October 14, 2008
FSI Fabrication makes products that help farmers quickly and accurately transport feed, grain, and other material.
The Curfmans live in Sunnyside, Wash., an enviable place amid the wineries proliferating in the Yakima River Valley, southeast of Seattle. Their company, FSI Fabrication Inc., manufactures products for what many would call an enviable industry: agribusiness.
According to much of the business press, farming's the place to be in this economy. Rising commodity prices have put a lot of money in farmers' pockets. But this hasn't made things easy. In fact, it's now more competitive than ever.
"A lot of what's driving changes in the ag industry is technology," said Silas Curfman, FSI's design engineer and son of the company owner. "I see [the technology] being driven by two primary factors. One, farmers need to care for and really maximize their yield in the field. Farming has become much more of a science these days. The farmer needs to know how much phosphate and nitrate is in what part of his field. This is driving one side of it.
"Two, the government regulations on all the waste material have stepped up. If you get rid of [waste material], the government needs to know where it's going, and you need to prove it."
FSI designs and fabricates a variety of truck-mounted spreaders with varying features but one basic purpose: to transport and dispense feed, mulch, manure, and other farm materials as quickly, safely, and accurately as possible, ensuring the right amount of material is spread at the right place. The shop's customer base falls into two categories: the rancher or dairy farmer who uses trucks on their own property to haul feed and compost; and the contract hauler who has a fleet of machines delivering and removing product from ranches and dairies (see Figures 1 and 2).
These customers have varying needs, so the 18-employee company uses a modular design concept to customize each truck bed. Managers recently upgraded to a Hypertherm HT2000 CNC plasma system on a C&G Systems Taurus cutting table. As Curfman explained, "The plasma allows us to make a nice, tight, square fit, but it allows us to keep things modular, so within minutes I can push out a different program to the plasma, and I can have a different product configuration."
A set of apron or draper chains wrap around the floor of the bed and act as a conveyor that moves product out the back of the truck beds, off one side at the front, just behind the cab—or both. Unlike many in FSI's market, the company offers truck beds that can off-load product in the back and the side. This means the draper chains driving the conveyor must go into reverse. But if the chains are loose (and they easily can be), they will pop over the sprockets and, ultimately, destroy themselves and surrounding mechanics.
FSI tackles the problem on two fronts. One, the plasma cuts metal to tight tolerances, creating a design that keeps extremely high pressure on the chain. Second, the company developed a single-acting hydraulic cylinder powered with a device inspired by, of all things, an ordinary hand grease gun.
"A hand-operated grease gun can put out 7,000 to 10,000 PSI," Curfman said, "and if you can capture all that pressure and put it against an inch-and-a-half shaft, you have quite a phenomenal force pushing against those chains. And we can run the fittings to all these grease take-ups to the outside of the bed, where the operator can easily reach them. He just puts a squirt of grease on them once every couple of days, and that pushes the shaft out and keeps those chains tight." The result is a spreader bed with a conveyor assembly that can handle massive loads in multiple directions.
FSI hinges its fabrication around modularity. There's one base design, but a few key changes here and there can alter the function of the mobile spreader entirely.
Using SolidWorks 3-D CAD, the company starts the basic design with two parts, the floor section with a conveyor system that removes the loads, and the body section (seeFigures 3 and 4). Programs are sent down to the CNC plasma system, which cuts openings in sheet that will become fixture points holding so-called hitch tubes. These are 21⁄2-in.-diameter rectangular tubes that act as channels for the chain and keep the entire assembly taut. Without precise location of various members, the chains would hit obstructions, wear quickly, and ultimately grind to a halt.
Within a day of receiving the PO, Curfman has an order out to Haskins Steel Co. Inc., a metal service center in Spokane that offers fabricating services, including some heavy-duty bending with a 20-ft. press brake of large mild steel panels usually between 3⁄16 and 3⁄8 in. thick. Viewed from the front, a cross section of the bed frame looks like two mirrored J shapes requiring several 90-degree bends. The truck's side panels involve some two- or three-angle bends, as well as some reverse bends (seeFigure 5).
Within a few days, the formed sheets arrive at FSI's door, at which point workers start building the floor upside down, integrating bracing and the chain-return channels (see Figure 6). While upside down, the bed is primed and taken into a booth for painting. After painting, the base is flipped, and workers start assembling the body on top of the bed.
The frame requires upright angular tubes, usually 4 by 4 in. or 4 by 6 in. with ¼-in.-thick walls, ordered in 40-ft. lengths and cut on a newly acquired Marvel band saw with ±45-degree mitering capability. Some tubes are stacked and welded together beforehand, while others are cut so they can self-fixture to the side of the body assembly, where workers weld them in place. The tubes are assembled to create window-box frames, within which are placed the large prebent sections received from Haskins Steel.
Modern farms are both larger and more regulated. A few decades ago a large dairy might have 500 cows; today most have more than 5,000. This means two things for fabricators like FSI.
First, the vehicles must be built for endurance. Saying the trucks get heavy use is an understatement. "We recently worked with one contract hauler who in less than six months hauled 4,000 loads with one truck," Curfman recalled.
Second, such large-scale, heavily regulated operations require data. Farmers need to know what they haul, how much, where, when, and even exactly how much material is spread on what parts of the field. Meeting the demand, FSI fits trucks with global positioning systems and electronic scales. The scales keep track of how much material is spread over a period of time (by weighing material at regular time intervals during spreading), and the GPS shows where the truck is when spreading the material.
"You marry this data up, and you get a pretty accurate picture of what parts of the field have how much material," Curfman explained.
Regulations are also pushing for green alternatives in agriculture, and this in turn has increased demand for FSI's product. Dairies, for instance, are getting into the mulch and fertilizer business. Curfman explained, "With the regulation on the use of fertilizers, it's becoming more attractive to use dairy waste and compost that's been carefully processed. The compost is much more desirable to spread on a field for fertilizer than buying ammonium nitrate or some other chemical fertilizer."
To convert manure into compost, dairies heat it, sift it, and heat it again, separating the liquids from the solids and "putting it through a specific process to take some of the nitrates out and turn it into true compost," Curfman said. "This compost is even desirable in urban areas for landscaping. It works great for dairies, because they love to get rid of their product—and they can sell it as a commodity."
Some dairies, he said, have even gotten into the power-generation business. "In our area we've got at least one methane-digester dairy that's feeding power back to the grid," he said. "And even in these cases there's byproduct that needs to be removed."
FSI's products are there to help. The company started serving ranchers and dairy farmers, but it's now finding their customers branching out to other areas, from landscaping to power generation. And though the applications may have changed, the basic demand has not: the need to haul and spread material as quickly, safely, and accurately as possible.
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