Extreme weld makeover

Sfi, a large steel and aluminum fabricator with headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., and a second plant in Conway, Ark., manufactures industrial equipment components and subassemblies, from locomotive oil pans to crane outriggers, for large companies such as UPS, MTD, Caterpillar, FedEx, International, General Motors, Case New Holland, and Black & Decker.

Operating essentially as a large job shop, Sfi fabricates more than 350 custom products from carbon steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. The company has enjoyed double-digit growth in recent years and has continued to land contracts with new customers, including a recent five-year, $100 million contract with JLG to make a number of components for the company's lift cranes. Self Feed Drills

Extreme weld makeover

Sfi's success has not come without some growing pains. Just a few years ago, more than 80 percent of its business was focused on the tractor and trailer industry, making the company's success and profitability extremely susceptible to that sector's stability. After declaring bankruptcy, the company was purchased in 2002 by the Lermanfamily, which has invested about $40million to make over the company and upgrade its facilities.

In 2005 the family hired a new president, Greg Langston, an industry veteran with 28 years of experience working with Fortune 500 companies and managing operations in more than 50 countries. Though he may not have seemed like a natural choice at the onset, Langston demonstrated the Lerman family's commitment to turning Sfi into a world-class company with topnotch employees, facilities, and equipment.

Today the 50-year-old firm is on track to achieve this objective. It has diversified its customer base with expansion into other markets, including construction, mining, agriculture, and recreation, keeping on schedule to double its business over the next five years.

A major contributing factor to the company's success has been the re-engineering of its culture, focus, and facilities. Sfi, which can cut, stamp, form, bend, and weld almost any steel or aluminum component, closely examined every step of its operations for improvements. It adopted and integrated lean manufacturing and continuous improvement principles into its culture and work processes. It was determined at this time that Sfi's welding operations at its Memphis plant needed to be radically revamped and updated.

Realizing that this would require a major investment of time, money, and resources, Sfi and William Jacobi, Sfi's manufacturing engineering manager, met with a number of welding equipment manufacturers and invited two companies to install their equipment on the shop floor for a side-by-side, real-world test. After six months of working with each equipment setup on a variety of projects, the company selected 119 Lincoln Electric Power Wave® 355M and 455M inverter power sources. Sfi also installed a Lincoln Power Feed® 10M wire feeder for each power source.

"We realized from the onset what a major investment revamping our welding operations would be,"Jacobi said. "Welding is integral to nearly every project that goes out our door, so it was critical that we make the best decision possible for ourselves and our customers."

Sfi also asked that Lincoln and nexAir, a gas and welding supplies distributor, advise them on every aspect of the welding operations redesign, including equipment, welding wire, processes, welding curtains, floor coating, uniforms, personal protection equipment, lighting, and even paint color.

Members of Sfi's management team traveled to Lincoln's Cleveland headquarters to tour the facilities and meet with Lincoln's senior management and application engineers. Lincoln and nexAir set up a secure Internet site, which provided 24-hour, real-time access for team members and updates on project status and equipment installations.

Figure 1Sfi has expanded into the construction, mining, agriculture, and recreation markets and fabricates more than 350 custom products.

Sfi's welders have been using the Lincoln power sources and wire feeders for nearly a year now and have seen a consistent 15 percent productivity gain.

"Since we're a job shop and manage upwards of 300 different projects a year, the jobs on the floor vary widely from day to day. A welder can be working on a school bus bumper one day and a locomotive oil pan the next,"Jacobi said.

"With the Lincoln systems in place, we've seen an increase in productivity, which has allowed us to take on more projects. Based on current analysis, these machines will pay for themselves within two years."

According to Jacobi, the power sources have contributed to gains in productivity first through their versatility. The 455M, specifically designed for robotic, hard automation, and semiautomatic applications, is suitable for gas metal arc welding (GMAW), pulsed, STT, and flux-cored arc welding (FCAW). The 355M power source is used for high-end semiautomatic welding, but also performs shielded metal arc welding (SMAW), gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), GMAW, pulsed, flux-cored processes, and gouging. The power sources have also been partnered with robots for several robotic welding applications.

The company says that the machines have helped to eliminate spatter and have reduced the need for grinding and rework. The new machines also have given the welders more control over the welding process. For example, they are able to easily control burnback time, crater time, and start time, all of which produce a better-quality weld. This has contributed to the company's productivity increase and faster turnaround time on projects. On certain jobs, Sfi has been able to increase its welding output from 35 to 100 parts per day.

Sfi is also using Lincoln's Production Monitoring software™, which works intandem with the power sources. Thesoftware integrates digital technology to network the welding equipment and makes the data taken from the shop floor availableanywhere. In addition to monitoring weld data, the software allows for storing and sharing files, monitoring production tasks,setting weld limits andtolerances, and tracking consumables inventory. It also allows welding machine faults to be logged and e-mailed, while diagnostic troubleshooting can be performed from a remote location.

When Sfi began using the software, Jacobi said they noticed that a number of welders were experiencing large periods of downtime. As it turns out, these periods represented time that the welders werewaiting on materials or working on other tasks. The software allowed Sfi to identify and correct this problem, including improving the design of its flow of materials between stations.

Lincoln and nexAir conducted all of the initial training for Sfi's welders. This hands-on training, coupled with the power sources' easy user interface, allowed the company to minimize the downtime during the installation of the new equipment. Lincoln and nexAir are also responsible for training all new, incoming welders, and they regularly consult on new welding applications when needed.

"Our relationship with Lincoln and nexAir is different than any other vendor we work with. They are truly partners, invested in our company and committed to helping us be successful,"Jacobi said. "They are the only outside group on a first-name basis with our president. This speaks volumes about both companies and their team members."

Figure 2The company performed a complete redesign of its welding operations that included equipment, processes, weld curtains, uniforms, lighting, and paint color.

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Extreme weld makeover

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