Heartbeat of the Shop

A customized pipe cutter helps a shop slice production time as well as labor costs

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Cutting with precision and accuracy is an integral part of any metal fabrication enterprise – and for good reason. A clean, exact cut makes for more accurate welding and less time spent grinding and refitting. But, getting that quality cut is no easy task.

Even when fed by a skillful hand, it often takes time, considerable effort (especially with a batch of big pipe) and a lot of rehandling to meet customer specifications. Delivering on schedule and on budget, often with little margin for error, can be difficult.

The fully automated, customized ProCutter 900 RB from HGG has been described by the staff at MMC Contractors as a workhorse that can do almost anything.

In recent years, CNC pipe profilers have revolutionized the metal fabrication industry, allowing shops to get more from their metal and attain greater accuracies – and doing so in a fraction of the time it takes to do it manually. These approaches can be a real game changer, but depending on the scope and scale of the business (and infrastructure), they certainly aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

For MMC Contractors, a national mechanical contractor, finding the tool that would meet the needs of their growing business seemed like a pipe dream until one manufacturer stepped in with a customized prototype that cut everything but profits.

Growing pains

Headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., MMC Contractors was established in 1932 when three brothers decided to start a plumbing business during the Great Depression. Almost a century later and the company is now a nationally ranked mechanical contractor specializing in complex projects of any size. Today, it services the healthcare, energy, mission critical, pharmaceutical, industrial and commercial markets, among others, across seven locations nationwide. The company’s Omaha location features a newly added fabrication shop to make room for office expansion.

Justin West, a steamfitter foreman at MMC, is seen here working with a CAD file.

The Omaha team’s focus is primarily pipe spool fabrication for a range of pre-construction, sheet metal, new construction and renovation applications within Nebraska and the surrounding areas. Partnering with customers to meet design and service needs from bid to closeout, at every stage of construction and beyond, is what they do best.

According to Mark Janning, fabrication shop manager at the Omaha facility, business has really spiked over the last decade, creating more work and the need for more skilled workers and faster turnarounds than ever before. What started as a small shop with some focus on fabrication has now grown into an entire building dedicated to fabrication for three different trades.

“We went from two steamfitters in the shop to as many as 26,” Janning reports. “MMC also took on a sheet metal department during that time. Both departments were growing, and every year, we would fabricate more than the last.”

Parts are designed in CAD and then easily transferred into the HGG machine. With the push of a button, the machine cuts everything at once.

With growth came growing pains and projects that surpassed the capabilities of the then 17,000 sq.-ft. shop. Janning and current pipe fabrication manager, Matt Townsend, say jobs were time and labor intensive with the smaller, more primitive entry-level machine they used at the start. Featuring a roller-type system with single-axis cutting capability, the machine wasn’t built for speed or accuracy and often that meant rolling 42-ft. randoms that had to be manually set at bevels and angles and cut by hand.

Steamfitter foreman, Justin West, says this often resulted in a series of inconsistent cuts. “When we did these pieces by hand, we’d have about 2 ft. of drop,” he explained. “The cuts were not as precise.”

Finding the right fit

These challenges, combined with the opportunity to move the fab shop in November 2020 and acquire 40,000 sq. ft. of new warehouse space, gave the team at MMC the ability to imagine a better way of doing business. Prompted to implement process improvements, they began looking at what it would take to expedite their workflow and upgrade their equipment.

“We wanted to automate our process,” Janning explains. “The building next door was for sale. It was a pivotal moment. We needed a machine that fit the space, though.”

What started as a small shop with some focus on fabrication has now grown into an entire building dedicated to fabrication for three different trades.

Specifically, they needed a machine with an offload system that was oriented sideways. This would enable them to discharge pipe into the flow of the shop.

While the team at MMC was aware of a pipe profiling machine from HGG Profiling Equipment that promised much of what they were looking for in a plasma cutter, including durability and increased precision and accuracy, the stock model was simply too big for their space, and size wasn’t the only concern. It didn’t offer the side discharge they needed and would take precious time off the clock training operators to use it – or so they thought.

The team decided to meet with HGG to discuss options. According to West, HGG listened intently to their wish list of desired features and machine capabilities, undaunted by the need for a unique solution.

“When we discussed design, they came to our offices and asked, ‘What do you need?’” Janning notes.

HGG offered to design and build a machine that fit their space – one with a unique infeed and a side discharge – and in November 2020, MMC purchased and installed the fully automated, customized ProCutter 900 RB.

An incredible addition

The results were immediate, with nearly instant time savings. A recurring job involving 30-in. pipe that took two weeks to cut prior to installation of the new machine now is complete in only four days.

HGG offered to design and build a machine to fit MMC’s space – a machine with a unique infeed and a side discharge.

The configuration with the infeed feature turned out to be an “incredible addition,” changing the way pipe is brought into the shop, West says. The infeed bed with outside conveyor and side discharge bed on the pipe profiler inside the shop has streamlined the overall workflow.

Additionally, there is a lot less scrap. The software is programmed to drop about 0.5 in. between cuts. This, paired with the ability to optimize the pipe to get the most cuts-per-length possible, dramatically decreases the amount of scrap generated.

“Being able to stack different sizes of pipe on the infeed and just have them at your fingertips and roll the pieces in as you need them has really cut down on material handling, let alone the manpower needed to do it,” West explains, adding that for a fab shop that turns out about 8,000 welds per year (an average of 40,000 weld in.) on pipe ranging in size from 1/2 in. to 48 in., this is an important benefit.

Not only is the fabrication process less taxing overall, but it is much more efficient. With the customized ProCutter, pipe lengths are directed along the roller bed toward the main drive automatically, with pre-calculated precision and speed, turning out finished profiles with ease.

“We design it in CAD, push it through from CAD into the machine, and then pick which ones we want, push a button and it cuts it all at once,” Townsend says.

This is quite a change from the tedious cutting method in place previously, requiring manual adjustments to the torch for bevel cuts and having to lay out pipe, a piece at a time, by hand. The new machine is also more user-friendly than MMC first suspected a new ProCutter might be.

“It only took Justin a couple of weeks to get the hang of it, and he’s already building better parts than what we could’ve built before,” Townsend says.

“The quality of the cuts that have come off the machine have been phenomenal,” Janning adds. “None of our fitters had any complaints, even down to the pickiest guy in the shop.”

Built to last

From bigger saddles and fish mouth capabilities to higher quality cuts, the customized ProCutter has certainly redefined “bigger and better” fabrication for MMC. Not only has the Omaha team been pleasantly surprised with the smoothness in the way the machine cuts, but its sturdy build and robust handling capabilities have also made it an invaluable tool for their pipe fabrication process.

“It’s heavy duty,” West says. “It’s meant to handle big pipe, do it fast and do it well. We have not found a limit on how many welders we can feed. We currently run 10 spots right now, and they’re full all the time.”

MMC’s Omaha team is focused primarily on pipe spool fabrication for a range of pre-construction, sheet metal, new construction and renovation applications within Nebraska and the surrounding areas.

Fortunately, increased productivity hasn’t meant increased risk to their team of steamfitters, plumbers and sheet metal workers. That’s in part thanks to an air purification system included in the new machine – a feature HGG insisted on, even though not mandatory in the United States. The system filters out particulates and solids that are easily emptied from a drawer in the air scrubber.

“We had never thought about air purification before,” West admits. “By installing the purification system, we’ve changed the fabrication shop. It’s so clean. HGG wouldn’t build the machine without it.”

Safe to operate and built to last, the machine Janning now affectionately refers to as “the heartbeat of the shop” is what makes the work that gets done on a daily basis possible. Going from a hand-cutting, primitive machine to a fully automated, customized workhorse “that will do everything,” has only created one problem, Janning says – he can’t imagine doing business any other way. “I think we got kind of spoiled having this machine; it would be very difficult to go without it.”

“Everything here starts with this machine,” West concludes. “We would nearly shut down if not for it.”

HGG Profiling Equipment

MMC Contractors

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