Fluidity is key
April 10, 2007
Leading Edge Hydraulics improves tube cutting efficiencies with a high-speed cutter, plus integrated end forming for its fluid power tube manufacturing.
Tube fabricator Leading Edge Hydraulics, Rockford, Ill., supplies hydraulic tube components to the off-road and construction industry segment. The family business grew rapidly since its decision in 2003 to concentrate on hydraulic tube fabrication, rather than on general-industry tube fabrication. Year-over-year sales growth was 65 percent from 2003 to 2004; 45 percent from 2004 to 2005; and 18 percent is projected from 2005 to 2006.
The growth created a challenge in trying to meet customers' demands for a quick turnaround without maintaining a large inventory, according to Vice President Russell Dennis Jr.
"We felt like build-to-demand was the best approach," Dennis said."Instead of creating millions of dollars of inventory of finished goods and worrying about engineering changes, quality, cleanliness, and just managing all those dollars, quite honestly, just sitting there, we wanted to be able to find ways to shorten that lead-time, so that we're building what our customers want when they want it."
Ten years ago the company's lead-time was eight weeks. Today the lead-time goal is eight days.
The company moved from its former location to expand capacity, but still couldn't process material quickly enough using its current equipment, Dennis said. Although the company's automatic cold saw cutting machines consistently made precise cuts, the process was too slow for Leading Edge's particular needs, Dennis said.
"Truckloads of materials would show up, and even with our automatic cold saws, we couldn't react fast enough," Dennis said."Believe it or not, we actually see demand curves change within a month, because we're 100 percent build-to-demand."
At the same time, because the company had decided to concentrate on producing only fluid power products, it wanted to perform end finishing or chamfering on most of the tubes it cut. Cold-forming the parts meant eliminating seams, Dennis said."As our customers saw the benefits of getting rid of seams—potential leak paths—because we eliminated brazed joints with cold forming, we had to switch more and more to end finishing."
Dennis began exploring the possibility of installing high-speed cutting equipment to cut the tubes that then would undergo end finishing.
"The old philosophy was, cold saw cutting was better than nick-and-shear because you had a cleaner square cut, so that you could just brush-deburr them," Dennis said."But because we went to more of a chamfering process, because of the end forming that we needed, that wasn't such a big deal for us anymore. So then we could look at a high-speed nick-and-shear cutoff, because we were going to end-finish it anyway. So, who cares if it's a little rougher finish than cold saw cutting. And that's the key," he said.
Leading Edge purchased a Haven 873 high-speed nick-and-shear cutting machine."People will balk at the expense of a high-speed tube cutting machine at our level, but the problem was we didn't have as much control of our material flow as we wanted because we couldn't react quickly enough to our customers' short-dated changes," Dennis said.
Since implementing the high-speed tube cutting machines, the company now can cut in 10 days in one shift what used to require a month in two shifts using cold saws.
"We saw it as much more than a per-piece cost; we saw it as the flexibility to be able to respond to the peaks and valleys that our customers throw at us," Dennis said.
Next the company bought a Haven 912 double-end chamfering machine. The double-chamfering capability saves the time of finishing a single end and then rotating the part and finishing it again, Dennis said.
Dennis said that the high-speed cutting and end-finishing equipment the company purchased is more commonly used by bulk tube producers, rather than tube fabricators.
"Those guys are running maybe a day and a half on the same OD and wall size. They're not changing over lengths and diameters and wall thicknesses multiple times in a day typically. So they're not worrying about quick changes as much as we are," Dennis said."We're not a bulk producer, so we don't really have as much to cut.
"We wanted to be able to service our customers in the smaller batch sizes, but then the setup was kind of tough in that regard. So we had to look at the process and approach it differently."
Consequently, the fabricator needed to design its own quick-change tooling systems to reduce changeover time, Dennis said. So Dennis asked Haven to customize one end-finishing machine to process only the tube diameter ranges the company produces. This not only saved the cost of buying two machines, it made setups simpler because it eliminated the need to move from one machine to another, he said.
As part of continuous improvement efforts, the fabricator did value-stream mapping with its customers and identified areas for improvement, Dennis said."We broke our internal lead-time into chunks, and asked what areas we could combine together to decrease lead-time and increase the throughput," Dennis said.
As a result, the company recently integrated the high-speed cutting and its end-finishing machines with a material conveyance and elevator hopper system.The integration eliminated moving material from one operation to another, Dennis said.
"So now when you're running the end finisher, you're actually controlling the shear too. So the tubes are getting cut to length, then passed down a conveyor, then fed into the end finisher and chamfered," he said.
Because the integration was implemented only weeks ago, Dennis said it's too soon to evaluate the outcome, but expects it to provide a benefit he considers very important—enhanced flexibility.
"Most tube fabricators would have a tough time cost-justifying this equipment, because it is not inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination," Dennis said."But it's all about that flexibility."
"There may be times when that system is a little idle, but what it allows us to do is follow the customer demand curve. The customer will say, "Hey, we've got a chance to get in this big order; we need you guys to crunch a plan and see if you can make that happen."
So if they have a swing in our market of 40 percent or 50 percent from one month to another month—or week to week—it allows us that ability to just turn it on.
"Because the reality is, we've got this pool of labor and material—what do you want us to do with it, Mr. Customer? What is the best utilization of our resources for you to hit your goals? By not having a bunch of stuff stacked up against the wall, we can make what they want, when they want it."