Structural steel fabrication is the means of shaping heavy metal pieces - I-beams, hollow structural tubes and the like into the shape needed in buildingconstruction where significant height and loads are involved. The essential technology involved is now being categorized into two categories: dedicated 'metal cutting metal' machines and flexible 'flame cutting' systems. The path chosen has distinct implications for fab shop productivity and profitability.
There are several companies supplying fabrication systems to structural steel fab shops, but of these, the most established firm is Peddinghaus. The Peddinghaus credo has been one of specialization - dividing up the numerous different functions that must be performed by the fabricator into distinct groups and then configuring machines focused on the different groups. The natural result has been groupings of equipment that focus on performing distinct functions on selected steel workpieces. This allows Peddinghaus machines to be very efficient at the operations it is designed to perform. The allocating of tasks among different machines gets all the jobs done, but with the price that any particular piece of steel likely must be processed on multiple machines (sawing, drilling, torch cutting), which extends thetotal time to complete the jobs and adds transfers of the steel between machines.
The 'new kid on the block' in structural steel fabrication, relatively speaking, is automated flame cutting. This flame torch cutting has been used for decades, but as an automated, as opposed to a handheld manual process, it is in its infancy. In this case, the 'flame' is the familiar plasma arc - customarily used to cut steel plate . The plasma cutter has been placed in the grip of a programmable industrial robot, which follows instructions about what and how to cut based on a determination made by proprietary software. The complete system, known by the brand name PythonX, is the first in what appears will be an increasingly popular format of structural fabrication machines. The PythonX philosophy is to convey the workpiece completely through the machine's 'work envelope', accomplishing every needed task: sawing, drilling, coping - even scribing alphanumeric characters - on the steel beam from start to finish. A completed piece emerges from the PythonX, rather than having to transport the workpiece from one machine to the next to get all the operations performed.
The PythonX philosophy inverts the Peddinghaus philosophy on its head, by using a single plasma cutting system to perform the work of 4 to 5 traditional machines plus a manual torch station. The result is less capital and less floorspace to host the combined structural fabrication capability of those traditional machines. Possibly more compelling is the fact that this 'one machine does it all' philosophy eliminates multiple transfers of workpieces between machines or 'out-in-out' of inventory while waiting on machines to finish their current job. This reduces material handling labor, and increases turns on working capital since steel beams don't back up between the various specialized machines.
To summarize, structural steel fabricators now have two distinct philosophies with regard to deployment of new fabrication equipment:
1. the traditional 'division of labor' approach refined by Peddinghaus over many years, wherein multiple machines are highly specialized for maximum performance on a narrow range of tasks, or
2. the 'one machine does it all' approach pioneered by thermal cutting wherein a solitary plasma cutter, combined with powerful software and industrial robotics, can complete all needed fabrication functions one right after another. In many instances, there is probably going to be a role for each fabrication philosophy path. Situations that involve a large number of bolt holes drilled in steel beams don't call for anything more than a beam drill line and bandsaw. On the other hand, jobs that entail more complicated steel sections - copes, notches, flange flush cuts, piecemarks - will be efficiently and completely processed on a single robotic plasma cutting machine. As the structural steel industry adopts and accepts the new thermal cutting machines like PythonX, the structural steel fabrication market will ultimately decide. More than likely, it will conclude that there's a place for both of these technology philosophies, the 'fit' being determined by the requirements and objectives of each individual fabrication operation.