Pipe Plant Retools Machining Process for Time Savings

The old saying, “time is money and money is time,” has a special truth in a machining facility. Plant Managers and Manufacturing Engineers endlessly scrutinize tools and processes in search of laborious tasks that can be sped up without reducing safety or product quality. In a multiple-shift plant, saving seconds in a task adds up to profound productivity over the course of a day.

For many plants, tooling can be a time vacuum, sucking up precious labor hours as an operator has to change out vises or set up the next job in the CNC machine. A group from Felker Brothers Corporation’s Marshfield, Wisconsin plant struck time saving gold when they recently replaced one of the plant’s machining center.

For the last 100 years, Felker Brothers has manufactured fabricated and custom-made piping solutions for a variety of industries, including wastewater treatment. Their Marshfield, WI, Plover, WI and Glasgow, KY plants see an incredible range of pipe sizes and materials with different drilling needs every day, which puts a strain on their hole drilling and deburring processes.

Felker used a drill press on a linear system and would contract out large jobs to a shop with a Pipe Laser System. Buying their own pipe laser was cost prohibitive, and plasma cutting didn’t provide the quality they needed. It also left behind dross buildup that needed to be cleaned, creating an extra step in the process. They turned to machining.

Josh Bohman, a member of the Product Development Committee (PDC) at Felker Brothers, came across the FlexCNC through internet search. 

The idea was turned over to MFG Group to capture the total cost of project, plant layout, site prep, setup, installation and work flow. Jim Kluball, Plant Manager, purchased a TRD 35-02, a 35-foot open-bed milling machine designed to save fabricators like Felker Brothers money and time while processing large or long components. The equipment was ordered in December of 2017, and installed June 2018, at a cost $260,000.

Previously, using a drill press, Felker Brothers had a multiple-stage process where an operator would mark and drill holes by hand, then slide the pipe through to the next position, clamp it in place, and repeat the process position to position, throughout the entire pipe length. Profiling was done on another process, at vertical CNC mills.

The FlexCNC, however, drills, mills, taps and bevels large or long parts in one setup. Gone are the days of sliding pipes through the fixtures, repeating processes hole by hole and making sure everything is perfectly level and in line. As an added bonus, they were able to eliminate a machining center, as the FlexCNC does the work of multiple machining centers in one. 

Now a programmer will program a part and send the program down to the machine. An operator brings the pipe in, sets it inside the machine with the proper fixturing and calls up the program. Whether it’s one hole or thirty, the mill does the heavy drilling. A fourth axis rotates to handle holes or profiled holes on some of Felker Brothers’ most difficult parts with 180˚ of rotation from the original holes.

The operator deburrs the pipe before taking it off and replacing it with a new pipe for drilling. Rinse and repeat.

Though the team at Felker Brothers was new to the CNC world, they found the new equipment very easy to operate, and the learning curve was lessened by training at FlexCNC.

“The major challenge was designing the correct fixtures to secure the product 3 – 14” pipe, making change-over quick and using the correct tooling. Programming is easy and ‘G’ code friendly,” Don Pannhoff, Manufacturing Engineer, said.

The Wisconsin plant handles pipe from 3-inches in diameter to 14-inches, up to 35-feet in length.  The majority of the stainless-steel pipe that they process is 4-inch pipe at 21-feet long, with 5/8 to 7/8-inch holes.  For the sake of illustration, they estimated that when they drill 5/8-inch holes every 8 inches in 4-inch pipe for a 21-feet length, they’ll see a 50% reduction in drilling time over their previous method.  For Felker, reduced drilling time allows the operators to split their time upstream and provides increased product going through the work center to increase sales.

In addition to saving time, the end result is more accurate than the manual process.  Demands and parts vary from day to day, but saving half of the time it previously took to drill a pipe could equal drilling twice as much pipe in one day.

 “Accuracy of the holes and location of the holes, be it on the same plane or location from the end, is another area where we’re seeing improvement,” Kluball added. Errors in layout would result in cutting the section out, splicing or butt welding a new piece of pipe. This required using extra material and introduced the potential of missing a ship date.

An added advantage to the FlexCNC came at the end of the pipes. Whereas laser cutting required an extra foot of pipe to grab the piece and rotate it, the FlexCNC can rotate the part as it is, saving the customer from paying that extra stock, which just ends up as waste anyway. Decreasing cost to the customer increases yield and gives Felker Brothers opportunities for more jobs, as happy customers spread the word. 

In the meantime, Felker Brothers are happy customers of their new FlexCNC TRD 35-02. By combining multiple steps into one process, the machining center handles some of their toughest parts faster than ever, producing more accurate parts in less time than drilling manually. Every second saved adds up to hours over the course of a day—and saving time while increasing productivity, accuracy, and performance is a no brainer for Felker Brothers.