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SigmaTEK's tool path generation software unleashes machinery builder Electro-Mechanical Integrators's full potential

By Gretchen Salois

November 2018 - When using computer software, the user inputs information and expects an immediate, accurate result. Part makers often work in what they believe is 3D—but it should be noted that true 3D is not a given. It is common for many steel fabrication software packages to display 3D parts on screen—such as DSTV’s or an .nc1 file—that are actually showing 2D information on each plane of a part. True 3D tool path generation is far different from the classic front, side and top view of an object.

“At first, we built our software and fabrication equipment to work in a true 3D world, not realizing how rare it actually was,” recalls Todd Ferrence, president at Electro-Mechanical Integrators Inc. (EMI), Green Lane, Pennsylvania. “We felt bewildered as we approached the steel fabrication industry, and everybody kept bringing us 2D data files wondering why we could not extrapolate the 3D tool paths that made our equipment so fast.”

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Previously, EMI used its own software to cut round geometries but found it could not nest and create tool paths for non-round parts. SigmaTUBE software automates the tube cutting process for various shapes and makes compensations in the geometry for welding the parts together.

Four entities came together to brainstorm and found the connection between sophisticated software and how it can help add value to machine technology.

EMI, alongside its distributors Gulf States Saw & Machine Co. Inc. in Hueytown, Alabama, and JPS International in Mission Viejo, California, and the software creator SigmaTEK, the worlds of manufacturing and fabrication intersect.

“It appeared incorporating this 3D software would be a game changer, but I was on the outside of the steel fab market looking in,” Ferrence says. “However, together, the team was able to bring it together and begin to change this piece of the industry.

“That’s when, with the help of Terry Reach and the guys at Gulf State Saw & Machine in Alabama,” he adds, “we realized it was necessary to offer SigmaTEK software with the machines we build.”

EMI has manufactured CNC tube cutting equipment since 1996. It also serves CNC chip makers, which prompted the company to rethink its software.

“What we have to come to terms with is that efficiency gains are required by the very limited labor market. This is profoundly different than the typical incremental reduction of labor hours to increase profit,” Ferrence says.

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Initially, EMI worked only on round pipe and tube “using software we brew ourselves. As customer demand increased, we realized an opportunity to work with square, rectangular, C-channel and angle iron,” among other shapes. However, EMI’s in-house software could not handle that.”

Ferrence came across SigmaTUBE software from SigmaTEK Systems LLC in Cincinnati. Rather then export a cut list from a 3D model and manually program a tube cutting machine, SigmaTUBE automates the process.

“Traditional tube cutting software doesn’t nest and create the tool path while making compensations in the geometry for welding the parts together,” explains Anthony Johnson, regional sales representative for Southeast SigmaTEK. “EMI came to us because the tube profiles they wanted to cut—rounds, square and rectangular, angles, and C- and U-shaped profiles—requires complicated calculus to get around those radii.”

Generating accurate tool paths as the plasma head burns and the chuck rotates and feeds the tube is key to making parts sit and fit right for weld prep. “To have a sophisticated tool path modification that automatically adjusts without user intervention is excellent,” says Ferrence. “We found SigmaTEK is alone in that field right now.”  

Customers in need of tube and pipe cutting can choose either EMI’s 2400 Series Tube Processing Center (TPC), which handles round and non-round tubing, or the 2100 Series TPC, its round tubing option.

“We realized that offering SigmaTUBE software for our 2400 Series machinery would allow sophisticated customers to see the cost-benefits of adding software for about $30,000 instead of [investing in a] more expensive machine,” Ferrence says.

Complete geometry

SigmaTEK doesn’t typically partner SigmaNEST, SigmaTUBE and SigmaBEND with machine builders because “that’s not how we go to market,” says Johnson. “We find end users will buy a million-dollar machine but don’t know how to get data into that machine quickly and accurately and are at a loss as to how to manage that data efficiently.”

SigmaTUBE software worked with the design of EMI’s 2400 Series TPC. “There are other solutions available in the marketplace—like 3D laser tube cutters that bevel—but those can cost $1 million or more,” Johnson continues. “Since the head on the EMI machine is fixed, reducing the machine’s cost, we needed to adjust the tool path so that when inner diameters of the cut tubes actually come together for welding, they create a nice weld gap that will mate properly. Normally, when the head is fixed, the inside diameter of the tube is too thick unless we make the compensation in the tool path of the part, based on the 3D model’s geometry, to match those inner diameters.”

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Operators can skip the miter saw and post-cutting grinding steps when manufacturing parts for handrail customers.

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Structural steel fabricators are EMI’s top customers, making handrails, angle clips, etc. Instead of using a miter saw, where the operator must reach up and physically engage the machine with one hand while holding the tube with the other using stops; or using the fabricator’s best hand-measured estimate; followed by a trip to the grinder to give enough room to put a weld bead on the mating parts; the operator can skip the grinding step.

SigmaTUBE’s 4th-axis compensation module allows users to cut faster than before, says Johnson. “They’re saving steps. Our customers are catching parts, laying them out and welding them up directly from the tube cutting machine,” he adds.

“Before, parts could be cut wrong or they would be frequently missing parts. If you’re sending them from a 3D model, there are no missing parts and no one has to type in this information manually—where errors often occur. We’re reading everything directly from the 3D model.”

Make it work

SigmaTEK uses SolidWorks’ modeling engine and tools to help import or create communication and design data and from many other 2D drawings and 3D models. “Instead of 2D, SigmaTUBE (a plugin for SolidWorks) shows you fabrication solutions rendered in true 3D,” Johnson says. “So instead of having the common conundrum between engineering and shop floor of ‘this can’t be made,’ we make it work.”

One of the keys to the software’s success is the ability to bring in a Tekla .stp file and direct it to the SigmaTUBE and, in four clicks, send it to the tube cutter. “That ease of use is where the value is,” Johnson says. “No one else is doing what we’re doing.”

Spending less time with software creates value, too. “Machine manufacturers make good machines,” says Johnson. “We’re good at getting the most out of those machines. When you purchase a Ferrari, you want to make the most of it and leaving it in first gear shortchanges that investment.” FFJ

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