September 5, 2013
Star Precision Fabricating, Houston, has always had hardware insertion capabilities since it opened its doors in the early 1990s. It has added more machines as the need for additional capacity has emerged. The latest automated equipment addition is making a huge difference in the speed at which it processes assembly work.
Pyarali “P.R.” Umatiya is quite direct when asked what a fabricator needs to start up a shop: a punch press, a press brake, a hardware insertion machine, and a shear. He forgot one key ingredient, however: motivation.
In 1993 he and his partner came face-to-face with the need to consider a change in employment. The shop they worked for as the production manager and vice president of manufacturing, respectively, had new owners who were experiencing cash flow problems. Umatiya had worked his way up from shear operator at the shop, and as an employee nearing 40 years old, he knew that it would be difficult to find a similar position in the Houston area. It was just the right time to take a plunge into the sea of entrepreneurship.
Star Precision Fabricating was born 20 years ago in a small, 5,000-sq.-ft. facility. Umatiya, his partner, and one other employee tackled light-gauge fabricating projects with its Amada punching machine and press brake, a Haeger hardware insertion machine, and a 1966 Cincinnati shear.
“We were in the industry for 14 years, so some customers knew us,” Umatiya said. “The company we had worked for was having trouble getting materials and parts out on time. They were going down; we were opening up.”
The early days of Star Precision were like any other new business. Everybody did everything they could to help get jobs out. Umatiya was working in the shop most of the day, spending a lot of time finishing parts.
“I got so tired one day I said, ‘I need to hire someone to help me. I can’t deburr forever,” he said.
That led to the hiring of Maria “Mira” Mendez, a 5-ft.-tall bundle of fabricating energy, who celebrated her 20th anniversary along with Star Precision this year. (Umatiya called her “Mira” for the longest time because he didn’t realize that other Spanish-speaking employees, who were hired in ensuing years, were actually telling Maria to “look here,” not calling her name. By the time he realized the mistake, the Mira name had stuck.) The hiring also marked the first of many other steps taken to keep up with expanding business opportunities.
If a company is to grow its business, it also needs to grow its capabilities, which also typically means an expansion in floor space as well. Star Precision was no different.
It built a 19,000-sq.-ft. building in 1997 and eventually pushed out until it had 50,000 sq. ft. under one roof. During that time the equipment mix changed dramatically as well. The fabricator expanded its punching capabilities to the point where it added two Amada Vipros, the most recent being a Vipros 358 King with automatic material loader, to go along with its original Amada Pega. Lasers have replaced the shears as the main tool for cutting; Star Precision purchased an Amada Apelio laser/punch combination machine about eight years ago and has since added two 4,000-W Amada FO 3015 laser cutting machines served by a 10-shelf automated material storage and retrieval tower.
With laser cutting power, the metal fabricator found itself with the ability to cut thicker materials. Today it actively pursues jobs that involve 0.75-in. mild steel, 0.5-in. stainless, and 0.375-in. aluminum.
As a result, Star Precision had to boost its forming capacity. It acquired a 14-ft., 242-ton and a 10-ft., 100-ton Amada press brake to go with its five lighter-tonnage brakes.
Also during this time, the metal fabricator took on more machining jobs. It now has seven automated CNC lathes and seven CNC milling machines for basic machining operations.
“We have four different businesses under one roof: a machine shop, medium- to heavy-gauge fabrication, large fabrication, and electronics and electrical assemblies,” Umatiya said.
The latter is the one business that Umatiya and his partner never really envisioned in their “skinny” business plan 20 years ago. Today they fabricate parts and assemble products as complex as computers and audio systems. Some of these products have panels with as many as 20 to 40 pieces of hardware inserted into them. These types of jobs have kept Mira and her colleagues very busy at the hardware insertion presses over the years.
“A couple of years after we started, we had to buy another machine. We couldn’t keep working six days a week, 12 hours a day,” Umatiya said. “Well, my partner said he’d come in on weekends to make sure we’d keep up with the hardware. I told him, ‘If you’re planning to work Saturdays and Sundays, don’t count on me because I’m not coming.’
“About a month later, he said, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right [about the need for a new hardware insertion machine],’” he added.
Since then Star Precision has added five more presses. The latest addition, however, has given the shop a new level of efficiency that it hasn’t enjoyed before.
Umatiya saw the Haeger 824 OneTouch® 4e at the 2012 FABTECH® in Las Vegas. He first noticed the four automated hardware feeders attached to the insertion press. He made a deal for the machine right there.
The unit’s four bowls (see Figure 1) can accommodate fasteners from M1.5 to M10 with a maximum length of 40 mm. The machine’s software dictates the sequence in which the hardware is fed and then inserted into the workpiece.
Umatiya said that the machine’s placement of hardware helps to make the hardware insertion process mistake-proof. An operator can’t insert the next round of hardware on a workpiece until the first round of hardware insertion is complete.
“If it’s 12, then you have to put in 12 before you go to the second,” Umatiya said. “So it cuts down on missing hardware.
“When you have so much hardware installed on anything, it’s easy to miss a piece here or there. Once parts are finished and you find out there is hardware missing for that part, in some cases you just can’t fix it,” he added.
If an operator needs to replace a bowl with new fasteners, he or she has easy access to the thumb screws that hold the bowls in place. No Allen wrenches are needed. Changeover can be performed in 10 seconds, not minutes.
When a different type of hardware is needed, say a nut instead of a standoff, the machine’s bottom anvil and top tooling change automatically to accommodate the new piece of hardware. The machine software also controls and adjusts the feed rate, air eject time, and air pressure for feeding the hardware to the tooling prior to actual insertion.
If the operator needs to change out the tooling, he or she can access a built-in tool storage cabinet contained within the equipment. Changeover is aided by ease of access to the tooling and a quick-release mounting system.
The manufacturer of the equipment said the cycle time for delivery of a full-load insertion is about 2.5 seconds. Taking that into account and features like the automated tool changeover, this hardware insertion press is designed to reduce overall process time by 20 to 30 percent when compared to previous models.
“When I’m walking the shop, I shake my head. I started in ’79, when they came out with turret presses. Before that there were duplicators and kick presses. I used to run the machines,” Umatiya said. “Now these machines are so complex and sophisticated.
“My old boss, retired 22-plus years, came to my shop, and he can’t believe it,” he added. “‘How do you run these?’ he asked. I said, ‘I don’t run them. We have good employees, send them out, and get them trained.’”
The bar feeders on the lathes, the material storage and delivery system for the laser cutting machines, and the hardware insertion press that can accommodate multiple fasteners without stopping the job until it’s complete—all are examples of how automation is keeping Star Precision competitive not just domestically but internationally as well. The company was contacted recently to produce a small, 10-gauge stainless steel fabrication that called for laser cutting and bending. The company requesting the quote was a broker in China. In the end, the low wages in China couldn’t compete with Star Precision’s automation and proximity to the North American end user. The Chinese broker went with the Houston metal fabricator.
“I believe to compete with low-cost regions, you need automation,” Umatiya said.
Today Star Precision’s management team, which includes Vice President Barkat Umatiya and Plant Manager Vic Manoukian, and the company’s 85 employees are working to surpass the $20 million mark in annual sales. To improve on that figure in future years, they will rely increasingly on the latest technology. Umatiya estimated that the company purchases at least one piece of new equipment a year, and that plan is unlikely to change in the coming years.
Meanwhile, the shop has enough hardware insertion capacity to accommodate the current workload, but there certainly will be an opportunity to add another state-of-the-art machine in the coming years. Umatiya told Mira (see Figure 2) that when she retires, she can take her hardware insertion press and place it in her living room to remind her of her career at Star Precision.
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