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Going mechanized with plasma
One business’s strategy for success
The ESAB Sabre DX's oxyfuel capability allows for cutting material up to 8 in. thick, while plasma can cut up to 2.5 in. Underwater cutting helps contain smoke and fumes and minimizes noise.
Two years ago Kevin Kinser unknowingly landed on a gold mine. Looking to move Structural Strategies, the steel fabricating and erecting company his father started, to a larger building in Aurora, Ill., he had all but committed to purchase a different building. But when his broker alerted him to a space yet to hit the market that would include all of the equipment as is, Kinser's curiosity was piqued.
What he found was a 38,000-sq.-ft. fixer-upper with a ton of potential and two things he wouldn't find anywhere else: a stockpile of raw steel-roughly 200,000 pounds of it-and the one piece of equipment he has always coveted: a mechanized plasma table.
All in the Family
Kinser's father, an ironworker by trade, moved to the Chicago area from West Virginia and became general superintendent of a steel construction and crane rental company. He later branched out on his own and started Crane and Steel Inc., a company similar to the one he had left, and routinely brought Kevin and his two brothers with him to work at the shop. Through the years a spinoff company emerged called Leets Services. One of Kevin's brothers went the path of the crane company, now known as Kinser Crane Service, and Kevin stayed with Leets.
When his father suffered a severe stroke, Kevin, 26 years old at the time, had to step up and take the reins at Leets completely.
"My mom was pretty much running the crane business efficiently enough and knew enough about the business to keep it going, but no one in the family knew enough about the steel end of things. I had limited experience, but I knew the most out of everyone. My mom said, 'See if you can make a go,' and I did," Kevin explained.
In 1995 the business became Structural Strategies. Under Kevin's leadership, the company was dedicated to doing what it was good at and subcontracting the rest. It was a philosophy that differed from his father's, who wanted to do everything in-house, but it had its benefits.
"If you give something away, you might not make as much money on that portion, but it does allow you to focus more on the things you do best and then grow as a result," Kevin explained.
Today the company employs 15, including Kevin's son Kyle, who joined the family business two years ago after it moved into its current location. It was something he always wanted to do. Kevin, on the other hand, wanted Kyle to get out and find his own way first, so he did. He earned a degree at Milwaukee School of Engineering and was hired out of college at ESAB Welding & Cutting Products. He spent two and a half years visiting fabricators in the southern Wisconsin area. But when his dad called and said he had bought a new building, Kyle saw that as the time to go home.
"I didn't want him to have a heart attack or stroke, basically killing himself trying to manage the move and run the business. So I made up my mind that I was going to come home and help. I wasn't going to give him a choice. My boss at ESAB understood, and I let him know that I would still make sales calls until they found a replacement for me. I ended up working both jobs for about seven months," Kyle said.
Kevin has a six-year plan for the building in terms of getting it up and running the way he wants it. That includes creating office space, reworking both the plumbing and the electric, leveling floors, replacing ceilings. It's been a huge undertaking but he finally is seeing progress, particularly in the last few months.
Kyle Kinser holds a shim he fabricated with the ESAB Sabre DX. This is work the company would have had to outsource had it not been for the mechanized table and the software used to help nest parts efficiently.
"The One Piece of EquipmentI Had Targeted Forever"
The mechanized table included in the sale of the building Kevin purchased is an ESAB Sabre DX, a 10-ft. by 30-ft. mechanized plasma/oxyfuel table with underwater cutting capabilities.
"A plasma table was the one piece of equipment that I had targeted forever. We were literally days away from signing papers to purchase another building. And lo and behold, I came through the front door and right away this bright yellow plasma table jumped out at me. So I made an offer on the spot and he took it. The rest is history," Kevin said.
It was clean and had logged roughly 40 working hours, essentially making it like new. The unit's oxyfuel capability allows for cutting material up to 8 in. thick, while the unit's plasma function can cut up to 2.5 in.
Becoming acclimated with any piece of capital equipment requires time and patience, and Kyle was willing to give it both. He was confident, also, that his network of contacts at ESAB would help him learn how to make the table operational and productive, despite claims from the building's former tenants that it didn't work.
Contributing to that learning curve has been ESAB's Columbus® software for programming and optimizing various cutting processes and jobs as well as marking and labeling parts, though the previous owner never installed it. Kyle installed the software package and began tinkering with its capabilities.
One of the benefits he discovered immediately was the way the software can nest parts automatically to maximize material usage. Before the software he manually dropped and dragged parts on-screen within the plate's dimensions, a time-consuming process that can lead to material waste.
"I spent probably 1.5 to 2 hours at least playing around with it. There's no sense in wasting all that material. As soon as I got my hands on automatic nesting and started playing with it, I knew I needed it. My time is valuable, and it's not worth sitting around nesting parts when there is a piece of the software that can do it for me," Kyle explained.
The software also allows Kyle to store his plate inventory. This is key for Structural Strategies, which holds on to remnant sheets in an effort to maximize inventory. He can take a sheet that's been partially used, place it on the table, mark the perimeter of the plate with the machine's laser pointer, and upload that information, into the software. The software saves this information which means he doesn't have to spend time hunting for a piece of plate; he can simply store the dimensions into the software.
"Now I don't have to hunt around and try to figure out what I can get the most out of. The software and table communicate with one another, which is awesome because I'm able to show it what I have, what the plate actually looks like, and maximize my material inventory."
Kyle Kinser changes out the cutting tip of the mechanized table thanks to Vision CNC, which tells him when his consumables have reached 90 percent capacity.
In an effort to evenly distribute heat, the software dictates the cutting pattern to ensure the parts don't suffer from heat-related distortion. This, in combination with the table's ability to cut underwater, has been key to avoiding warped parts.
It also runs the torch through a routine that optimizes consumable life. For example, as the hafnium inside the cutting electrode wears away, the software tells the table to automatically adjust the torch height to maintain cut quality. Once the electrode is 90 percent worn, the touchscreen interface alerts the operator so he can change the electrode.
With all of this to learn, Kyle frequently turned to ESAB's customer support for assistance in changing settings or troubleshooting.
"Our table came out in 2011, so it had files on there that hadn't been updated since then. So the tech support representative I was on the phone with recognized that and changed the setting for me."Opening New Doors
The table has been a blessing to the Kinsers' business and has opened doors that were closed before.
"It's going to continue down that path of opening doors for us. With this new technology that's available, I can more aggressively attack certain jobs. It's the next piece of the puzzle that keeps everything moving forward," Kyle said.
Like a $600,000 contract to fabricate staircases and handrails for a multi-
million-dollar residence in the Chicago area. The company was tasked to build three separate staircases-one from the main floor to the fourth floor, a spiral staircase connecting the fourth and fifth floors, and an exterior staircase between the third and fourth floors.
Typically when you build a stair, there's a 12-in.-deep stringer, but this design called for a 3⁄8-in. plate that acts as the stringer but remains solid, traveling all the way up to handrail height and acting as the handrail on both sides.
"This is a monumental staircase. The plates will be moment welded to a deadhead piece at the floor that's going to be really strong, and then basically I will cantilever out the lower one and upper one coming down to hold the mid-landings that will be floating out over the room below," Kevin explained.
The software's other functions, such as automatic nesting, heat distribution optimization, and parts inventory, allow Kyle to spend more time cutting metal and less time planning each cut.
He added, "It was certainly something I would have sourced out or cut with a track-driven torch. There's no way we could have done it by hand and gotten the results we needed. It would have meant spending hours on each plate. On the mechanized table, the largest piece took us four minutes to cut."
On a high-rise project, Structural Strategies leaned heavily on the table to crank out 30,000 shims-U-shaped metal parts that help fill the void behind angle iron used for concrete relief support. The shims help keep the piece of angle iron straight and tight down the line. Before the table, high-volume parts like this would have certainly been sourced out.
The traditional structural company has now even dabbled in custom sign fabrication as of recently.
"That's something that excites me with this table. It opens up, who knows? We could get into manufacturing if we come up with a product or somebody outsources a product to us. That would completely change the scope of our business," Kyle said
"Five years from now, we could be 'Kevin and Kyle Sign Manufacturers.' I could be done with the contract work and all we do is custom signs."
This article originally appeared in
The WELDER magazine.
It is reprinted here with permission of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Intl.