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Plasma Technology

A Yeti is born

By Russ Olexa

With its throaty diesel engine reverberating eerie noises through the foothills of the Rockies, this vehicle could be the king of the snow plows. It's name is Yeti.

This cross between a pickup truck and a farm tractor is more than just a work vehicle; it's proof of how a new plasma cutting system developed by Samson CNC can rapidly cut parts while keeping production costs down.

The idea came from Jason Bulle, owner of Samson CNC. He wanted to produce all the parts needed to reconstruct a 1997 Dodge diesel pickup truck that could move the massive amount of snow that often falls in Rye, Colo. The company's new plasma system would help. It has a 5-ft.-by-10-ft. bed and can cut ferrous or nonferrous materials up to 1.25 in. thick.

Rex Bailey, a local fabricator, was asked to build the Yeti concept vehicle. He says, "Bulle came to me with this idea of a truck that would go through snow rather than over it and asked me if it was possible. He wanted to be able to drive through 3 ft. of snow. I said anything's possible. So I went over the concept and said, 'Let's do it.' "

Bulle had an interesting idea for managing large snow piles. He suggested using 74-in.-tall tractor tires designed for agricultural sprayers. But with the increased tire size, which is almost more than twice the height of a standard tire, there was the problem of overloading the transmission and drive train with too much torque. To solve this problem, Bailey bought the front and rear axles from a Mercedes Benz Unimog all-wheel-drive truck, which had built-in gear reducers at each wheel and offered true four-wheel drive using air clutches on each axle to drive both wheels.

However, using the Unimog axles meant that the front wheels had no suspension. And with 74-in.-tall wheels, it would be difficult to use front steering without removing most of the front end parts, which would still only allow a narrow turning radius. So Bulle and Bailey decided to go with a rear-wheel steering system. They swapped the axles around and then designed a completely new steering system for the rear. Bailey says, "It worked out fantastically."

They still had to do a great deal of fabrication work on the vehicle's front end to relocate the battery and steering components, add mounting brackets for the front axle and install a hydraulic steering system without any mechanical links. Bailey also had to fabricate inner and outer fenders from 16-gauge mild steel to take the place of the stock fenders they removed.

Bailey says, "The steering is fully hydraulic, and I chose a non-reactive steering system. If there is pressure put on the wheels it doesn't telegraph back to the steering wheel. So that's how we keep the wheel stable at higher speeds (the Yeti has been clocked at 50 mph so far). The stock vehicle uses a reactor-type steering, so if you hit a pothole or whatever, you can feel it in the steering wheel, and it can actually turn the wheel. With our non-reactive hydraulic steering, the wheel stays put."

Using tractor wheels allows the Yeti to easily plow through large snow mounds, but these wheels proved to be a challenge to mount to the vehicle's axles. Bulle designed a hub from a 1/4-in.-thick, 18-in.-diameter pipe and welded on a 5/8-in.-thick center plate with eight holes. The spokes were mounted on a 5/8-in.-thick ring around the outside of the hub on the front and back. The hub was then attached to a 5/8-in.-thick end-mounting plate with eight studs. Mild steel was the material of choice for the fabricated parts. Large disk brakes on each axle provide extra stopping power, which was critical with the high amount of torque generated by the wheels.

Unique plasma-cut parts
Wheel spokes were designed to attach to the center hub and mount to the tire rim. They allowed some positioning movement and had to be precisely mounted to make sure the hub was properly centered. Bailey used a dial indicator to make sure the hub was centered, and it eventually had a +/-0.010-in. runout, better than most truck rims, he says.

Bailey remarks, "I had to make sure each one of the spokes was the same distance all the way around. It was fairly simple to do; I laid the wheel down and measured the distance between the bottom of the rim all the way around, as well as the flat hub surface. As I bolted these up, I made sure they were all in the right spot. It worked out great."

Every part was cut on the new Samson CNC plasma system, which uses a Hypertherm high-definition plasma torch. But Dennis Cordova, marketing manager, says that the Samson CNC system doesn't come with a torch or CNC computer. Owners can supply whatever they need for either standard or precision plasma cutting. The system, however, does come with the required operating and nesting software.

The Yeti uses a totally fabricated suspension that allows 18 in. of axel travel. A 3/16-in.-thick main boxed frame made from an 8-in.-sq. tube replaces the pickup truck frame. The rear axle is attached to a 3-in.-sq. mild-steel tube framework with a hydraulic system that steers the rear wheels and allows the axle to pivot. Mounted to and over the frame box is a fuel cell. Eventually the Yeti will have a formed sheet-metal front bumper. Most of the now-unprotected area will be covered by a plow. Cordova says there aren't any plans to sell the vehicle or produce others, but that it was something the company needed and it was a great way to prove the capabilities of its new Samson CNC plasma system.

Samson CNC
Running the Samson CNC is simple. It uses a CAD/CAM and drawing software that is proprietary, says Cordova. He mentions, "Let's say you have a sketch of something you'd like to cut on the plasma system. You could literally design something on a napkin, scan it in and cut it. It will also take any DXF file from software such as Illustrator and allow you to cut the design with few, if any, modifications. You can also resize parts up or down. It comes with simple but powerful part placement capabilities, too. Within seconds you can take one part, multiply it and place them all on a sheet and see how they'll fit together for cutting."

The Samson CNC will cut any ferrous or nonferrous material such as aluminum, brass, corrugated steel and stainless steel. With its 2-in. Z-axis height (depending on the torch), it will follow the contours of the metal using its digital height control that measures the voltage between the tip of the torch and the material to keep a proper distance over the material.

Cordova adds, "Even if you have a warped sheet, as long as it's within that capacity of the Z-axis height, it will walk up and down while producing a proper cut. "

The Samson CNC uses geared servo motors that move along a rack for positioning within +/-0.005 in. However, cut tolerance is dependent on the torch used. At about $15,000 it's an inexpensive way for a fabricator to offer plasma cutting services. If the laser or waterjet is tied up, it can fill the gap to get parts out more quickly. FFJ

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