October 2017
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Keeping Up with Material Changes

Steel and aluminum mills continue to develop newer grades of their product, forcing makers of processing equipment to keep pace
 
By Dan Markham, Senior Editor

 

Pushing the capabilities of coil processing equipment is an absolute necessity for manufacturers, in large part because producers keep pushing the limits on the coils they have to process.

North American steel producers and their aluminum counterparts are in a pitched battle to produce stronger and lighter materials to meet the demands of automakers and other end users. The steel industry is in its third or fourth generation of high-strength steels, with no end in sight to the development of these grades. Aluminum makers are not standing pat, also ratcheting up the attributes of nonferrous products.

Such competition has forced makers of slitters, levelers and cut-to-length equipment to innovate, creating more formidable equipment to meet these more challenging materials. It’s just one of the tasks that keep coil processing equipment manufacturers in a similar technological revolution.

“A lot of what we’re hearing from customers has to do with broadening their capabilities to handle some of these new products being manufactured — high-strength, lighter gauge stuff,” says Al Weigand, vice president of sales and marketing for Butech Bliss, Salem, Ohio. “We’ve sold multiple shears in the last two years to steel mills, because they’re having to replace existing shears in order to run this higher strength steel.”

But the task is not just to handle stuff today that’s stronger than it was yesterday, but to build machinery capable of processing what the mills develop for tomorrow. “The challenge for us is to design a machine that can withstand the deflection and forces that you’re going to encounter. As yield strength goes up, the demand on the equipment increases with it. You’re having to cut material that’s much tougher than the conventional types of low-carbon steels,” he says.

Mills that may be producing a certain yield steel today have indicated to the equipment makers that it may grow by a significant amount in the next wave of development. Building equipment to meet the attributes of material that doesn’t exist yet is a test of the skill and engineering know-how of the equipment makers.

“We’ve been leveling all the way up to 225,000 psi yield,” says Jim Sugars, industry sales leader of Group Processing Lines for the Bradbury Group, Moundridge, Kan. “That takes a lot of engineering technology because it’s not just the force you have to put on there, but it’s the amount of pressure going into the bearings. We’ve seen the movement toward higher strength, lighter gauge steels. And aluminum is actually more difficult to level than steel.”

At Red Bud Industries, one change they’ve incorporated into their machines is to create easier to ship and install equipment for their customers. They’ve begun building their stretch-levelers on a fixed, rather than an adjustable, length. The machines become easier to ship and reduce the foundation requirements in the plant. “They can be done much more quickly than what had historically been the case, says Jeff Herrell, sales engineer for the Red Bud, Ill.-based manufacturer.

But these are not the only demands customers are putting on the equipment makers. As every company in the manufacturing industry is acutely aware, while the emergence of the next generation of steel and aluminum is a certainty, the availability of the next generation of workers is decidedly more murky. Participants up and down the supply chain are struggling to find willing and able employees to run machinery, a problem exacerbated by the age of the existing workforce.

“One of the common themes, no matter where we go in the world, is how hard it is to find people,” says Herrell. “It’s always on our mind, as equipment builders. That is a signal to research automation and look at ways of doing much more with fewer people. That’s where I see things going in the future, while maintaining the high production ratings and quality standards.”

Even when a company has the people on staff, the human interaction with machinery allows for the possibility of error. Equipment manufacturers are trying to lessen those opportunities by continuing to make their machines smarter. Whether it’s through inexperience or simply because two operators run machines in a slightly different way, employees may be using more guesswork and variation than optimal operation calls for.

“The smarter we can make our machines, the easier it is for our operators and our customers. With a consistent product, everyone knows what to expect,” says Sugars.

 Bradbury’s Flat Trak CL is an example of that kind of smart machinery. Using lasers to identify the shape and other aspects of the material, the machine will make the suggestions on how to adjust the leveler, which can be implemented either manually or automatically.

“We get an accurate shape profile, and a standard way to correct the shape or adjust the leveler to adjust the shape. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any fine tuning. Not every coil is alike, but we get everyone started down the same path,” Sugars says.

Feedback doesn’t just come from the machines, but the machine operators. “As equipment builders, not everything is a home run. There are areas or things that can be modified or improved to make them better on existing machines, and on the next one,” says Herrell. “We try to continue to develop our relationships with the customers that operate the equipment. The best machine we build is the next one.”



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Wednesday, January 17, 2018