Automating from the river’s edge

Automating from the river’s edge

Robotic cutting with automated plasma technology


From the shores of Oregon’s Willamette River, a flurry of activity takes place at one of the largest shipyards in the Northwestern United States.

The team at Gunderson Marine in Portland is working at full throttle. Men and women hunch over plans, trucks back up to docks, and forklifts move about loading and unloading large sheets of steel.

Gunderson Marine, now owned by The Greenbrier Companies, has built
thousands of marine vessels. Those vessels include every type of barge imaginable-ocean, deck, double-hull tank, railcar, dump, heavy industrial, and numerous others.

Gunderson managers knew that though their manual method worked, it wasn’t very efficient. An initiative to modernize its facilities coupled with concern for its workers and an ever-worsening shortage of skilled labor, resulted in Gunderson Marine looking at more automated options.

In other words, the team at Gunderson knew it couldn’t continue to do business the way it had for the past 90 years and stay competitive.

The company began its modernization efforts by adding three large CNC tables to its operation. The tables, equipped with Hypertherm HyPerformance
Plasma, were a huge help as they allowed Gunderson to significantly speed up the cutting of flat plate. In addition, the company replaced some of its oxyfuel hand torches with Hypertherm Powermax air plasma systems. Three large Hypertherm HyPerformance Plasma tables helped Gunderson speed up the cutting of plate in its large facility.

The company’s modernization efforts didn’t end there. Though its three CNC plasma tables made the cutting of flat plate much more efficient, the company still found itself doing a lot of manual work. Ideally, Gunderson was hoping to find a solution that would allow it to cut the many three dimensional shapes required when building barges, in addition to plate. They researched quite a few machines, and narrowed it down to four or five, before ultimately choosing a 900. The winning thing for the 900 is that the robot is able to cut on all four sides of the steel, of the structure.

The 900 is the SteelPRO 900 made by lnovatech Engineering in Canada. It is
a dual-purpose system offering both robotic beam line cutting and standard
plate cutting. A Fanuc robot holding a Hypertherm HyPerformance Plasma
torch can cut all around beams and tubing, along with structural shapes such
as bulb flats (a long flat piece of steel with a short, tapered lip on one side),
channels, and angles, while the table cuts flat, base, and stiffener plates.

The shapes cut from mild steel, range from ¼” to 1″ thick. Once cut, Y-bevels
and bolt ready holes are quickly made using Hypertherm’s SureCut technology.

A job that used to take six people now takes one; and because Gunderson is
running three shifts. the savings quickly multiply. This allows Gunderson to move more people downstream, for instance, onto welding, helping speed up overall production. Sickman estimates that there are days when the company is putting more than 4,000 lineal feet of material through the lnovatech machine.

The ability to work so quickly is due in large part to the software lnovatech uses. Much of it is custom designed such as the software lnovatech created to work with Gunderson’s ship design program. This software, which Sickman says was created for a fraction of the price other vendors wanted, allows Gunderson to easily import files.

We are able to import directly into the nesting software, and then in short order all of our nests are ready and we can cut material.”

lnovatech also added code to the nesting software (Hypertherm’s ProNest) to
work with Gunderson’s specialized cut list. This software alone is credited with saving the company 24 hours of office work a week while also removing any potential for human error.

Despite all of this automation, the machine’s operator still has the ability to
change power levels, speed, gas settings, arc voltage, cut height, and pierce height at the operator station

While Gunderson still uses oxy-fuel for some jobs such a trimming a bulkhead and a chop saw for small jobs, for the most part all of its cutting is done with plasma. This includes the stiffeners that are so important when building any sort of marine vessel.

The weld is longer but thinner which actually makes for a stronger connection. Gunderson’s decision to continuously innovate has served the company well for the past 100 years, and as the company begins its second century in business, Gunderson Marine is well positioned.

Robotic cutting with automated plasma technology means the company is more efficient than ever. It is building more and better barges, ensuring activity along the Willamette River will continue for years to come.

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