Rocket Science

By Lauren Duensing

Rocket Science
Above: The Voortman V320C, installed at Quality Iron Fabricators, is designed to manage both plate drilling and plate cutting.

An integrated fabrication system speeds connectivity of functions, propelling productivity

October 2015 – Located on the banks of the Pearl River in Mississippi, the John C. Stennis Space Center conducts and manages NASA’s propulsion test programs. All engines for the manned Apollo and space shuttle flights were tested at Stennis, and it is preparing to test next-generation engines that will power the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System. According to NASA, the SLS is being developed to send humans on deep-space missions, to an asteroid and eventually to Mars.

Stennis’ B-2 Test Stand is being repositioned and extended in order to test the SLS core stage prior to its first mission flight. The existing framework, built in the late 1970s to support testing of the space shuttle, is 61 feet tall and contains about 1.2 million pounds of fabricated steel. When finished, the more robust stand will tower 161 feet above the ground and contain an additional 1 million pounds of structural steel.

Quality Iron Fabricators, Memphis, Tennessee, is providing the structural steel sections for the rocket test stand. “This stand is built to keep a rocket from taking off when you fire the engines,” says second-generation owner and President Brian Eason. “It’s a very large, very stout structure.”


Focusing on flow

The large, heavy parts needed for the B-2 test stand, as well as material for Quality Iron’s other industrial, commercial and federal projects, are processed on equipment from Voortman USA Corp., Monee, Illinois.

“We originally had one location in Memphis, Tenn., doing structural and miscellaneous steel,” Eason says, noting that after years of incremental increases in business activity in 2008, he wanted to “grow a little more exponentially” and expand the company’s geographic footprint.

As part of this expansion, Quality Iron investigated production equipment options. Eason sought an integrated system, and after looking into several companies, he believed Voortman offered “the best option for us.”

Quality Iron initially installed a Voortman V808 plasma coping/plasma cutting system, a V630 drill, a V505T angle line and a VB1250 band saw. “We’ve been very happy with the results,” Eason says. “As we’ve added machines, they’ve all been Voortman,” Eason says. One of the technological aspects he finds impressive is the way the vendor integrates all the equipment into a single processing line.

Voortman uses Multi System Integration, which includes an automated material handling system and VACAM control software, to connect machines to each other. One machine serves as the master, and products are distributed from the master to all others in the line. As the first batch is being processed, the next batch is being prepared.“Historically, machines have been a little more isolated, operating individually,” Eason says. “Voortman has taken that a step further. All the machines and the production line itself are an integrated unit.”

This is significant, Eason claims, because it increases speed and efficiency while reducing the need for manpower. “As we have it arranged right now, we have machines that don’t need an operator at all because they’re taking in the materials from the previous machine in the process.”

Because they’re linked, each component of the line “knows” which materials are scheduled to be processed next and where they are on the conveyor belt. “It doesn’t need anyone to sit there and watch it do its work,” Eason says. “It automatically draws it in, does what it needs to and sends it on to the next machine.”

Before installing the Voortman package, it was “hard for us to imagine a large expensive machine running without someone there taking care of it. So we started with an operator on the machine. All he did was watch it work, so we finally moved him to other operations,” recalls Eason.

Ten months after installing the saw, drill, coper and angle line, Eason approached Voortman again to purchase a plate processing machine. Customers often purchase a beam line and then “realize they can’t produce plates fast enough,” Voortman President Adrian Morrall says.

That machine, the Voortman V320C, is set up at Quality Iron’s Memphis location and, according to Eason, is able to handle anything the operators send its way. The V320C, with a 20-foot-long infeed capacity, manipulates plate up to 3 inches thick. It drills and burns holes using a Hypertherm HyDefinition plasma torch, automatically nests myriad shapes, and marks plates with part numbers and locations. It positions the plates with two rigid, servo-driven gripper trucks that allow the material to be cut all the way up to the edge, keeping yield high and the scrappage rate low.


Compared to a manual plate cutting operation, “it’s just night and day,” Morrall says. The stock material goes on and the finished part comes off. “It’s drilled, tapped, milled and has part marks and location information to indicate where you put the plate on the beam. And there are marks on the beam to let you know where the plate goes.”

Layout marks on the beams and plates indicate where the steel elements need to be welded together, simplifying assembly.

“It’s like IKEA now,” he says, referring to assembly of consumer furnishings. “It shows you where the part goes and on which piece. You don’t need a fitter welder anymore—you just need a welder.”

Continuous improvement

Quality Iron is now talking with Voortman “about revamping our production line to make it even more efficient,” Eason says. “We’re looking at rearranging the order of the machines. Right now, the saw is first; Then after [material] is sawed into individual pieces, it goes through the drill, which drills the holes on the individual pieces before they go to the coper. We’ve decided to reverse that order.”

In the new configuration, holes will be drilled before material is cut into smaller sub parts. For example, stock-length beams will run through the drill first, allowing it to process two or more pieces with a single run. Then they will go to the saw.

“So, if you have a 60-foot piece that had three beams in it, instead of running three beams through the drill, now you’re effectively running one and then cutting it into three beams,” Eason says. “In addition, if you have, for example, a piece of 40-foot material that is going to be cut into 3-foot sections, those small pieces either don’t go down the conveyor very well or, if they are too short, don’t go down the conveyor line at all.”

In addition to reconfiguring the line, Eason is adding a small part removal tool to the saw. “A lot of times you bring the material up and it does a trim cut-off at the end and “you have an operator standing there just to grab that little piece.”

Adding the part removal tool “is big,” Morrall says, “because nobody else does that. And that means everyone has a guy standing next to a saw all day, which you don’t really need anymore.”

Staying abreast of innovations is what keeps Quality Iron on top of its game. “We always strive to get better at everything we do, and this has been a key part to improving our process,” Eason says. “Not necessarily for the sake of getting bigger, but sometimes getting bigger comes along with getting better.” MM

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