The river’s edge

Gunderson Marine, one of the largest shipyards in America’s northwest, automates its cutting operations


From the shores of Oregon’s Willamette River, a flurry of activity takes place at one of the largest shipyards in the Northwestern United States. The team at Gunderson Marine in Portland is working at full throttle. Men and women hunch over plans, trucks back up to docks and forklifts move about loading and unloading large sheets of steel. The activity never stops with shifts running around the clock.

It’s been this way since the early 1940s, when Chet Gunderson decided to expand his then 20-year-old business with the purchase of 11 acres of waterfront property. Gunderson envisioned a shipyard, and with the United States about to enter World War II, his timing couldn’t have been better. Soon the lot was humming with orders to build gunboats, lifeboats and landing craft for the U.S. Navy.

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Initiative to modernize

Gunderson Marine, now owned by The Greenbrier Cos., has built thousands of marine vessels since then. Those vessels include every type of barge imaginable – ocean, deck, double-hull tank, railcar, dump, heavy industrial and numerous others.

For the vast majority of Gunderson’s nearly 100-year history, those vessels, and before that wheel hubs and trailers, were built using largely manual methods. Walt Stokman, a production coordinator for the shipyard, describes one aspect of production – the cutting of a part.

“We would cut everything by hand, primarily with an oxy torch,” he says. “We’d get the material, measure it to length, measure where cutouts needed to be, put down a template, mark the cutouts, cut everything out and then grind to try and make the cut look halfway decent.”

Gunderson managers knew that although their manual method worked, it wasn’t efficient. An initiative to modernize its facilities coupled with concern for its workers and an ever-worsening shortage of skilled labor resulted in Gunderson looking at automated options.

“Doing all this work manually is not the best for a person’s body,” Stokman explains. “You’re leaning out over the table, stooping and bending. We knew there were ergonomic improvements we could make. We also realized that we needed to reduce our manpower requirements. It’s becoming so much more difficult to hire qualified help or even just find people willing to be trained to do this work.”

In other words, the team at Gunderson knew it couldn’t continue to do business the way it had for the past 90 years and stay competitive. The company began its modernization efforts by adding three large CNC tables to its operation. The tables, equipped with Hypertherm HyPerformance plasma cutting systems, were a huge help as they allowed Gunderson to significantly speed up the cutting of flat plate. In addition, the company replaced some of its oxyfuel hand torches with Hypertherm Powermax air plasma cutting systems.

The company’s modernization efforts didn’t end there. Though its three CNC plasma tables made the cutting of flat plate much more efficient, the company still found itself doing a lot of manual work. Ideally, Gunderson was hoping to find a solution that would allow it to cut the many 3-D shapes required when building barges, in addition to plate.

“We researched quite a few machines, and narrowed it down to four or five, before ultimately choosing a 900,” Stokman says. “The winning feature for the 900 is that the robot is able to cut on all four sides of the steel of the structure.”

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On the shores of the Willamette River, Gunderson Marine has built thousands of marine vessels since opening its doors in the 1940s.

The ship comes in

The 900 Stokman mentions is the SteelPro 900 made by Inovatech Engineering Corp. in Canada. It’s a dual-purpose system offering robotic beam line cutting and standard plate cutting. A Fanuc robot holding a Hypertherm HyPerformance Plasma torch can cut all around beams and tubing, along with structural shapes, such as bulb flats (a long flat piece of steel with a short, tapered lip on one side), channels and angles, while the table cuts flat, base and stiffener plates.

Stokman notes this last part is a huge benefit.

“It has the plate table so when we’re caught up, we can cut 2-D parts,” he says. “If we need a rush part, we can just put that on the machine quickly. Or, if there is an engineering change, we can quickly cut a one-off part without interfering with production. It’s incredibly versatile. We can cut just about any shape we can dream up.”

The shapes are cut from mild steel and range from 1/4 in. thick to 1 in. thick. Once cut, Y-bevels and bolt-ready holes are quickly made using Hypertherm’s SureCut technology.

“Cut quality is very good, great actually,” Stokman says. “It exceeds all the standards we need to adhere to. Holes are nice and round; everything’s even.”

A job that used to take six people, now takes one; and because Gunderson is running three shifts, the savings quickly multiply. This allows Gunderson to move more people downstream, for instance, on to welding, helping speed up overall production. Stokman estimates that there are days when the company is putting more than 4,000 lineal feet of material through the Inovatech system.

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Building better

The ability to work so quickly is due in large part to the software Inovatech uses. Much of it is custom designed, such as the software Inovatech created to work with Gunderson’s ship design program. This software, which Stokman says was created for a fraction of the price other vendors wanted, allows Gunderson to easily import files.

“We are able to import directly into the nesting software,” he explains, “and then in short order all of our nests are ready, and we can cut material.”

Inovatech also added code to the nesting software (Hypertherm’s ProNest) to work with Gunderson’s specialized cut list. This software alone is credited with saving the company 24 hours of office work a week while also removing any potential for human error.

Despite all of this automation, the machine’s operator still has the ability to change power levels, speed, gas settings, arc voltage, cut height and pierce height at the operator station. Miguel Clement, a mechanical engineer at Inovotech, says, “The Hypertherm units are very well built so they can change power settings on the fly.”

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To modernize its operations, Gunderson Marine installed three large CNC tables on-site that are equipped with Hypertherm HyPerformance plasma cutting systems.

The system is also easy to operate.

“Training is quick,” Stokman says. “We’ve probably trained 20 people. After just two hours, they’re on their own and ready to run. It’s that simple.”

While Gunderson still uses oxyfuel for some jobs, such as trimming a bulk head and a chop saw for small jobs, for the most part all of its cutting is done with plasma. This includes the stiffeners that are so important when building any sort of marine vessel.

“The new system allowed us to re-examine the way we cut and attached stiffeners to our barges,” Stokman says. “We were able to change our design and the way we cut the stiffeners. The new way allowed us to increase our weld surface but decrease our weld size. We were able to speed up our welding process. Instead of a three-pass weld, we can now do a single-pass weld.”

So the weld is longer but thinner, which Stokman says actually makes for a stronger connection.

Gunderson’s decision to continuously innovate has served the company well for the past 100 years, and as the company begins its second century in business, Gunderson Marine is well positioned. Robotic cutting with automated plasma technology means the company is more efficient than ever. It’s building more and better barges, ensuring activity along the Willamette River will continue for years to come.

Gunderson Marine

Hypertherm Inc.

Inovatech Engineering Corp.

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