Tube & Pipe

Sky-high efficiency

By John Loos

March 2010 - People want the same things out of a plane as they do a tube cutting machine: consistent performance, no delays and a smooth trip.

If you’re an in-demand company like aircraft manufacturer Air Tractor, Olney, Texas, this correlation is something you understand all too well. Precise parts have to be accompanied with efficient time management.

Air Tractor produces eight type-certified agricultural planes designed for seeding, fertilizing, firefighting or pesticide spraying.

The company got its start in 1951, when Leland Snow produced the initial Snow S-1 aircraft. The first Air Tractor plane was produced in 1972, and today, nearly 2,500 Air Tractors have been built for clients around the world.

However, for about the last 35 years, Air Tractor relied on less-than-optimal methods to cut tubes for the planes’ fuselages.

First, the company used a nibbler after sliding patterns over the tubes and marking them with grease pencils.

About 10 years ago, Air Tractor graduated to a plasma torch and began cutting tubes by hand. Although this method got the job done, results were inconsistent, and thanks to regular, extensive post-cut preparation, the method was also a big time lag.

Enter the MasterTube plasma profiler, a four-axis, computer-controlled machine from Vernon Tool Co., Oceanside, Calif., specifically designed to cut a variety of tube sizes.

After seeing a MasterTube machine in action at a recent FabTech show, Air Tractor decided that implementing the equipment into its operations would enhance and expedite its tube-cutting needs.

"We were looking for an economical, efficient way to profile tubes that go into our airplanes," says Rick Turner, vice president of Air Tractor. "We build agricultural and firefighting airplanes, and the fuselage frame is built out of 4130 chrome-moly steel, with small diameters up to fairly large diameters--anywhere from 0.5-in. diameters up to 1.5-in. or 1.75-in. tubes--with some thin wall and some heavy wall."

Along with the range of tube diameters creating fabrication challenges for Air Tractor, the tubes cluster and intersect in their final design, resulting in complicated profiles.

"The challenge was to find a machine that could handle that and take some of those hours out of that area," Turner continues. "And we were able to do that with a Vernon Tool machine."

Mastering tubes
The Vernon Tool MasterTube cutting machine can handle tube diameters from 1 in. to 6 in. and tube lengths from 15 ft. to 24 ft., with the possibility to expand up to 44 ft. It can also handle rectangular tubing from 4 in. by 6 in. to 5 in. by 5 in., with a maximum cross section of 7.5 in.

The four-axis motion control allows two axes of motion to advance, retract and rotate tubing while two more axes are able to alter torch angle and horizontal travel across flat surfaces. This creates exact contours and weld-prep angles on both ends, eliminating the need for lengthy post-cut finishing work. This, combined with the fact the machine is fully automated and doesn’t require any manual measuring, marking or cutting, meant significant time savings for Air Tractor.

"Their specific need was for high-tensile-strength, thin-wall tubing for building aircraft fuselage frames," says David Carr of Vernon Tool. "They were cutting everything by hand with plasma and using templates. With the MTC equipment, cutting is CNC controlled and plasma cut. It’s a much finer cut when you use a machine to manipulate a plasma torch. Plus, you get accurate cuts so that when you put pieces together, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle that actually fits rather than one that doesn’t."

Carr says the MasterTube is designed for cutting tubes used in applications as varied as handrails, playground equipment, recreational vehicle truck grill guards and bumpers, or manufacturing such as ATVs, rocket launchers for NASA and space frames for architectural purposes.

Flying easy
With any purchase of new equipment, a company will have concerns with its ease of use. For Air Tractor, which had been hand cutting its tubes for quite some time, switching to an automated tube cutter created some nervousness in terms of programming and learning curves.

But the MasterTube features Windows-based software, including menu-driven prompts with color icons for making cuts such as saddles, miters and centerline offsets. Common CAD/CAM modeling program compatibility, 2-D and 3-D graphics, an online instruction manual and a color VGA touch screen are also included.

Given the software’s simplicity and depth of function, MasterTube proved an easy fit for Air Tractor, according to Turner.

"A big concern I thought we had to overcome was programming all those profiles, which turned out to be a fairly easy task," he says. "We had just hired a guy who had some CNC experience on a machine, and he was able to take our patterns and make the program. We initially thought we were going to have to model all of our frames on a computer, and then that would give us our patterns or our profiles. But we were nervous about that because in the early days, all those drawings we did were hand drawings [that were] just done on a drawing table. Basically, what we did is we took our patterns and profiles and made programs off of our patterns.

"It was relatively simple," he continues. "My experience with new CNC machines is [that] up front, [in] the first year or so, you’re not efficient because you’re spending most of your time making programs. We really didn’t have that with this machine. We didn’t really have any downtime. We thought we were still going to have to cut the tubes the old-fashioned way, but we didn’t. We were able to make the programs as we went, and I think it was just a simple, painless transformation to using this machine and its programmed patterns."

The MasterTube software also allows Vernon Tool to access its machines remotely via the Internet, providing quick and inexpensive service, training and diagnostics.

"We have feet-on-the-ground service or an optional online service program," says Carr. "All of our machines can be connected to the Internet. We can service the machines all the way down to hard electronic components online. We can tutor; we can actually do extensive training online. The operator can stand at the machine, and we can basically take control of the machine. We can do this from our office in California, from my office in Houston or anywhere in the world, as long as we have an Internet connection."

Between the precise cutting capabilities and the ease of programming, the MasterTube machine has saved Air Tractor hours in its workflow and helped create a more consistent product.

Turner estimates the company has saved roughly 50 percent of the time it used to take to create its profiled tubes. Additionally, the company was able to use the machine almost instantly upon installation.

"The machine showed up here one day, we set it in place, and the next week, the service guy was here for training," says Turner. "It was a very easy transformation. There were really no issues at all." FFJ

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