Steel is a heavy commodity, yet in the metal fabrication industry, moving it is a vital albeit sometimes underappreciated component
of the process, particularly in steel distribution facilities. It’s not uncommon for metal fabricators to struggle with moving material to and from their sawing operations. Some use cranes in precarious ways, compromising safety, while others use lightweight conveyors that take a beating and constantly need repair or replacement of various components.
While there is value to investing in new saws with automated features, the actual cutting of the metal takes far less time than moving the material around from start to finish. Therefore, this part of the process deserves a fresh look.
As Doug Harris, president and CEO of HE&M told Sawing Productivity last year, “we’re an engineering company that happens to build saws.” While that’s still true, Harris says they are witnessing a change in the industry that’s “greater today than ever in the past,” which is why they’re equally as focused on being an engineering company that also builds material handling solutions.
The changes in the industry that Harris refers to are related to the fact that business is booming and steel service centers are as busy as ever. At the same time, the unemployment rate in the United States, hovering around 4 percent, makes finding saw and crane operators, truck drivers and other vital personnel to the industry extremely difficult. Bottlenecks in production are more prevalent than ever, and that’s what HE&M is working to alleviate with more automated material handling systems.
Harris and his team are currently focused on visiting plants and determining where and how their bottlenecks occur. The next step is to drill down on how HE&M’s material handling solutions can free up those bottlenecks. It’s a systems analysis approach that is “absolutely critical,” Harris says of improving productivity.
For steel service centers where margins are already very small, it’s all about tonnage out the door, and without an effective material handling system, they are at a disadvantage. However, Harris says that by having a system custom built to fit their exact needs, “they will significantly out produce the people that don’t have these. We’re talking in the neighborhood of fivefold.”
“No two are the same,” Harris said of the shops he visits where material handling needs differ.
As an example of how inefficiently some shops handle materials, Harris notes that a crane is often used to load material to the saw, and sometimes it’s the same crane that loads the cut material to the next step in the process. This is an obvious pain point where those profit margins are narrowed even more. Harris calculates the losses experienced by one customer using a single
crane method at more than $500 with every crane lift.
“The numbers came back staggering,” Harris says, adding that with HE&M’s material handling system, the customer was looking for a 24-month payback on their investment, but the results were much different. “They saw their payback in six months.”
Loading and Offloading
To that end, Steve Humphries, HE&M Saw’s regional manager for Northern California and part of the marketing team, has busied himself as of late rolling out a new website. MoveMoreSteel.com guides metal fabricators through material handling solutions from the company. Instead of relying on an engineer’s blueprint to walk potential customers through the solutions, it makes more sense to just show them the possibilities. And that’s what the new website is designed to do.
The site covers the 50-plus-year-old company’s bandsaw lines. In fact, the company is responsible for engineering and building more than 70 models in the United States. The focus of the website, however, is on next-level material handling, such as tabling, systems for heavy billets, conveyors, touchless measuring technology and other components that can be added to customize orders for better material handling.
The goal is to help customers increase productivity with more efficient and effective handling of the material in and out of the saw. The company’s goal is to cut down on the time it takes to process the material from beginning to end.
“Even if you purchase a new saw that can cut metal a minute faster,” Humphries says, “there is not much gain if you’re spending an extra five minutes moving that material around between cuts.”
HE&M produces numerous handling systems to complement the operation of its bandsaws that can be customized to the unique needs of any facility. The following is just a sample of what the company is offering for the handling of bundled tubing, heavy billets or lighter material:
- Steel fabrication systems featuring Stage 2 conveyors are powered tabling systems with sealed bearings mounted on pillow blocks, capable of moving the heaviest materials through a saw.
- Material transfer solutions include lift-and-carry cross transfers, ejector bars for post-op cut material from roller tables onto transfer arms, parts tables, and outriggers combined with ejector bars for more effective offloading.
- Tilt-a-roll loading tables allow loads to be individually leveled or set at a slight angle to allow stock to roll toward a main conveyor table. Operators use simple screw-style handles to adjust the angle of the table and lifts below the table level rise up to carry bars onto the table.
- With the VT140HA-60 miter sawing system, infeed and outfeed conveyors equipped with bi-directional cross transfers allow for post-cut staging and truck bay offloading.
- With the WF190LA horizontal production sawing system, infeed staging, a non-contact measuring system and cross transfers into a staging area make unloading easier.
Some horizontal saws that miter up to 60 degrees, whether it’s a double column or horizontal style saw, require tabling that moves out of the way. So, HE&M designed solutions specifically for customers with miter sawing operations.
“On the outfeed side of the saw, you’re always trying to balance the distance from the saw to the first table, while providing as much material support as possible in the cutting area,” Humphries says. “We offer a section of table that slides in and out, so the saw can perform its rotation.
“Sometimes you’ll notice that a horizontal miter saw can cut into the table or the rollers if the tables can’t be moved out of the way – not every sawing system is static,” he continues. “There’s a need to be able to provide versatility and flexibility within the cutting area.”
The Swiss Watch Approach
The heavier the material a metal fabricator works with, the more heavy duty the material handling system needs to be. Super heavy forgings and heavy billets, for example, require a more robust roller, such as mill duty rollers, which are built with 1.5-in.-thick wall tubing.
“We’re engineering the tabling to fit the needs of the specific operation,” Humphries says.
However, for the best feed solution, the material can’t clunk along the tables like a train pulling out of a station. A smoother introduction is required. Therefore, HE&M concentrates on fine-tuning the system so all of the rollers in the conveyor table work together and also with the saw’s measuring system.
“It’s like a Swiss watch with all the gearing and rollers moving in unison,” Humphries says. “We want everything to move nice and smooth and all at once. The smoother the whole system operates, the longer it will last.”
Apart from less wear and tear on the system, accuracy is also improved with a smoother delivery.
HE&M’s touchless measuring system is engineered in-house. Despite being on the market for just a few months – it’s been available since late 2017 – the company is already getting good reviews.
Humphries says the “old way” of measuring material includes running the material down the rollers until it reaches a hard stop – basically banging against something sturdy enough to take the hit. This method only works for a limited time because it’s just a matter of time before something breaks or the calibration goes askew.
“One of the [HE&M] engineers had an idea and came up with a touchless measuring system that uses lasers to identify the front edge of the material,” he explains of the catalyst behind the new measuring system. “This slows down our roller system and enables our auto feed system to grab the material. It turned out to be a beautiful system, which is patent pending.”
“Built Not Born”
The company’s marketing materials include the phrase “built not born,” which their method of developing material handling systems with all components built to thrive in a heavy-weight environment. Vertical alignment rollers for squaring material, multi-directional cross transfers and heavy-duty roller stock are examples of the company’s approach to building rugged, precision equipment, which offers a smoother operation that extends the life of the equipment.
“We want customers to look at their new system and feel it’s worth every penny they spent,” Humphries explains. “We treat our material handling like we treat our bandsaw build – it needs to stand the test of time. We realize customers are going to be moving heavy metal across our equipment for years and it needs to last, so we build it to last.”