By Dan Davis
Dan Aronson, the president of P&A Metal Fab Inc., Clackamas, Ore., was faced with the metal fabricating version of the chicken-or-egg question: Should the shop invest in new laser cutting and punching technology and wait for
business to fill the new capacity, or should the customers be chased and lined up, pushing the shop’s
capacity utilization up, before a new investment in
fabricating technology is made?
It wasn’t the first time that the metal fabricator
had been through this type of purchasing decision.
The business, founded in 1978 by Aronson’s father
in a two-car garage not far from the shop’s present
location, has relied on new fabricating technology over the years to stay ahead of competitors,
whether they were low-cost overseas sources or
large Midwest firms with big reputations. That includes the latest in CO2 laser cutting machines for
sheet and tube, CNC tube bending equipment, CNC
press brakes, robotic welding cells, and even modular welding tables. The goal of every purchase was
to minimize setup and operator involvement and
maximize repeatability of fabricating activities.
Unlike other shops, P&A Metal Fab had a laser/
punch combination machine at the heart of its
sheet metal processing. In fact, it was 17 years old,
and it was the focus of the new-equipment-or-new-customers conundrum that Aronson faced. The
combination machine had done the job well over
the years, helping the shop floor turn around parts
with punched holes, embossed features, and unique
laser-cut geometries quickly and without having to
worry about parts heading to downstream operations. But the six-shelf material storage tower that
A fabricator’s take on a
It’s not the first choice for most fabricators,
but it definitely makes sense for P&A Metal Fab
All of the features on this part were laser-cut and punched on a combination machine.
Fabricating a new approach to nitrogen generation
Greg Burns is a mechanical engineer who is not
afraid to fabricate his way out of a situation.
Follow this storyline: Burns has raced motorcy-
cles since he was 12 years old, first in motocross
and later in desert racing. Along the way, he was
always looking to improve the performance of
his motorcycles, so he was always tinkering with
components. Around 2002 the emergence of
powerful four-stroke motorcycles changed the
nature of o;-road racing. One of the negatives
associated with this new style of motorbikes was
that they chewed up aluminum sprockets, with
most lasting about 15 hours. Burns went to work
and patented a new high-alloy steel sprocket
design that has a lifetime of at least 1,000 hours.
Today he operates Dirt Tricks out of his shop,
and he has a loyal following in the o;-road racing circuits.
This background is important to know be-
cause Burns is also a machinery builder and a job
shop owner. He has been designing and building
ring rolling machinery for the aerospace forging
industry since 1981. (These machines create the
seamless rolled rings that are used in single-tur-
bine jet engines.) in the 1990s he started buying
his first CNC equipment to make his machinery.
A;er farming out laser cutting for his sprocket
business for just over 10 years, he finally reached
sales that allowed his shop to justify the pur-
chase of a fiber laser.
“I needed to do a nitrogen cut in 0.25-in. alloy
steel, and everything pointed to a 4-kW fiber,”
Burns said. “But before we took possession of
that machine, we knew that the consumption of
nitrogen was going to be significant.”
Before taking possession of a Mazak Optiplex
laser cutting machine in July 2013, he and his
team of engineers went to work to find out what
it took to build a nitrogen generator. Plenty of
people provided general guidance, according to
Burns, but no one actually provided all of the de-
tails. Finally, he found the people who patented
the first pressure swing adsorption (PSA) nitro-
gen generator, and Burns hired them as consul-
tants. They pointed him in all the right directions.
Instead of paying for nitrogen, more fabricators are
looking at nitrogen generators to supply the gas to
their laser cutting machines. Burns Machinery has
developed a way to enable fabricators to change the
flow rate as they laser-cut di;erent materials and