The emergence of automated, special-purpose
machines—ones that were really fast at one process—over the last decade created these bottlenecks in many structural steel fab shops. Because
the shops failed to upgrade other processes, they
failed to capture the efficiencies that modern technology can deliver.
This has motivated shop owners and machinery operators to change the way they are thinking.
They realize they need to move away from a job
shop mentality to that of a factory, choosing machinery that will facilitate a smooth, consistent process flow through the shop rather than one that is
stop-and-start, depending on the automation level
or lack thereof.
Even when all of the single-purpose specialty machinery in a fab shop is operating at a balanced pace,
it still requires coordination and efficient material
handling to keep the steel moving from one process
line to another. The problem is that customers to
whom the shop is selling the steel don’t care if the
steel is lifted and moved three times, five times, or
500 times. They aren’t interested in the labor-hours
needed to process a ton of steel, but shop management should be. The shop has to realize that it isn’t
adding value to that piece of steel while it is moving
it. These shops should be seeking to eliminate as
much material handling as possible.
Unlike the auto industry, in which 500 tasks performed on a car are broken down into one-minute
operations, structural fabrication shops don’t get to
make the same thing over and over. That makes it
more difficult to streamline the process, but it’s not
One of the things that increases the possibility of
streamlining structural fabrication and eliminating
waste related to excessive material handling and
waiting has been the introduction of all-in-one systems that take full advantage of 3-D structural design
capabilities (see Figure 1). These machines can
eliminate several pieces of machinery and expedite
The process is relatively simple. After a building
or structure is designed in 3-D software, a click of
a button generates one file for each steel member
in that structure. If such a structure has 500 pieces,
the software produces 500 files, which then can be
shared with the fabricator. The fab shop then uses
it to create manufacturing instructions for its all-in-
one structural steel processing equipment.
The operator doesn’t have to guide the machine
by providing specific instructions, such as a hole
should be 2 inches from the end and 3 in. down.
The machine’s software takes its guidance from the
part file and automatically programs the machine
to make all the cuts and features needed. With the
press of the start button, a structural steel beam is
cut to length and bolt holes and slots are added, as
well as copes, bevels, notches, and cutouts. A part
number can even be placed on the beam.
A skilled worker would need a long time to duplicate the same job. The worker would need to read
the drawings and figure out the location for all the
holes and cuts. Then the worker would have to use
measuring and marking tools to lay out the cuts
and use various equipment such as drills, punches,
hand torches, grinders, and hand stamps to cut the
material. Steel fabrication machinery speeds up this
This structural steel processing technology can
even lay out and mark the position of other items
that need to be welded to the main beam (see
Figure 2). The data comes from a 3-D model, and
that 3-D model knows how all the pieces intersect.
Much of the effort previously required to prepare
the piece no longer is necessary. The layout marks
for other connection plates and stiffeners that need
to be welded to that main piece are made by the
machine, saving even more time.
Remember the lean manufacturing principle of
eliminating waste? Using this automated approach
goes a long way toward eliminating the waste of
defective parts because all the design information
covering multiple fabrication processes is transferred directly to the equipment. This approach of
transferring 3-D model information directly to the
machine reduces the possibility of errors in the field
and makes life a lot easier for erectors.
How This Changes the Shop Floor
Fabrication shops of all types have incorporated
all-in-one structural steel fabrication machines into
their operations in a variety of ways. Some small
and medium-size shops that focused on manual
operations never thought of process flow on their
shop floors. However, when they installed this type
of automated technology, it solved some obvious
production problems and quickened the pace of
fabrication. These structural steel fabricators were
forced to upgrade operations in the rest of their
shop to keep up with the automated equipment.
On the other hand, a lot of fab shops already have
some modern fabricating technology in place, such
as a drill line and a saw. These larger shops also
may have special-purpose machines for coping and
punching—all connected by conveyors and cranes.
This traditional approach to fab shop organization
is quite different from the concept of an all-in-one
Rather than replacing equipment that is still functional, and perhaps handling a healthy percentage
of its work, these shops might add an all-in-one
automated processing system and operate it in parallel with its existing drill line. Production that requires only bolt holes and cut-to-length could then
be sent straight to the drilling machine while other,
more complex parts that also include copes, bevels,
and notches go to the new equipment.
Applying Lean Principles
in the Structural Steel Shop
Fabricators of all sizes can benefit from the application of lean manufacturing principles. They apply to
operations with several machines dedicated to one
fabricating process or to shops with a single machine capable of several tasks. However, lean principles are more difficult to apply in multiple-machine
setups because it is difficult to balance processing
times for different machines and to move structural
steel pieces from one machine to another.
With an all-in-one machine, the shop can find efficiencies much more easily. For example, the operator can be doing different things while the machine is processing the part, such as offloading the
piece that just came off or preparing the next piece
to move on. Basically, the operator can be involved
in any activity that contributes to getting from one
piece to the next as quickly as possible, which reduces a key metric: labor-hours per ton.
In the end, these shops can rely on automated
structural steel processing systems to eliminate
waste. This approach lets them do less material handling, get materials out faster, and have better quality
control. Fabricators also begin to see where additional improvements can be made in their shop.
Paul Kwiatkowski is sales manager at PythonX, a Lincoln
Electric Company, 63 Innovation Drive, Hamilton, ON
L9H 7L8, Canada, 905-689-7771, www.pythonx.com.
Marking instructions on a beam eliminates the guesswork for those that have to erect the structural steel pieces.