Structural fabricator expands range to process 80-ft.-long beams

2022-06-15 13:17:29 By : Mr. Billy Chen

Expanding fabrication capacity has been an earmark of Haas Metal Engineering’s (HME Inc.) cycle of growth since its inception in 1996, so it was only natural for the fabricator to add structural beam processing machinery for very long beams. HME selected a Peddinghaus BDL-1250/9D drill line, a DG-1250 band saw, and a single-torch coping machine. Cody Bishop, machine operator, runs the heavy beam line. Images: HME Inc.

Expanding fabrication capacity has been an earmark of Haas Metal Engineering Inc.’s (HME, Inc.) cycle of growth since its inception in 1996, so it was only natural for the fabricator to add structural beam processing machinery for very long beams.

In fact, the company was founded on expansion, explained HME President Jon Haas, PE, and Chief Operations Officer Rob Mohan.“HME started as a college class project for writing a business plan. My plan was to build metal fabrications for the construction industry,” Haas said. Before the class ended, Haas was bidding miscellaneous metals jobs to local contractors and had landed his first job.

“Before incorporating back in 1996, when I operated out of my garage, it seemed all you needed to fabricate was a spreadsheet for estimating, CAD for submittal drawings, and a couple of tools—cutoff saw, torch, grinder, mag drill, and a welding machine. I was the estimator, detailer, fabricator, painter, and delivery guy,” Haas added.

As demand grew, Haas quickly realized a need to add people, he said. “Hiring great people was difficult, and as we hired great people, we also realized we needed to have good equipment and tools for them to work with. That’s when our cycle of growth started. We’d hire great people, purchase great machines, and repeat.”

Today HME is an AISC-certified provider of high-quality structural steel, custom metal fabrication, and erection services. The company continues to grow rapidly. “We proudly employ nearly 400 employees,” Haas said. In addition to its headquarters and production facility in Topeka, Kan., the company staffs satellite offices in Dallas; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; and Manhattan, Kan., to serve its customers across the U.S.

HME has supplied heavy fabrication for large industrial warehouse complexes, hospitals, aviation hangars, football stadiums, and aerospace facilities for clients such as UPS, FedEx, and the U.S. government. Through increases in production capacity and efficiencies, the fabricator was able to complete more than $160 million in structural steel contracts in 2021 and expects to continue that annual revenue growth rate in 2022.

Recently, the fabricator wanted to expand its beam processing range to fabricate beams up to 80 ft. long and 800 lbs./ft. “Doing so would allow us to have a dedicated heavy structural line to tackle projects with larger fabrications,” Haas said.

“As we have grown, we’ve seen the opportunity to supply for tall manufacturing buildings and large warehouses. The growth of these types of buildings has exploded as a result of heightened online ordering during the COVID pandemic,” Haas explained. “These very tall warehouses with no intermediate floors mean that the columns need to exceed 60 ft., our current capacity. Many columns are going up to 80 ft. tall, and they're very, very heavy. And then the spans on those are also getting to be very long. We needed fabrication equipment for building long trusses and heavy girder beams.”

In addition, the fabricator sought to add significant fabrication and welding capacity to accommodate its growth—without disrupting its existing operation and without the need for additional manpower. “Our main fabrication plant was already operating at full capacity, and adding fabrication space to the existing facility was not practical at this time. We needed additional fabrication capacity on a pretty tight schedule,” Haas said.

“We have to be flexible and versatile. We like the idea of having a large variety of project types to work on so that if one industry is down, or one geographic region is tapering off, we can make sure that we keep our shops full,” Haas said.

Haas believes that hiring great people is an integral part of the company’s cycle of growth. HME has an extensive recruiting program called Skilled Student Program. It includes employing a weekend crew of engineering and business students from local universities as well as offering part-time employment opportunities for students attending technical schools. Here, Dayne Eaton (left), operations staffing manager, gives a tour to Washburn Tech welding students.

Several dynamics influenced the situation. “The pandemic significantly impacted equipment schedules and the supply chain and extended our backlog. This made our need for additional production capabilities even more urgent,” Haas said.

The challenges inherent in the skilled operator shortage factored in. Cost, space, and safety were considerations as well.“It was important to us that we stayed within a reasonable budget and footprint.”

COO Mohan is one of those great people that Haas hired. He also had collegiate beginnings with structural metal fabrication, having been introduced to the company as an engineering student through his senior design project. He joined the company right out of college and has been employed there for more than 19 years.

Mohan and his team spent several months evaluating, sketching plans, visiting other plants, and discussing options with equipment suppliers to determine the best fit for the company’s needs.

“Ultimately, we selected equipment with the ability to handle long, heavy members in as small a footprint as possible with delivery schedules aligned with our production needs at an affordable cost,” Mohan said.

The saw, drill, and coper are housed in one building, all in series. The cross transfers and conveyors are outdoors.

“By keeping the machines next to each other, we were able to keep the footprint down to 80 ft. of infeed and 80 ft. of outfeed with a 50-ft.-wide building between them that houses the equipment,” Mohan said.

All the material handling—the forklifts and sky track-type telebooms—is done outdoors where there is plenty of space to move around and sort materials. The beams are loaded onto the 80-ft.-long cross transfers, rated for the 800 lbs./ft. “We can move a long, heavy item in quickly, get it through the processing, back out, and then load it on the trailers for the welding operations,” Mohan said.

One drawback of the integrated layout is that one beam occupies all three of the machines at the same time. When the saw is sawing, the drill can't be drilling; when the drill is drilling, the coper can’t be coping. Theoretically, a “split” layout in which the three machines operate independently could process beams faster. However, Haas and Mohan determined that the integrated layout would be best overall.

“We gave up some production speed with this arrangement but saved approximately 220 ft. of conveyor distance that we would have had with a split system,” Mohan said. “Also, we liked the idea of having one operator being able to operate multiple machines rather than needing an operator for each machine. That really saves manpower when there's such a worker shortage because of COVID.”

The fabricator expanded its beam processing range with a Peddinghaus DG-1250 band saw, a BDL-1250/9D drill line, and a single-torch coping machine to fabricate beams up to 80 ft. long and 800 lbs./ft.

Once the beams, columns, and subcomponent parts are processed on the beam lines, angle lines, and plate processors at the main plant, full loads of them are then put onto trailers and staged for the next operation.

“Ideally, the beam assembly never touches the ground,” Haas said.

Mohan reports that the system is gaining efficiencies quickly and has helped the fabricator meet delivery schedules, even during a time when the pandemic has severely impacted the supply chain, construction schedules, the ability to hire skilled workers, and, subsequently, its backlog.

“Productivity is increasing daily as we work through material handling issues, staff training, and jumping through hoops to meet schedules. A true productivity analysis is still a work in progress, but we are pleased with the results so far and look forward to gaining even more efficiencies with each passing month,” Mohan said. Not only did HME gain capacity to process long, heavy members, it was able to achieve its other goals as well.

“We were able to complete installation and startup in a timely manner, despite some pandemic-related supply chain issues,” Haas said. “And we were able to keep the project within budget.

“It's been a learning curve, but I'd say the best way that we manage that is by putting great people with open mindsets on how to get stuff done. Once again, we hire great people, purchase great machines, and repeat!”

HME Inc. installed a Peddinghaus PeddiAssembler and four PeddiRotators to weld subassemblies and full assemblies. The robotic assembler tack welds components for a range of projects. Then the assemblies are moved by forklifts and sideloaders to one of the four PeddiRotators, which automatically rotates them for safe final manual welding.

The robotic welders and rotators were installed in a previously occupied warehouse in downtown Topeka. Retrofitting the warehouse for the welding operations presented big challenges, however. The warehouse is approximately 40,000 sq. ft. with ceilings only 16 ft. high and no overhead cranes. It had only one dock with accessible overhead doors. It was necessary to modify the building, including cutting a 24- by 14-ft. ground-level opening for an overhead door to accommodate the unload and load trailers and to remove a mezzanine.

Once the building challenges were resolved, the equipment has proven worthy. “We feel that the PeddiAssembler combined with the PeddiRotators and Combilift forklifts were the perfect combination for adding fabrication capacity in the old warehouse with low roof height and no overhead cranes,” Mohan said.

Now the biggest challenge is keeping materials in front of the PeddiAssembler so it operates continuously. The component parts must be organized and ready to go onto the parts table along with each particular beam, Haas explained. “A lot of time is lost if all of the components are not organized on the front end. If even one part is missing, the robot cannot weld that particular assembly. Anytime the robot’s not tack welding, it's basically a boat anchor.

“This concern has forced us to become better planners, schedulers, and experts on the logistics of having the right materials in the right places at the right time,” Haas said.

See More by Kate Bachman

Kate Bachman is STAMPING Journal editor. She is responsible for the overall editorial content, quality, and direction for STAMPING Journal. Bachman has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor in the manufacturing and other industries.

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