses both the plasma and the oxy-fuel that come standard with the Revolution Coper. “When we switch to the oxy-fuel I find myself sitting there staring at it like it’s not moving,” says Riley, commenting on its slower speed. “With the plasma, it’s night and day, there’s no comparison. Efficiency-wise you can’t compete with it. The plasma’s going to do three to four times as much as oxy-fuel can do, and you get a better end result.” FFJ

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