New plasma machine bolsters productivity and helps company process over 60,000 pounds of sheet metal a week.

MISSISSAUGA, Ontario - In 2003, things were going well for Alpha Free-Flow Industries Ltd., a Canadian sheet metal contractor.

The Mississauga, Ontario-based company had just moved into a new building with 35,000 square feet of manufacturing space, and its 20 full-time people were busy making about 30,000 pounds of sheet metal products a week. But they felt the company could do even more, perhaps even double their production.

However, according to Terry Pierce, a 28-year employee and general manager, they knew they couldn't do it with just their current equipment, especially their existing plasma-cutting system, which dated from 1992. That year, the company had bought a Coiline system from Engel Industries and an MG plasma table.

"The MG was a great machine at the time, and the Engel Coiline allowed us to start cutting our own sheets, which cut down on waste to the customer," Pierce said. "We purchased a five-coil line and we kept the five common gauges feeding the CNC (computer numerically controlled) plasma at all times."

Alpha also wanted to avoid hiring more workers, if possible, Pierce added.

"When the labor cost is $43 an hour Canadian," he explained, " it didn't take long to figure out that it was a good move to buy a machine versus hire additional people."

Shop Data Systems Inc., a Dallas-area HVAC software maker whose product Alpha used on its current equipment, suggested the company consider a 20-foot machine from sheet metal equipment maker MultiCam, even though Alpha did not then make such large fittings.

Company officials were impressed, Pierce said.

Alpha Free-Flow General Manager Terry Pierce stands next to the 20-foot MultiCam plasma table the company bought to increase its capacity.

Local access

"We liked the fact that MultiCam had a local technology center in Toronto and their machine gave us the capability of cutting the whole length of the table or running it as two 10-foot tables," he said, adding that within six months, the company was making 20-foot fittings.

Now Alpha mostly uses the 20-foot table to work on one 10-foot sheet while unloading and loading another one at the opposite end of the table. They call this "pendulum processing." However, they do still have some need to machine large parts, officials add.

"The MultiCam has improved efficiency to such a degree that we use our older CNC plasma as a backup," Pierce comments. "We've been able to increase our production to an average of approximately 60,000 pounds a week and our best week ever has topped 100,000 pounds. The MultiCam has been able to keep up with all our requirements and we have maintained our work force at approximately 25 people."

The MultiCam CNC machine was outfitted with a Hypertherm Power Max 1000, a 60-amp plasma unit. "The new plasma units seem to burn much cleaner, with less heat," Pierce said. "On the older machines, the operator had to wear gloves when he picked up the part. Now he can pick up the part with his bare hands as soon as it is cut and the edge finish is much smoother. We are cutting significantly more sheets per tip, so we are not buying as many tips as we used to."

The MultiCam CNC plasma has a hand-held operator interface, which "works well when the operator has to move down the table to see where he is starting and finishing a cut," according to Pierce. "The dual-side AC servo-drive system has improved our cutting speed and production capabilities dramatically over the older, belt-drive technology."

This elbow was made for a General Motors Corp. plant in Oshawa, Ontario.

New software, too

Alpha also chose to update its programming software. Shop Data recommended a product from Quote Express, which allows users to download the quote to the programming software and eliminate double entry.

"This has been a tremendous time-saver," Pierce said. "We also really like the nesting software. We can take a 90-degree elbow that is too large to fit on a sheet and nest it as two 45-degree elbows. It can then be machined on the MultiCam 20-foot table, and the customer has the reinforcement on the fitting before it ever leaves the shop."

Alpha Free-Flow also bought Whisper Lock and Corner Caddy machines from Lockformer, which allows approximately 95 percent of their ductwork to be sold assembled, Pierce said, adding, "No one in Canada was doing that until we started. Our contractors found that was the best way to take the product."

All these changes in the shop and industry make Pierce reflect on his career with the company.

"When I first started, we were using a hand-layout machine and a projector that shot parts on the sheet. We traced them out and hand-manufactured the components," he said. "At the time, we were only manufacturing spiral duct."

Today, the company's products include aluminum flexible duct and fittings, and "PVS" duct, which stands for polyvinyl chloride steel. This plastic-coated ductwork is commonly used in under-slab installations. Alpha uses a high-speed pneumatic marking scribe on the MultiCam machine to mark the product.

(This article was supplied by MultiCam L.P.)