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February 26, 2018

ESAB, a world leader in welding and cutting technologies, has retrofitted new CNC and plasma cutting systems to a 12-year-old Suprarex cutting machine because the customer, Northerntrack Ltd, wanted to future-proof production and ensure the machine would have high availability and reliability for many years to come. In addition to upgrading the CNC control system from a Vision PC to the latest Vision T5 system, and the plasma from an ESP200 system to an m3 Plasma™ system with EPP-362 Precision Plasmarc® power source, Northerntrack also replaced its Columbus II CAM software with the newest Columbus III version. The complete retrofit cost substantially less than buying an all-new plasma cutting machine, yet Northerntrack is now benefitting from state-of-the-art cutting capability that is expected to last another ten years or more.

Northerntrack manufactures high-quality demolition and related work tools for excavators. In the 12 years since purchasing the Suprarex, Northerntrack had found the machine to be robust, reliable and easily capable of profiling the requisite components. However, the company had recently started to find it harder to source spares for the control and plasma systems. This represented a risk to the business because plasma cutting is the first operation in the entire production process, so any unavailability here could bring the factory to a halt.

Andy Hair, the owner of Northerntrack, explains why he decided to upgrade his existing Suprarex: "The machine had served us very well for a long time, so we could justify replacing it, but we explored all of the options. We had quotes for new plasma machines from ESAB and other suppliers, but ESAB also quoted us for retrofitting the latest control and plasma systems, and upgrading the software to Columbus III. As our Suprarex had always been properly serviced and maintained, and the basic frame looked like it would last forever, by far the most cost-effective option was to modernize it by retrofitting the latest technology. Furthermore, we have a very good relationship with ESAB and, while they are seldom the cheapest supplier, I know from experience that paying for ESAB's quality brings long-term benefits."

At the time of the retrofit, Northerntrack was also relocating, so ESAB was contracted to move the Suprarex and then carry out the upgrade work at the new site. In addition to the planned move and upgrades, the machine was thoroughly inspected and the opportunity taken to replace bearings and linear guideways as necessary. The entire project went extremely smoothly and the machine was handed back to Northerntrack after just two weeks. Following completion of the work, the Suprarex can cut thicker material, is faster when cutting thin material and it can now cut high-quality holes. It is also able to cut and mark, with no need to change the torch or nozzle between cutting and marking operations.

Productivity benefits

Andy Hair is extremely pleased with the retrofits, saying: "The ability to cut thicker material is certainly a benefit, but in terms of productivity we have gained by reducing the cutting time on thinner material and we can now cut holes directly, whereas previously the parts required a separate drilling operation. The controller is also much faster and more efficient, so we are processing cutting programs quicker."

Most importantly, Andy Hair is delighted with the way the retrofit has future-proofed Northerntrack's production: "Plasma cutting is such a critical operation for our overall production process that high availability and reliability are absolutely essential. The combination of the Vision T5 CNC, m3 Plasma™ and Columbus III software not only gives us the productivity that we need today, but it also means we are better placed to develop the business in the future, and to take advantage of any further innovations in plasma cutting."

Thanks to the machine's flexibility, it is also helping Northerntrack to reduce stockholding because parts can be manufactured as required. Furthermore, the cut quality from the upgraded Suprarex is better than previously, so little or no post-processing is required prior to welding or performing other operations.

Retrofitted equipment

The new Vision T5 is a vast improvement over the Vision PC controller that it replaced. Designed for ease of operation, the Vision T5 features an ergonomic wide-screen touch display that presents users with easy-to-follow steps throughout the programming and operating processes. Even complex shapes are simple to program thanks to the EasyShape™ part program generator, and Precision Hole Technology™ is applied automatically for cutting 'bolt-ready' holes. Programming is further simplified by means of the built-in Process Database that contains optimized cutting parameters for different combinations of material, thickness and cut quality. Thanks to the Vision T5 controller, virtually all processes are fully automated, which simplifies programming, saves time, enhances quality and improves productivity significantly.

One of the advantages of the m3 Plasma™ is that it can operate with the Vision T5's Precision Hole Technology™ to cut 'bolt-ready' holes. ESAB's m3 Plasma™ system utilizes XR Series nozzles that enable faster cutting over a wide range of material types and thicknesses with less power, as well as providing marking capability, all using the same torch and nozzle. The m3 system also supports SmartCycle™ Technology for increased productivity through full integration of the CNC controller, plasma system and CAD/CAM/nesting software. In addition, the m3 system benefits from Smart Voltage Height Control capability, which automatically adjusts the torch height to maximize consumable life while ensuring consistent cut quality through the life of the consumables. To take advantage of the m3 system's Smart Voltage Height Control, the Suprarex was also retrofitted with a new lifter.

As a core component of the m3 system, the EPP-362 power supply provides precise control of the plasma current (up to 360 A) using all-digital control circuitry, and a high-speed data bus connection ensures precise control of the current and gas pressure, as well as enhanced diagnostic capabilities, including advanced status and process monitoring. For enhanced reliability, the power supply has an internal coolant circulator to maintain the operating temperature at a constant, controlled level.

The Vision T5 controller and m3 Plasma™ system operate together extremely well, but the full benefits of the two are only achieved when the Columbus III CAD/CAM/nesting software is used as well. Northerntrack had been using Columbus II but this was starting to be difficult to integrate with other newer software packages. Switching to Columbus III means that Northerntrack now has a Windows 10 CAD/CAM/nesting software package that is network-compatible and provides a level of future-proofing with regard to other software packages and the Suprarex cutting machine. Columbus III makes programming easier and more efficient, improves material utilization, streamlines workflow and increases productivity. Intelligent wizards contribute to intuitive operation for both simple and highly complex cuts, as well as marking, labeling and nesting.

Working partnership

ESAB and Northerntrack have worked together closely for many years and today the companies have a formal Partnership Agreement. As a result of this, Northerntrack benefits from discounted servicing and an extended warranty on the plasma torch, as well as reduced costs for software maintenance and any future software upgrades. Furthermore, the agreement means Northerntrack has the best possible access to ESAB's expertise should the company need advice about cutting or welding. ESAB gains from the Partnership Agreement because Northerntrack has committed to purchasing ESAB consumables.

Andy Hair concludes: "We have not calculated what the return on investment will be, but I am totally convinced that we did the right thing; the retrofit was more cost-effective than buying new, we have improved our productivity and I'm also confident the machine will have the reliability we need for the foreseeable future. The new controller, plasma system and software have worked really well together, and the support from ESAB has, as always, been superb. When the time comes, perhaps in ten or twenty years, ESAB's philosophy means that we will probably be able to just retrofit the machine with new technology as necessary to modernize it again."