To the rescue

By Emily Vasquez

Above: Life Line produces about 250 new and refurbished ambulances per year for fire departments, rescue teams and medical centers nationally.

Ambulance builder upgrades deburring technology, improving production time and safety standards

July/August 2015 - Ambulances move in a blur, sirens screaming and lights flashing as they dart hastily through suspended traffic, anxious to reach their destination. Whether a life-saving journey or simply retrieving what is left behind when tragedy occurs, ambulances are a quick but conspicuous necessity. 

Life Line Emergency Vehicles has manufactured ambulances for rescue teams around the country for 30 years. Padded in extruded rectangular aluminum framing, Life Line ambulances are designed to resist impact and maximize passenger safety, promising a smooth ride for its occupants. 

Safety being a fundamental objective in manufacturing its vehicles, Life Line crafts many of its parts by hand. Until last year, Life Line used hand tools to deburr its heavy aluminum doors, spending hours to finish parts for each vehicle. Seeking a solution to enhance its production capabilities, Life Line turned to Apex Machine Group to upgrade its manual methods. 

FFJ 0715 deburr image1

Life Line’s history extends to the dawn of the 20th century. It was once Luverne Co., which under Al and Ed Leicher built cars from 1904 to 1917. Descendents Jim and Terry Leicher followed family tradition and opened the Sumner, Iowa-based Life Line in 1985.

Life Line produces about 250 new and refurbished ambulances per year for fire departments, rescue teams and medical centers nationally. “We have ambulance customers who send us their current product and have us remove the body and put a new chassis underneath it. Some of them will actually do some custom interior design of compartments, too,” says Randy Smith, production process engineer. The company employs 170 people.

Perfect match

Construction of a Life Line ambulance comprises four steps: metal fabrication, cabinet assembly, paint finish and final assembly. First, the shop receives unfinished extruded aluminum doors so employees must manually refine unfinished edges with a handheld sander. This can take up to three hours to complete depending on the size of the door, says Smith. Doors can range from 12 to 36 sq. in. wide by 7 ft. long and weigh 10 to 50 lbs.

Dissatisfied with the time-consuming process and seeking a safer environment for employees, Smith sought to upgrade this method. “There was a lot of hand sanding involved in the process as far as prepping the surface so that was the reason we were trying to minimize or shorten the production time of our vehicles,” says Smith. 

FFJ 0715 deburr image2

Smith began to search for a superior alternative, which required convincing the “people holding the checkbook,” a bemused Smith says. Company leaders needed to know the benefits would outweigh the cost. “We wanted to make sure that we got a quality piece of equipment that could hopefully be maintenance-free. We didn’t want to walk into it and buy a piece of equipment that we were going to have a lot of problems with,” says Smith. 

The search brought him to Fabtech in 2012 to view deburring machinery. Among the exhibitors was Apex Machine Group (formerly SlipCon Finishing Systems), a Minneapolis-based producer of abrasive sanding machines and supplies for processing metal, wood, composites and plastics. Apex exhibited its 2DD series metal deburring and edge-finishing machine. Having met Apex President John Becker prior to Fabtech, Smith was familiar with Apex’s equipment but the machine on display was not what Smith originally envisioned.

“It was a piece we spotted and had seen benefits from, but it’s expensive equipment so it took us a while to justify the expense,” says Smith. “We weren’t quite at the [optimal] production capacity when we first ran across the equipment either.”

FFJ 0715 deburr image3

Adding value

Apex installed the 2DD deburring machine at Life Line last year. The 74-in.-wide deburring machine preps the aluminum door’s surface for an optimum paint finish made to last the life of the ambulance. “We actually weren’t looking for a machine this big but it so happened that Apex had the machine in production and we were able to negotiate. I’m glad we went with a larger machine. We were looking at a machine that would just handle our largest door but this one gives us a little more flexibility,” says Smith. 

The 2DD machine is used for edge radius, deburring, laser oxide removal and surface scuffing for coating adhesion and comes in standard widths of 40 in., 52 in., 64 in., 76 in. and 100 in. The sanding discs can be integrated into a machine with traditional belt heads and ScotchBrite heads for a variety of applications.

Able to handle 1 mm- to 100 mm-thick workpieces, the 2DD has expanded Life Line’s production capabilities beyond what was originally expected. Feeding the vehicle doors through the sanding table reduced the amount of manual labor required, improved ergonomics [for the workers] and also sped up the process. “We’ve been able to cut some of our prep time down, eliminating about two hours for each vehicle, which is about 1 percent of the total paint process time,” says Smith. The 2DD finishes doors in as few as 20 minutes, he notes.

FFJ 0715 deburr image4

The workpiece first passes under rotating discs that oscillate left to right, making 100 percent uniform parts. The 2DD includes a PLC control screen, blowing device with a cleaning brush and an enclosed sander for dust control. The sander is adjustable for disc height, rotation, RPM, oscillation, conveyor speed and can have multiple grits installed. 

“[The operator] still has to do some light hand sanding around the interior edge but it doesn’t require flipping the doors back and forth to do both sides,” adds Smith. This reduction in material handling lessens the potential for injuries. “You’re taking out that risk of injury from repetitive motions such as operating the hand sanding equipment,” says Smith. Typically, manual hand tools increase chances of lacerations, repetitive stress and carpal tunnel syndrome.

In the year since installation, the 2DD has provided cost savings, which has been a net positive for the bottom line. The machine has been virtually maintenance-free, with only minor wear issues, according to Smith. 

As the market for ambulances strengthens, Life Line is constantly looking for additional ways to use the deburring machine. “It kind of surprises me every day when we say, ‘Hey, yeah, we can use this piece of equipment to do this.’ It’s that constant thought process, ‘How can we keep that machine running and continue to add value?’” FFJ



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