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Mechanical Contractor Switches to Automation, Increases Productivity Levels to Keep Up With Demand

Booming success can shrink your shop. Growing to the biggest and busiest HVAC and mechanical contractor in the Chicago area, Hill Mechanical Group was quickly outgrowing its facility.

"Even though we had five dedicated manual welding operators working full shifts and often two overtime welding operators, we still had a backup for seam welds," recalls Hill's Sheetmetal Fabrication Superintendent, Ron Strociak. "Sometimes there was so much rolled steel waiting, we couldn't get down the aisles of the shop. To reduce crowding, we were storing extra materials in rented 40 ft. trailers."

Then, Hill won the bid for a large fabrication and installation project: over 339,000 lb. of stainless and galvanized ductwork for an 180,000 square foot Searle pharmaceutical laboratory. With that project, Hill knew it was necessary to make a change in the shop.

With more work and materials pushing through the shop, employees couldn't keep up with the demand. Plus, a lack of skilled laborers made hiring new help almost impossible.

After years of contemplating automation, space, demand and labor issues forced Hill Mechanical to invest in an automated longitudinal seam welder from Jetline Engineering, Inc. with a Maxstar® 300 DC TIG welding power source from Miller Electric Mfg. Co. Now, Hill increased production by 40 percent and reduced labor costs by 50 percent. Plus, employee acceptance of the automated system is higher than expected.

The Birth of an Automated Welding System

Hill Mechanical fabricates and installs 100 to 200 HVAC ductwork projects annually. Each job involves 1,000 to 500,000 pounds of stainless, galvanized steel, aluminum and black iron, ranging in sheet metal thicknesses from 24 ga. to 10 ga.

To keep that much material moving through the sheet metal shop, Hill previously outsourced some of its fabrication to complete the jobs on time. The company originally planned to outsource all of the fabrication for the Searle job, but Hill Mechanical President Warren Hill believed that automation would be a more profitable option. He turned to Rob Schaefer, sales manager at Terrace Supply, an automation systems integrator and welding distributor in Chicago.

"Hill Mechanical asked me to figure out how to get more product out of the same square footage of floor space," Schaefer says. "It is relatively landlocked in its city location. The facility is tight up against other industrial buildings, so there was no opportunity for expansion."

The shortage of skilled sheet metal welding operators also created a problem. In many cases, Hill had to invest time in training workers without previous welding experience"when it could find workers at all. Looking to the future, Strociak was concerned that when the older welding operators would retire, there wouldn't be a lot of qualified young people to take their place.

"The projects take longer when we are short staffed, costing our customers time and money," says Strociak. "The last thing we want is to look bad to our customers."

Hill was also concerned with the manual MIG welding process they were using. It wasn't fast enough for their needs, and they were spending too much time cleaning after welding. Grinders had to clean off excess bead and spatter from all welded sheet metal.

"The grinding time unnecessarily added labor costs and slowed down production," says Schaefer.

Benefits of Automated TIG

The automated seamer immediately solved Hill's problems. It allowed Strociak to reduce the number of welding operators by over half"from five manual operators to two welding/seamer operators. The remaining laborers went to work in other parts of the shop where they were needed. Hill also freed up floor space by removing the unneeded welding cells.

By changing to the automated TIG process, Hill reduced the spatter, and thus the clean-up time, that existed with the MIG process. TIG welding also produces a higher quality bead and has a smaller heat-effected zone, which reduces the chance of warpage and brittleness (due to carbonation of the metal when heated for long periods). By switching to TIG, Hill also cut filler metal costs.

In addition, automation provides for a more reliable and consistent weld than manual welding.

"With automation, we know we'll get quality welds when we need them," says Strociak. "There's no way a person can lay a bead like the machine. It's a perfectly straight, flat bead and the penetration is consistent. You're not always going to get that quality with hand-held welding."

Hill's automated system also reduced welding time by almost 30 percent - 10 inches per minute with the manual welding operators versus 16 inches for the automated seamer.

Training on the seamer is also simpler and less time-intensive than training someone to weld by hand. This is particularly important in a market that is short on skilled laborers.

A Lesson in Seamer Operation

To use the Jetline seamer, the operator starts with a piece of rolled sheet metal. The operator slides the roll onto the mandrel, joins the loose ends, lines them up in the hold-down fingers and applies the clamp with a foot control. A back-up mandrel supports the work piece and can provide optional pre-heating or water cooling to the part.

Next, the operator chooses the correct program from the carriage control and pushes the start button. Once the welding is complete, the operator un-clamps the fingers with the foot control and slides the completed piece off the mandrel. The entire process takes only about four minutes, depending on travel speeds and part lengths.

Hill's 8 ft. length capacity seamwelder is one of a variety of seamwelders made by Jetline. Jetline's seamwelders range in length capacities from 2 ft. to over 20 ft. The seamer accepts rolled parts up to 40 inches in diameter. Hill's model 9627 Jetline microprocessor controller has a user-friendly front panel.

The seamer operator sets welding parameters on the Maxstar 300 TIG power source. The Maxstar's logical touch-pad system makes programming simple. It uses inverter technology, which provides superior arc performance in a compact, 90 lb. package. The small size saves space in Hill's crowded shop.

To add value to Hill's Maxstar 300, Schaefer recommended installing it on a TIGRunner®, a self-contained cart that houses the Maxstar 300 and a Coolmate™ water cooling system for reducing heat in the torch.

"It costs a little more, but now they have a mobile TIG power source. They can wheel it around the shop for other applications," says Schaefer.

Learning New Tricks

Schaefer provided training for two Hill sheet metal welding operators during two half-day sessions. They both learned quickly and saw the benefits of the seamer right away. Within the first three hours of training, one employee independently operated the seamer; by the second day, he worked at full production. When the workers experienced the seamer's easy operation and witnessed the high quality welds, they didn't want to return to manual welding.

"When I needed the workers to do a little more manual welding work, I had a hard time tearing them away from the seamer," Strociak says. "They would ask, "Do I have to go back to the bench? Why can't I just stay on the Jetline?'"

Training operators on the seamer proved to be much easier and faster than manual welding training. This will be particularly helpful when the older welding operators retire and there are fewer skilled welding operators to fill in the gaps.

Benefits of Plug & Play

Jetline and Miller formed an engineering partnership to design completely compatible, plug and play welding systems. Miller's TIG units, including the Maxstar 300, have a 14-pin amphenol on the front panel that allows compatibility with Jetline's line of microprocessor controls. This eliminates cable reconfigurations for the system integrator, saving time and labor costs.

"I made one connection, ran the cables behind the machine and attached the torch," Schaefer says. "We didn't charge for any integration. Hill just paid for two pieces of equipment and training. It took only about two hours to hook up the entire system."

For comparison, Hill's new coil line to fabricate non-welded rectangular ductwork took almost two weeks to set-up.

The Jetline/Miller system requires only one connection. Often, an automated system will have multiple cables, which can get damaged or lose proper connection. This can mean downtime for the customer and unnecessary visits from the integrator.

"The simpler the connection, the happier our customers will be," Schaefer says. "We recommended the Jetline/Miller system to Hill because we knew that the single connection was more reliable than a bunch of wires. Hill relies on us to recommend the best, most reliable equipment that will work well for many years."

Hill's Future in Automation

Hill knows that its investment in the Jetline/Miller seam welding system will continue to benefit the company for years.

"The seamer will definitely help us to bid more competitively, particularly in large lab-type jobs like Searle," says Hill's president Warren Hill. "My only regret is that we didn't buy the seamer sooner. We had to outsource the first 15 percent of the welding of the Searle project before we got the Jetline/Miller system. If we'd had the seamer at the beginning of that project, it would have paid for itself within eight months. As it is, we've seen a complete return on investment in about a year."

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