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Plasma Technology

Got it covered

By Tom Klemens

Above: Curtis Welding & Fabrication Inc. specializes in new and replacement components, such as this digester cover, for wastewater treatment plants.

How an upgrade in plasma cutting equipment secured a fabricator’s niche and then some

November 2013 - In the small town of Atlantic, Iowa, 60 miles east of Omaha, Neb., Curtis Welding & Fabrication Inc. has carved out a niche market serving the wastewater treatment industry. Founded more than 20 years ago by owner Curt Renaud, the job shop specializes in fabricating large components for wastewater treatment plants. Although it also does general fabrication work, the waste treatment work has grown to account for 80 percent of the company’s business.

“A lot of what we make are replacement mechanisms, like replacement digester covers,” says Renaud. “They’re the big dome covers you see in the sewage treatment plants.” Most of the material involved is mild steel, although projects often have aluminum components as well. The company also fabricates stainless steel as needed. Although wastewater FFJ-1113-plasma-image1projects may call for similar parts, Renaud says no two are exactly the same. The dimensions are inevitably different. “What we build is all brand new, but it has to fit in whatever they built 25 or 30 years ago.”

In 2007 the company purchased what Renaud describes as an entry level plasma cutting machine with a 5 ft. by 10 ft. table. “When I bought that first one, which was about $50,000, I was hesitant to spend that much money,” he says. But with all the plate cutting the company does, he knew it was a good move. 

“I was getting parts cut elsewhere at the time, so we were accustomed to having the parts but not doing them in-house,” Renaud says. It didn’t take long before the new plasma cutter was in near-constant use.

Over time, however, wear and tear took a heavy toll on the machine. “It was not designed for what we were doing with it and we basically wore it out,” Renaud says. On a visit to Fabtech in 2011, a Hypertherm plasma cutting system on a cutting table manufactured by Advanced Kiffer Systems, Cleveland, caught his attention. “I was drawn to the AKS table first, just because of the quality of the table and its rigidity,” Renaud says. “It’s an awesome piece of equipment. And then you marry it together with Hypertherm’s components and you get phenomenal cut quality.” Having already investigated numerous other plasma tables—“and trust me, I looked at them all,” he says—Renaud was sold. In March 2012 AKS delivered an accu-kut CNC plasma cutter with an HPR260XD torch system and an 8.5 ft. by 25 ft. table to Curtis Welding & Fabrication.

Putting it on the table

AKS is a subsidiary of Kiffer Industries, a 95-year-old family-owned machine tool specialty product company based in Cleveland. It’s no surprise, then, that the company considers its accu-kut plasma cutter as more than a table. “It’s a machine tool for the plasma cutting process,” says Walt DeBiasi, regional sales manager with AKS.

“We begin with 3⁄8-in.-wall tube, fully weld the entire unitized frame system, then send that frame to a machining center, which machines the side plate for us,” DeBiasi says. When the frame comes back from machining, it has all the hole patterns precisely built into the equipment. “So when we apply our rack and rail to that system, it’s a tight-tolerance machine,” he says.

AKS fully integrates Hypertherm componentry into its plasma cutting machines. This includes Hypertherm’s controller, lifter, torch system, height control and nesting software. It’s the AKS robo-kut bevel head that holds a Hypertherm torch and provides the motion control for bevel cutting. According to DeBiasi, the robo-kut head is especially helpful in cutting smaller holes and thicker plate.

CURTISWhile the bevel head provides precise motion control, Hypertherm’s True Bevel technology takes the guesswork out of compensation adjustments to the angle and kerf. These adjustments are required because the behavior of the plasma arc changes as the head is tilted. Using tables of compensation values developed by Hypertherm based on iterative trials on mild steel of various thicknesses, operators can input material and bevel properties to produce better first attempts that require minimal adjustments.

Racheting up production

“When I got into this new plasma cutter, I knew what potential was there,” Renaud says. “We ended up getting the bevel head, which was a fairly expensive option, but we use it a lot. It’s such a time saver on the fab floor, that was a no-brainer.”

Curtis Welding’s whole operation has undergone changes since the arrival of the newer plasma cutter, according to Renaud. For example, the company used to buy angle iron when needed, but now forms its own. “We cut the material, process it in the burn table, then bend it in the brake,” he says. 

The company reportedly uses its plasma cutter on a little bit of everything, but making bevel cuts is where its worth is regularly appreciated. “Everything we do in these clarifier mechanisms and digesters is just a tremendous amount of plate with holes and bends,” Renaud says. “The big digester covers—they’re all 1⁄4-in. plate. Depending on the job, we might get in 20 to 100 tons of 1⁄4-in. plate and some of them are so big you have to splice everything. There might be 40 8 ft. by 20 ft. sheets that need spliced somewhere along the line.”FFJ-1113-plasma-image2

Previously, with the small table, the company did a lot of splicing because the sheet sizes were much smaller. With the larger sheet sizes, much of that need for splicing has been eliminated. “But what we do still splice comes off prebeveled, and the guys in the shop just love it,” Renaud says. “Zero prep.”

In addition to being easy to set up and yielding a high-quality, dross-free cut surface, the robo-kut head with the Hypertherm torch is fast. Consider one of the splices joining two 8-ft. plates. “By the time you hand beveled it, cleaned it up, welded it, fit it, you might have an hour and a half in it,” Renaud says. “Now we get the exact same weld splice in 10 minutes.”

Bringing in work

In prior years, Curtis Welding didn’t have the capacity to do custom cutting for others. However, having the accu-kut cutting machine has definitely changed that. “With its cutting speed and efficiency, we can cut the same part that used to take five minutes in two minutes,” Renaud says. “With that efficiency and the part quality, we’re now bringing quite a bit of custom cutting in-house that we didn’t before. And some are pretty good sized jobs.”

Another accu-kut feature Curtis Welding is taking advantage of is the ability to program the machine for etching. Unlike Renaud’s old machine, which required changing consumables and machine settings to switch from cutting to etching and back, the switch on the accu-kut is all done through programming.

“We do a lot of cones and we used to lay it all out by hand,” Renaud says. “Especially when you’re doing multiple ones, even the best fitter can mismark something one time. Etching the bend lines takes all the error out of the process.” 

Etching also helps with regard to welding. “If a pipe or something else gets welded, the programmer just etches a circle there,” Renaud says. “There’s no measuring. After that etching, it either goes to the brake—there’s no measuring, they just bend it—or it goes to the shop floor, where they just stick the part on the lines and weld it. It’s phenomenal and very cost-effective.” But wait—there’s more. “Part numbers. Sometimes you’ve got a right and a left, so we’ll put an arrow on there. Bend down, or bend up, or opposite side, or whatever.” The etching and marking possibilities are limitless, and then the machine can go right back to cutting.

Although Curtis Welding’s accu-kut has been on the job less than two years, there is little question of its having fit right in. “I actually spent more than I had anticipated,” Renaud says, “but I have zero regrets whatsoever. It’s a phenomenal piece of equipment.” FFJ

 

Sources

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ATI Industrial Automation LVD Strippit Hougen Manufacturing

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Lissmac Corp. Scotchman Industries Inc.

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Barton International
Osborn Trilogy Machinery Inc. Behringer Saws Inc. Jet Edge Waterjet Systems
SuperMax Tools

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Cosen Saws Omax Corp.
Timesavers FAGOR Arrasate USA Inc. DoALL Sawing

WELDING

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MetalForming Inc. HE&M Saw American Weldquip
Beckwood Press Co.

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Triform Titan Tool Supply Inc.

 

T. J. Snow Company

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