When Bob Reiman signed on as the vice president of operations for Anderson Steel Supply, Inc. (Great Falls, MT) back in November 2015, the steel fabricator wanted to grow their business. Reiman had a specific plan in mind to make that happen for this third-generation, family-owned company. In his previous position, he had visited numerous fabrication shops in Canada and the United States where he saw the PythonX® structural steel fabrication system in action from Burlington Automation Corporation (Hamilton, ON), a Lincoln Electric (Cleveland, OH) company. “I told the owners, ‘There’s a technology out there that you’ve got to look into,” recalled Reiman. “It’s going to turn our automation around. And so we did.”
The PythonX system uses a robotically-controlled plasma torch to cut holes, copes, weld prep on flanges – all of the processes that typically required drawing interpretation, layouts, and cutting by hand with torches. The system also cuts beams to the proper length and replaces the conventional stand-alone beam line, drill line, coping machine, and, in many cases, saws. The PythonX also offers dramatic productivity improvements by eliminating the handling that is usually required between each of those operations. Producing an infill beam in the Anderson Steel shop once would have taken up to two hours. Now it only takes four minutes to ten minutes, depending on its complexity. “We went from 12 beams a day to 100 beams a day,” noted Reiman. “The seven-axis robot does everything in one shot and just pushes it out.”
His enthusiasm about purchasing this system had to be balanced with the real-world economics: it meant a significant investment, and the shop’s 2002-vintage beam line that it would replace had not yet fully depreciated. Although asset depreciation is a great way to periodically finance many equipment upgrades, technological advances sometimes outpace the depreciation schedule. At those times, taking a leap of faith can result in significant rewards, and the possibilities the PythonX would open up for Anderson Steel made this investment worthwhile. Since installing the system in 2016, the shop has seen their consumables use drop by 30 percent. “We bought a big bulk oxygen tank at the same time, partly because we also purchased another plasma table,” said Reiman. “We’re using a lot less gas compared to what we were using.” And although replacing wear parts on the plasma system can be higher initially, they still see a 42 percent net savings.
Acquiring the PythonX also allowed the shop to take on larger and more complex projects and reduce the need for rework. “We were only doing 50 ton to 100 ton jobs, but now we’re doing 1,500 ton projects without any issues in the shop,” stated Reiman. “We get it in and we get it out. Customers are happy. And there’s a big difference in the error that we had when a human was doing it, as opposed to the computer. When we ship materials to the jobsite now, we hardly ever get any back charges because the thing just fits together like a puzzle.” Another tangible benefit has been the increased rate of throughput: “We’ve been able to pass along the savings of reduced time in the shop to our customers,” explained Reiman, “so we’re now getting more jobs because we’ve been able to reduce our operating costs.” He adds that customers now expect faster turnaround: “The GCs that we have today want it now. And with this technology, we can give it to them now . . . and that’s a nice thing.”
HOW THE TRANSITION PLAYED OUT
The installation of the PythonX actually went smoother than anyone expected. “I bought a couple of extra saws that we put in a different area so we could keep fabricating in the event that the installation was going to disrupt our production,” said Reiman. “It really didn’t.” The installation team provided the company with a list of all the tools that would be needed for the installation, so everything was ready upon their arrival. This kept the process moving. “They came in and did their job, got the system running, did the training and we were up and operating in no time,” recalled Reiman. “All told, the time to complete the installation and for the operator to feel comfortable with the new system was minimal. At first, he was doing 40 beams a day, which still is more than 12. But now he’s up over 100 a day, with no issues at all.”
The introduction of any automation is bound to change people’s responsibilities, and this important equipment upgrade was no exception. “Before, I had one guy running the beam line because everything was in a line. That person just moved over to run the PythonX,” noted Reiman. “He was a little nervous at first and worried about his computer skills. But he picked it right up. It was just not a big deal to him at all. Now he’s training people too, so it’s going well.” The shop has also hired more than a dozen people to handle the increased workload generated by adding the new system to their production operations. “We have large fabricators calling us now to use our PythonX for their infill beams,” smiled Reiman. Because the system works directly from standard steel detailing software, any machine can do the work. “That’s one nice thing about this new system: once you have your program, you can share it with anyone.”
Reiman said he is now able to run four or five jobs through the shop at a time, unlike their previous one-job-at-a-time operation. At the same time, customer complaints have virtually disappeared. “That’s why we’re thinking about getting a second PythonX,” he said. “With as many jobs as we have going through here now, as long as the economy holds up it would be nice to have another one. We’ve got the layout for it and we’ve poured the concrete. So if our owner says go for it, we’re writing the check.”
Burlington Automation Corporation, 63 Innovation Drive, Hamilton, ON, Canada L9H 7L8, 905-689-7771, Fax: 905-689-7773, www.pythonx.com.
The Lincoln Electric Company, 22801 Saint Clair Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44117-1199, 888-355-3213, www.lincolnelectric.com.
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