Automation helps provide LB Pipe with a competitive edge as well as a broader customer portfolio
Edited by Yearbook Editor James D. Sawyer from material provided by Okuma America Corp.
It began as a quest to transform the costly process of manufacturing couplings. In the traditional process, 30% of every coupling is scrap. Making matters worse, it’s labor-intensive, at a time when labor costs are skyrocketing. LB Pipe & Coupling (Magnolia, TX) produces API 5CT couplings for oil country tubular goods (OCTG) waterwell couplings, limited service couplings, micropile and API (American Petroleum Institute)-certified pup joints 2–20′ (0.61–6.1 m) and 4½–14″ (114–356 mm). The company was founded in 2010 for the specific purpose of solving the coupling challenge—by finding a way to build quality couplings while significantly reducing costs.
The LB Pipe team knew the answer to increasing productivity and reducing labor costs was to create an automated system for manufacturing API couplings. With help from their distributor, Hartwig (Houston), and machine tool builder, Okuma (Charlotte, NC), they unveiled a revolutionary automation cell in 2010. But after the automation cell was completed, the global competitive landscape changed unexpectedly—coupling business went overseas. LB Pipe then realized that the distinct competitive advantage they’d created by reducing fixed labor costs and overheads could open up new markets and create an even stronger diversified customer portfolio. Today their business is less than 50% couplings, having added municipal water, oil & gas, and construction customers to the mix. LB Pipe still produces their own couplings, but mostly to put them on other parts. The company’s consistent growth rate, of more than 100% annually, and its healthy mix of customers are the result of competitive advantage gained through the low overhead enabled by automation.
Wanted: A Better Way
With 33 years in the oil and gas industry, many industry veterans would be entering the coasting phase of their careers. Not Jim Legg, general manager of LB Pipe. His fuel has always been a unique vision for what’s possible beyond business-as-usual. Legg had a clear vision for transforming the coupling manufacturing process. Additionally, typical reject rates were relatively high, adding more to the price equation. Legg knew that streamlining cost out of the system was the way of the future. The only way to get there was automation.
“Our vision was to do things differently from what the industry has done for decades,” said Legg. “We needed to find a better way. Just because things have always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s impossible to streamline the process.” All Legg needed was the right CNC machining equipment and a brand new, automated process.
LB Pipe & Coupling Products is an in-house contract manufacturer. Originally their focus was on what’s known as the bread and butter of the industry—API couplings. These are standard-issue couplings certified by the API for use in oil & gas applications.
With conventional technology, it takes three workers to run one spindle in the manufacture of API couplings. With rising labor costs, and given the challenges of day-to-day workforce management, bread and butter became expensive staple items in the oil & gas producers’ budgets.
IMTS 2008—The Spark
In September of 2008, Legg attended the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) with his vision in mind. He encountered a surprise at the Okuma booth. That company was demonstrating a cell for making premium couplings, which was a big head start toward Legg’s vision. Premium and API couplings are two different markets. The former are more difficult, with more stringent specifications and different threading operations. The API product uses different operations and different tooling.
Legg recalls his immediate reaction. “When I saw the Okuma coupling cell at IMTS 2008, I thought, ‘That’s the way to go.’ They were about 60% of the way there in terms of developing the process. It would just take a little more research to determine how to integrate API tooling with the automated cell. One thing was clear to me. I knew Okuma could manufacture the API coupling.”
A New Automated Process
Okuma and distributor Hartwig worked with the LB Pipe team to customize the process for machining the couplings to make the API threads. The front end of the process was streamlined by adapting a rotating head cutoff machine so that coupling stock could be cut into exact lengths, each having a good face on a square part with a ready OD clamper. This is necessary for repeatability of the coupling cell and its robotics, and also eliminates some of the manual labor associated with the traditional bandsaw approach. “What used to be our regular saw time is now the same as our complete run time,” said Legg.
With the parts prepped for the coupling cell, integrated support equipment orchestrates the workflow. The blanks go to a robot, which loads two Okuma 2SP-V60 twin spindle four-axis vertical turning lathes, unloads them and then places them on an outbound conveyor.
With this new process in place, the results were then measured. The general rule of thumb in the industry is three people per spindle. With the automation cell in place, it now requires only 1.5 people per spindle. Today they’ve added six more Okuma machines. In this one work cell, with a total of 18 spindles, each now requiring only 1.5 workers per spindle, 27 people can do what would have required 54 people using the old technology. Their reject rate of less than 0.5% adds to the productivity equation.
Steve Hoijer, the plant manager, has many years’ experience with coupling manufacturing. He sees additional advantages with the automation. “You want to keep guys out of the machines,” he said. “When you’re running tons of material per week, that’s a lot for human bodies to take. Plus, machines don’t complain or call in sick. The amount of material we can now move is pretty amazing.”
Hoijer also handles programming for the machines. Each has its own Okuma THINC CNC control to dial in the instructions for the operation. The entire group of machines is integrated using MacMan-Net, a networked machine management program for CNC monitoring. “I always liked Okumas because of the mechanical positioning,” said Hoijer. “Now, I’m a fan of the programming capabilities. It’s very simple to program using a standard format. You can do it on the machines, or you can upload to a flash drive and plug it into the USB. This makes the process effortless, as far as I’m concerned. The control has tons of memory so you can store all your jobs in there.”
LB Pipe Quality Manger Courtney Ashmun sees another advantage to automation. All of the instrumentation used to gage parts is electronic. Since it’s an auto-comp system, the operator doesn’t need to change any of the settings on the machine. When parts are mic’d and gaged to make sure they stay within API standards, the offsets for the machines are auto-comped back to the spindle that the operator selects. “Human error is eliminated, or very unlikely,” says Ashmun. “This means a lot more time and manpower can be spent on inspection.”
The Path of Productivity
While most of LB Pipe’s employees have experience running CNC machines to make couplings, the equipment and automated process is all new, so training is important. Okuma and the other partners have been supplying this training.
The overall productivity increase to date stands at 10-15%. These efficiencies will compound as more automation equipment is added, which is on the near horizon. Even with more equipment going in, there will be minimal additional workforce requirements. The automated process has also increased consistency. With the old manual process, couplings-per-hour would drop off over time. Now, according to Legg, “With automation, you get the same number of parts hour after hour,” he said. “It’s very consistent.” LB Pipe is now API and ISO 9001:2008 certified, which helps them acquire more business. Much of their new business is in supplying parts for fracking, which is becoming increasingly popular due to technology advances that make the process more powerful in getting the flow of production out of the ground.
The Okuma coupling cell created an enviable advantage for LB Pipe. “With automation, we now have a unique competitive advantage that creates a platform for continued success,” said Legg.
This article first appeared in the 2013 issue of the Energy Manufacturing Yearbook.
Published Date : 12/18/2013