Cutting house evolves into full-service fabricator
September 3, 2012
A bit about cutting tube and pipe from an interview with Bruce Benedict and Dave Clarke of Production Tube Cutting.
When the phone rings at Production Tube Cutting Inc., Dayton, Ohio, the sales staff has no idea what challenge awaits. They might find themselves working up a quote for a tight-tolerance length of tubing for a turbocharger or a part with normal commercial tolerances that will become a support piece for a high-heeled shoe. Regardless of the end use, a customer is a customer, and if the customer needs some tube cut, the staff tries to figure out a way to make it happen efficiently.
Although the company name says it does cutting, it’s involved in much more than that. Over the years it has expanded to become a full-service fabricator, providing machining, chamfering, deburring, bending, and assembly. PTC also has trained engineers that provide design assistance.
It would be difficult for a fabricator to survive by providing cutting services only, so PTC has expanded out of necessity; however, the Dayton environment might also have helped the company to grow.
CEO Bruce Benedict credits the Dayton area, which has a long history of innovation, with fostering an environment of entrepreneurialism. Dayton’s famous sons are Orville and Wilbur Wright, known for selling and repairing bicycles and later manufacturing their own bicycle brand, to fund their work on gliders (1899-1902) and the first airplane (1903).
“Everything on the first plane was built here in Dayton, Ohio—an engine light enough and powerful enough for flight, the fabric, the propeller—in fact, the wind tunnel they used for their research was developed in Dayton,” he said. The first heavier-than-air flight was a monumental feat, considering the complexity. The Wright brothers didn’t just develop powered flight, but something far more sophisticated: sustained and controlled flight. One hundred years later, modern airplanes have essentially the same features that the original airplane had.
“You’ve heard of Delco?” Benedict asked. “That stands for Dayton
Engineering Laboratories Co. For decades nearly every electric component in an automobile was developed and patented here. The cash register was invented here, which led to the founding of National Cash Register in Dayton.”
The area has always had an independent and entrepreneurial bent, and its flair for toolmaking and machine building has led to the development of an educated, diversified manufacturing base, Benedict said.
“Years ago I was acquainted with one of the ex-CEOs of NCR, and I recall him getting a wheel cover made for an old, rare, limited-production motorcycle he had. He said to me, ‘Dayton is the only place I know of in the entire world where I can get anything made,’ and I think that’s true,” Benedict said.
“While no longer affiliated with Vulcan Tool Corp., Production Tube Cutting is an outgrowth of Vulcan,” Benedict said. PTC capitalized on the Brehm die, which uses an inside-out cutting process to produce lengths of tube that are commercially burr-free on the OD. A supported shear process, it produces parts with little distortion and no material loss between cuts. The die requires some expertise and time to set up, but once it’s up and running, it’s a fast process, capable of producing more than 3,000 parts per hour, depending on the application. While the maximum part length is 24 in., it can cut lengths as short as 0.040 in. and handle wall thicknesses down to 0.005 in. A typical tolerance is ± 0.010 for the Brehm process.
“You’d rarely set up this process for a run of 500 pieces,” Benedict said. “The setup time would kill the profit. But it works well for high-volume applications, primarily automotive.”
Growth in the automotive industry propelled PTC’s growth for decades. During the year PTC was founded, 1959, the U.S. automobile industry put out 5.6 million cars and light trucks.
Ten years later its output had grown more than 50 percent to 8.7 million cars and trucks, and 10 years after that it was up another 7 percent to 9.4 million. Other industries were growing, of course. The durable goods industry employed 8.7 million workers in 1959; it would grow to employ 11.3 million 10 years later and 12.1 million by 1979.
PTC didn’t put all of its eggs in one basket. While the supported shear process is well-suited to high-speed, high-volume, burr-free applications with no scrap loss, Benedict acknowledged that the process doesn’t make an exact square cut; viewing the piece from the side, it’s not a rectangle, but a slight parallelogram. In other words, the trade-off is that the process is suitable only for applications that can tolerate a not-quite-square cut. Like every fabricating process, it’s a good fit for some applications, but not others. Accordingly, PTC expanded the list of cutting processes it offers, which now includes sawing and lathe cutting, enabling the company to make square cuts on parts from 0.010 in. to 5.250 in. OD in lengths up to 24 in.
“I don’t know of any other fabricator that can cut the range that we cut,” Benedict said. “We can cut diameters up to 6 in. and down to 0.010 in., and we cut wall thicknesses from solid to 0.005 in., which is like trying to cut foil,” he said.
Over the years the company has expanded the fabricating services it offers, too, adding:
A company with a substantial fabrication capability, and long on experience, can be a big help to its customers, lending its expertise in some of the finer points of manufacturing.
“People continually push the envelope on tolerances,” Benedict said. “Usually when someone new to this industry sees a tube on a print, they see a circle—a perfectly round circle. That’s not the case, ever, because tubing is never perfectly round. Some of the tolerances we see are completely and totally off the map. For example, we have a tube bending application in which we bend, chamfer, and cut a fairly small tube for an automotive client. It has two bends, and the engineer specified tolerances for the radii and an end point for the tube. The problem was that when you stacked all the tolerances, the end point of the tube could be as much as a half inch off spec,” Benedict said.
“On that part, each bend had a different radius,” said Vice President of Sales Dave Clarke. “I wouldn’t say it was a simple part, but we simplified the part. We asked some questions about the application and learned about the restrictions, then proposed some changes and took the customer some samples, tried them in their fixtures, and got approval for a much simpler design. We took quite a bit of cost out of the part,” Clarke said.
Taking the time to help its customers in this way isn’t a huge hurdle, but it is a hurdle nonetheless.
“Everyone’s time is at a premium, so they’re hurrying to get parts out for quote,” Benedict said. “Some of the experience that went into these projects is leaving as engineers retire.”
“Nearly every tube we get these days, it seems, has OD and ID chamfers,” Clarke said. “We’re familiar with a lot of the applications, and really they just don’t want a burr. They don’t realize that deburring is a less expensive process than chamfering.”
The combination of cutting, fabricating, and machining services provides PTC’s engineering staff with quite a bit of latitude in finding the best way to fabricate any given part. For example, it converted a 2-in.-dia., 11⁄4-in.-long part with an OD chamfer from machining to saw cutting. It required care in how it was manufactured; its OD and ID tolerances were half of commercial tolerances. The PTC staff devised a process on a transfer machine so the part is now cut and chamfered in one setup, thereby preserving its length tolerance (±0.002 in.). The final process is pressing it over a die in a ram former to eliminate any ovality.
Can a small company compete nationally, or even globally? Indeed it can. One factor that has helped is the globalization of manufacturing, and one clear example is the automobile industry. At one time the various tier suppliers focused on just the Big Three. Now the New Domestics—notably BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, and Volkswagen, which have plants in Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and Ohio—bring more opportunities for small fabrication companies. Although they have headquarters in foreign countries, they source globally.
“These companies are making a lot of investments, long-term investments, and they are looking for domestic suppliers,” Benedict said. “In the last three or four years we have picked up work from companies with headquarters in Europe and Asia because they work here.”
At the same time, the value of the U.S. dollar, which has been low compared to other currencies, has aided PTC’s ability to export.
“We have been able to export products to Canada and we’re still competitive in Mexico,” Benedict said.
Technology also plays a role.
“We still ship to China, although that’s probably more technology-based. In other words, we’re making parts that they don’t have the knowledge or equipment to make,” he said.
Will that gap shrink? Benedict acknowledged that it’s inevitable, but Production Tube Cutting has something many overseas manufacturers don’t have: 50 years of manufacturing experience steeped in the Dayton area’s culture of entrepreneurialism and innovation.