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Welding

Stress-testing automation

By Tom Klemens

Above: In Unique Fabrications’ shop, a 650 amp welder and wire feeder travel back and forth with the KAT auto-weld travel carriage on a 10-ft. track.

Using a variety of custom jigs, fabricator keeps welding carriage on the move full time

November 2013 - It’s an understatement when Chuck Schwab says he is using his automatic welding carriage in an out-of-the-ordinary way. Rather than the portable, intermittent applications that are standard fare for this type of equipment, Schwab has instead made it an integral part of his manufacturing process for hardening snowplow parts. And at this time of year, that means it’s running around the clock.

Schwab is the owner of Unique Fabrications Inc., Shippenville, Pa., a complete metal fabrication shop he and a partner established in 2006. 

“I had been in manufactured housing for 18 years, at the upper end of management, and things were great,” Schwab says. But not long before the housing bubble burst in 2008, a public corporation purchased the company and six months later Schwab found himself on the outside. The local economic picture was bleak, but Schwab decided rather than move his family to where he might find employment, he would take a shot at creating work on his home turf by opening Unique Fabrications. 

The shop’s first four years were enough of a struggle to make his partner bail. Schwab bought him out and took ownership of the company in 2010. Today Unique Fabrications is a thriving shop in growth mode.

Much of the company’s work is custom fabrication, which includes truck body and construction equipment repairs, especially buckets. It also does truck conversions for the oversized load industry and manufactures custom-designed utility trailers, which it promotes through the website www.loadntote.com.

FFJ-1113-welding-image1

Additionally, Unique Fabrications produces many steel frame components for the four manufactured housing plants located within 15 miles of its facility.

A diverse mix of shop activity is what Schwab credits for much of the company’s vitality. “We’ve picked up different product lines and started into different avenues that have kept us busy,” he says. “But you continually have to be looking for other product lines.”

In 2011, Schwab moved into a new facility and began manufacturing a line of private label wear parts for snow plows. A warmer than usual season that year led to slower than expected sales, but it also allowed for an orderly ramping up of production.

Making the product

Unique Fabrications’ line of snow plow wear parts is used predominantly by state and local departments of transportation in the north. It includes shoes, nose pieces and other guards. Production includes cutting mild steel to standard sizes and shapes, followed by the application of hard surfacing material by multiple welding passes. Schwab knew he could cut the cost per part by automating the hardfacing portion of the operation, but needed to balance the necessary investment with production volume.

That’s when Jeff Zook, territory manager for Newmarket, Ontario-based Gullco International, got a call from Gullco’s local distributor. “They called and said they had an application for doing overlay work,” Zook says. He initially demonstrated the company’s KAT indexer carriage at the Unique Fabrications shop, but Schwab ended up buying two KAT auto-weld carriages. “The difference is that when the KAT indexer runs into a limit switch, it automatically indexes over, using a motorized rack arm perpendicular to the track. The auto-weld is similar, but just travels back and forth linearly across the track.”

“We were trying to use off-the-shelf components, versus buying or custom building things that were cumbersome at best,” Schwab says. He had investigated systems offered by other companies as well as robotic solutions, but decided Gullco’s component-based system was the best fit. “It was an off-the-shelf drive system and worked into the configuration of what we were trying to do,” he says.

The Gullco modular drive system, which is similar to a train on a track, works with all types of welding and cutting systems using a variety of components. “The basic KAT carriage automates the motion of the arc or torch whether you’re welding or cutting with oxyacetylene or plasma, TIG or MIG,” says Nick Drake, Gullco’s director of marketing. “It integrates it with the carriage, so you can use your existing welding equipment but add automation.”

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Gullco’s KAT automation carriage also enables a welding wire feeder to be integrated with the carriage control. “So when you hit run, it sends a signal to the wire feeder to engage the arc with the power source and you get this set-it-and-forget-it aspect of automated welding,” Drake says. 

Equipped with limit switches and indexing arms, Gullco’s automation carriages can be programmed to automatically index at the end of one pass and continue to weld in the other direction without breaking the arc. “When you have starts and stops, you get defects,” Drake says, “and that’s where production bottlenecks occur, because you have to grind out the weld and clean it up so you can then start welding again.” Even so, the system is not a robot, Drake says. An operator still must pay attention to the arc, but the microprocessor-driven rack and pinion drive system can increase arc-on time exponentially while providing fast, uniform material deposition.

“Our automation is made for in the field,” Drake says. “You’re able to take the automation to the workpiece, versus something like a robot or a plasma or laser cutting table where you have to bring the material to the automation.” Traditional uses include shipbuilding and tank welding, bridge construction and general large-scale infrastructure projects, he says. And that’s where Schwab’s application is very different.

The auto-weld carriage runs on a 10-ft. straight track set up in Unique Fabrications’ shop. Parts are put on a fixture that is then brought to that spot for hardfacing.

“We made our fixturing to run multiple parts in a row. With different jig configurations we can put in more or fewer parts,” Schwab says.

The fixturing is all steel. When it is brought to the Gullco assembly, “we attach the grounds to the fixture, then flip the switches and go to town,” Schwab says. “We’ve got an attendant there all the time. Part of that is because of the wire that we use. It is a hard-surface wire and tends to have a whip to it. It may run perfectly straight, then the next thing you know, the arc’s trying to take off to one side or the other.”

Schwab says it doesn’t take long to go from one end of the pass to the other. “We’ve played with it enough that we’ve got it super tuned,” he says, “higher and faster than what the factory reps told us we could do. They said, ‘Here’s your guidelines, and I’m sure you’ll take it from there.’ I’ve got a couple guys who are real good at fabricating. They worked with it and we’ve really got it tuned.”

Thanks to efforts like that, the company has grown about 125 percent in two years. “We are pushing, and pushing hard,” Schwab says. “I had four employees when I moved in 2011, and I have 21 employees now.” With winter coming on and snowplow parts production in full gear, it sounds a lot like an automation success story. FFJ

Sources

  • Gullco International Ltd. 
    Newmarket, Ontario
    phone: 905/953-4140
    www.gullco.com
  • Unique Fabrications Inc. 
    Shippenville, Pa.
    phone: 814/226-5926
    www.unqfab.com


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