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Date Submitted : September 25, 2008
Topic / Subject : PYTHONX: ADVANCED FABRICATION OF STRUCTURAL STEEL BY PLASMA CUTTING

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BACKGROUND: STRUCTURAL STEEL ELEMENTS
Structural steel - thought of as the ''skeleton'' of multi-story construction - provides the framework upon which floor, wall and exterior cladding systems are affixed. Individual structural steel elements are produced in steel mills or foundries, conforming to chemical composition and geometric/dimensional specifications established by regulatory agencies and industry associations.

The most common structural steel elements are beams (also known as I-beams, H-beams or girders), channels, HSS (for hollow structural shapes), angles, columns and plate. These elements are cut to required lengths and joined together, either by welding or bolting in the manner prescribed to achieve the objectives for supporting both static and dynamic loads.

TRADITIONAL FABRICATION METHODS
Fabrication of structural steel elements has always been performed using ''metal against metal'' techniques, and these remain the most widespread methods today. The emergence of CNC (computer numerical control) technology brought automation and greater accuracy to these techniques, resulting in families of special purpose machines dedicated to performing individual fabrication tasks.

The most common such machine is the bandsaw. A bandsaw employs a continuously rotating band of toothed metal to saw through the structural steel and is generally used to cut through the entire cross section of the element to achieve the prescribed length.

The beam drill line (drill line) has long been considered an indispensible way to drill holes and mill slots. CNC beam drill lines are typically equipped with feed conveyors and position sensors to move the element into position for drilling, plus probing capability to determine the precise location where the hole or slot is to be cut.

For cutting irregular openings or non-uniform ends on dimensional (non-plate) elements, a cutting torch is typically used. Oxy-fuel torches are the most common technology and range from simple hand-held torches to automated CNC 'coping machines' that move the torch head around the structural element in accordance with cutting instructions programmed into the machine.

PLASMA AND LASER TECHNOLOGIES APPLIED TO INDUSTRIAL METAL CUTTING
Plasma Cutting emerged as a very productive way to cut sheet metal and plate in the 1980s. It had the advantages over traditional ''metal against metal'' cutting of producing no metal chips and giving accurate cuts, and produced a cleaner edge than oxy-fuel cutting. Early plasma cutters were large, somewhat slow and expensive and, therefore, tended to be dedicated to repeating cutting patterns in a ''mass production'' mode.

As with other machine tools, CNC technology was applied to plasma cutting machines in the late 1980s into the 1990's, giving plasma cutting machines greater flexibility to cut diverse shapes ''on demand'' based on a set of instructions that were programmed into the machine's numerical control. These CNC plasma cutting machines were, however, generally limited to cutting patterns and parts in flat sheets of steel, using only two axes of motion (referred to as X Y cutting).

MULTI-AXIS PLASMA AND LASER CUTTING OF STRUCTURAL SECTIONS
Starting in the late 1990s, programmable industrial robots were integrated with plasma cutting to be applied to more generalized cutting of non-flat shapes. These ''3D Systems'' use the industrial robot to move the laser or plasma cutting head around the element to be cut, so that the cutting path may encompass the entire outer surface of the element. Many systems also grip the element to be cut in a ''chuck'' so that the element itself can be rotated or indexed forward or backward in concert with the movement of the cutting head. This serves to decrease overall cutting time and increase accuracy by optimizing the motion of the element with the motion of the cutting head.

Robotic plasma cutting is more widely used for cutting of pipe, including HSS, used as structural steel elements. The task of robotic plasma cutting of more diverse shapes, such as beams and channels, has proven to be more challenging. The large sizes and variety of shapes involved make the technique of gripping the structural steel element in a chuck impractical. This places the entire burden of cutting motion back on the robot. In order to have the cuts and features placed where they are intended on the element, the robot must be given some instruction as to the location, size and shape of the element.

Burlington Automation developed software capable of reading CAD drawings of the structural element, and combining this information with motion control and sensor feedback to arrive at a 3D plasma cutting system that in effect ''sees'' the structural steel element it is to cut. There are no vision systems involved, rather the robotic arm that carries the plasma torch head gently touches (probes) the element to be cut in multiple locations and combines this information along with the CAD drawing data to determine the exact contours of the element in three dimensions. With this information, the robotic plasma cutting system, which goes by the trade name PythonX, is able to cut a variety of features (bolt holes, copes, notches) or marks into exact locations along the structural elements. This extends 3D plasma cutting capability to the complete range of structural steel elements, thus allowing the PythonX system to replace beam drill lines, coping machines, bandsaws and plate burning centers.

For more information, visit www.pythonx.com
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