Edison Chouest Offshore (ECO), a Louisiana-based company responsible for building some of the most diverse and dynamic marine transportation vessels in waters
throughout the world, embarked on a new construction method in 2010 that has since transformed their building process. The ships, which range from 87 ft. to 525 ft. in length, are built to serve a variety of uses, including tugboats, U.S. Coast Guard cutters and thick-hulled icebreakers that navigate the icy waters around Antarctica.
ECO began in 1960 as a boat rental company, but within 10 years, the company had established its North American shipbuilding facility in Larose, La. By 1976, ECO had grown its fleet offering to three large cargo and eight utility vessels and one tugboat. The company timeline is full of notable milestones, including in 1993 when ECO produced the world’s largest, most powerful tractor tugboat. ECO is also a leader in platform supply vessels.
ECO has expanded over the years with shipyards in Brazil, Florida, Mississippi and two in Louisiana. Aside from the range of vessels the company builds, Wally Naquin, general manager at Chouest’s LaShip shipyard, says the company is also unique in that they “design, build, own, operate and maintain all of our vessels.”
Move to automation
Ship hulls are comprised of a series of panels welded together, which when done manually, can be a time-consuming process involving numerous skilled welders.
Prior to 2010, the year ECO implemented automated welding processes, stick welding was its most often-used method of joining the panels. Naquin says that while stick welding is still used to tack smaller objects and thin materials inside the vessels, ECO sought out robotic welding solutions from Pemamek to transform their manufacturing process during a time when the industry was seeing great growth.
“We adopted the technology and used Pemamek’s robots to weld in a more efficient manner,” Naquin says, adding that the initial investment in equipment included not only Pemamek’s robotic welding technology, but also conveyor systems that allowed them to handle material with ease and greater safety.
Pemamek specializes in automated welding solutions that involve precise positioning technology and robotic welding solutions for faster, safer and far more efficient fabrication of products that are often massive in scale. The company offers solutions for a variety of industries, including wind energy, offshore, power generation, heavy equipment, general fabrication and shipbuilding.
Pemamek has 25-plus years of delivering solutions targeted at shipbuilding and is an expert in welding, material handling and control
systems. Many of Pemamek’s solutions carry over from one industry to the next, but as Jukka Rantala, vice president, key accounts at Pemamek says, the materials used in building ships require a special approach.
The process of building ships involves joining thick and heavy metal plates to form blocks of various sizes (some of which can weigh between 300 and 500 tons). The blocks are pieced together to form the ship. Pemamek offers machinery that assists shipbuilders with the raw material as it enters the shipyard and for each step along the way.
“They have to cut, clean and make bevels and then they have to mount and weld,” Rantala begins. “We have more or less the full range of applications that assist in building a finished block.”
The decade-plus relationship Pemamek has with ECO is a great example of one of the principles at Pemamek, which is to establish long-term relationships, Rantala notes.
“Chouest is one of our best customers and quite helpful,” Rantala says, adding that the shipbuilder is open to site visits from other manufacturers interested in the Pemamek machines.
The first Pemamek solutions ECO brought into their production facilities were 40-ft. wide assembly lines, which in shipbuilding are referred to as panel lines. The lines consist of a variety of Pemamek machines that handle specific tasks as the panels progress down the line. These include a one-sided welding station to weld plates together, which Rantala says are massive pieces of equipment that, in some cases, require a 10-ft. deep foundation upon being installed for solid grounding.
The line also includes a stiffener mounting station (SMP). As a vessel undergoes various stresses while afloat, the panels can bend, warp and be damaged, so support material or “stiffeners” are added. The SMP holds the stiffeners in the correct position while a stiffener welding station with multiple heads welds the stiffeners onto the panel. This can also be done in an integrated solution where one machine both assembles and welds the stiffeners.
“It’s a more efficient tool and can be run by a single person instead of having a team of people welding,” Naquin says.
The latest Pemamek technology, which ECO adopted last year, is called the VRWP-C, which stands for vision robot welding portal – compact. The machine is a robot station that offers a compact solution for welding micro panels, but also works with small to medium-sized materials. One of the benefits of installing this automated machine is that due to its compact size, it can be set up easily and quickly, so production can commence at a fast clip. Another plus is that it’s easy to learn how to use, which is another perk to using Pemamek’s machines, regardless of the industry.
With the VRWP-C, the operator is positioned near the welding gun and able to monitor the progress of the weld. Utilizing Pemamek’s software, WeldControl 200 Vision, no
CAD files are required, yet the plate joining features allow for advanced material handling with a user-friendly interface.
Naquin says they purchased the VRWP-C robotic system to take advantage of the efficiencies and quality that was demonstrated by the initial Pemamek robotic system the company implemented.
“We learned to use the initial robot system for a lot more ship components than it was originally intended,” Naquin says. “This additional workload justified the purchase of the most recent VRWP-C. We expect to continue learning how to take advantage of the versatility provided by this equipment. The use of Pemamek robotic production systems is now a vital part in our shipbuilding efforts.”