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The Ironworker: An Old Friend, At Work and Going Strong

These workhorse machines can perform a lot of tricks, with CNC or custom tooling adding to their range.

Some old machine types become obsolete; others remain indispensable and never go out of date. Ironworkers are as indispensable as ever. One “kachunk,” and they’ve popped a hole, sheared a plate, cut a notch or bent a bar. With that quick, one-stroke functionality, there isn’t a lot of room for big gains in productivity. But there are work handling issues, setup-and-repeat issues, and others where new technology makes sense. They have found productive uses for CNC and automatic work handling, and they’ve adopted new tricks where they work. Some old machine types become obsolete; others remain indispensable and never go out of date. Ironworkers are as indispensable as ever. One “kachunk,” and they’ve popped a hole, sheared a plate, cut a notch or bent a bar.

A simple, graphical interface helps the operator take advantage of automated features. It can be taught in minutes, says Sunrise.

With that quick, one-stroke functionality, there isn’t a lot of room for big gains in productivity. But there are work handling issues, setup-and-repeat issues, and others where new technology makes sense. They have found productive uses for CNC and automatic work handling, and they’ve adopted new tricks where they work. though, the classic designs haven’t been replaced with CNC types. It’s more accurate to say that new technologies add some operating options and, sometimes but not always, substantially greater productivity.

Last year we published a roundup of ironworkers which we will not repeat. It’s still basically accurate. What we did instead is to pick on two ironworker builders – Scotchman and Sunrise – and asked the cruel question that editors love to ask: “What’s new?” We weren’t expecting five-axis simultaneous control. We were looking for updates on the roles these machines play in modern fab shops, among the lasers and other new technologies. We picked these two because they represent different directions and they’re both selling a lot of machines. They know a lot about the roles ironworkers play today. Scotchman has carved out a chunk of the market with custom tooling. The company makes all of its own tooling, standard and otherwise. Jerry Kroetch, Scotchman’s president, is proud of it:

“We do a tremendous amount of in-house custom tooling. We’re one of the very few, if not the only ironworker manufacturer, that actually builds custom tooling. We do whatever application Mr. Customer needs done, and most of those features we do all inhouse. That sets us apart.”

Some of the tooling is complex, but simpler custom tools like multi-hole punches and dies make up much of it. In a field with multiple builders that make ironworkers, it gives them an edge. “Something that we do a lot of here is mandrel punching, where the customer is punching a hole or multiple holes in round tubing, rectangular tubing, maybe a piece of oval tubing. Punching is 8-10 times faster than drilling, and the average customer, when he puts a hole in a tube, has to drill it with a drill bit.

“The mandrel goes inside the tube, we punch the hole in the top, and you slide the tube off the mandrel and rotate it. Then, slide it back on so you can have a hole that goes all the way through.” The one-minute video link shows a good example: a side-by-side, multihole tube punch on the company’s DO- 95 Ironworker.

Carving out a different market slice is Sunrise Ironworkers, from Trilogy Machinery. Sunrise has embraced CNC. It’s a small part of its market, but a growing one. “Out of 400 manual machines we sell in a year, we’ll sell 12 CNC machines,” says Ben Flamholz, VP and national sales manager for Sunrise. But he also says that the growth of the CNC ironworker business is large and ever increasing. “We seem to be almost doubling our CNC ironworker production every year,” says Flamholz, “and a lot of companies that have a lot of manual ironworkers now see the benefit of the CNC machine.”

Custom tooling is a productivity booster, and one Scotchman’s inhouse specialties.

What are the benefits? Sunrise sells semi-automatic machines and fully-automatic ones, in a ratio of 6:1, so some of this applies to one but not both: “Every year, Sunrise has come out with a new feature of their machine. The first machine that we introduced back in 2009 was a 16 x 40 table that semiautomatically processed plate. Then, we started increasing the length of the X axis to where our customers can process 10- ft. angle. Then, we introduced a machine that automatically punched holes in angle, in a row, and then we introduceda machine this year that will now automatically punch and shear flat bar. Flamholz adds: “We have new machines that are coming out with new features on the CNC machines. We’ve had a bunch of customers that will buy a dual cylinder machine. The punch end will be a semiautomatic conditioning system for punching the holes. The shearing side will have an automatic plate shear system that will actually grab the plate and feed it into the shear and shear it to length.

“They might have a 20 ft. piece of flat bar that they want to shear into 1-ft. sections to make base plates. They just load the plate in the machine and hit the start button. The machine automatically feeds it and shears it to length. What was a two- or three-person operation now really can be a one- or two-person operation in the sense you have the drop of the flat bar coming out the back and they are taking it to the punch side and punching all the holes. The companies that we are selling these to are definitely increasing theirproduction and they are also cutting lead time.”

Then there is the saving in layout time. “Let’s say that it takes one minute to manually lay out parts, and there are 1000 pieces to do. Those 1000 pieces would take 16 hours of layout time. With the CNC ironworker, layout is now one minute and that one minute is for all 1000 pieces.”

Those are all productivity issues, which is, as it always has been, a primary justification for CNC. There also are quality issues.

This video demonstrates how custom tools enable one-station punching of holes through both sides of a tube, in two different hole sizes.

“On many jobs, there’s less waste due to error. With a CNC machine, you’ll see the layout of what it’s going to do first, and you know that you have 0.004 in. accuracy. For the CNC system, especially the shearing one, you do lose a little bit of scrap at the end because it can’t feed the whole piece through, or it would just fall out the other side. You are losing between 4 and 6 in. of material per 20 or 40 ft.,” says Flamholz.

How about relative costs for manual versus CNC? “It’s more than double,” he says. “It depends on which machine we’re talking about. For example, we might sell a 110 ton dual-cylinder ironworker for $29,000. The smallest CNC version of that is going to be about $52,000.”

So a user needs the volume, or the cumulative time saving, to justify the cost. This demands a good demo and/or a time study to judge, but where the productivity issues come into play, they can be better by a large margin, as in the layout point made above. A little arithmetic will produce an answer.

Scotchman

Sunrise