Lasertube LT Fiber machine
Keep it moving
A faster flow of parts gives a service center—and its customers—a competitive edge
BY Lauren Duensing

t’s not just the cutting or the processing of a particular part. It’s how fast you can get to the next part,” says Steve West, vice president of engineered products at Chicago Tube and Iron.

The Romeoville, Illinois-based specialty steel service center stocks over 30,000 line items and has 10 branches throughout the Midwest and in Monterrey, Mexico.

“To some extent, CTI is a giant job shop,” West says. “We buy steel, we cut steel and we ship parts. Our product mix goes to every major type of OEM: military, automotive, truck and trailer, food processing, farm equipment.”

One platform
West joined CTI in 2009 and, at that time, the company owned two tube lasers from BLM Group, Novi, Michigan, and two others from a competing manufacturer. The BLM equipment, West found, was a little more adept at both cutting and handling a wide variety of tube types. “Our customer requirements are so spread out, and the BLM equipment allows me to satisfy all those needs. It gives me the most flexibility across our entire product range—DOM, stainless, round, square, rectangular.
BLM’s LT8 Fiber gives companies flexibility when processing round, square, triangular, I-beam and other special shapes.
“Ninety-nine percent of our parts run better and faster off the BLM equipment,” he says, so the company has decided to stick with the machinery builder. Over the years, CTI has steadily added BLM machines to its warehouse floors. Currently, there is an EM80 cutting and end-machining system, a CM512 tube sawing and machining system and a TS72 sawing machine running in Owatonna, Minnesota; two LT712D CO2 lasertube, a LT Fiber lasertube, two LT8 lasertubes, an LT14 lasertube, a BC80 for cutoff and end machining, an E-72 electric bender, and an LT-Free five-axis tube laser in Romeoville; and a LT8 lasertube in Locust, North Carolina.
Ninety-nine percent of our parts run better and faster off the BLM equipment.
steve west, chicago tube and iron
“We have machines that are 15 years old that are still active, accurate and very profitable for us to run,” West says. “The parts we cut span the entire spectrum. On the very simplest end, we’re doing a straight cutoff and then maybe an ID, OD chamfer. Then, there are complicated laser parts that are 30 feet long with 320 features (holes, notches, slots) cut in them.

“I tend to think of our machines as small, medium and large,” West continues. “The smaller machines tend to handle about 75 percent round product and about 25 percent square and rectangular. The middle machines, such as the LT8, tend to be about 60 percent round and 40 percent square and rectangular. And then, our jumbo machine is only about 10 percent round and 90 percent square and rectangular.”

As the BLM equipment started to accumulate, West noticed that it was easier to move operators between machines. “The man-to-machine interfaces were not only more common but also more easily understood. BLM’s operating interface uses conversational language versus machine code or G-code commands.”
The LT-Free five-axis tube laser handles complex parts.
BLM also has introduced features, like the Active Scan optical measuring device, which uses real-time compensation to counteract axial errors created by irregular shaped or distorted tube, and the Active Piercing function, which increases piercing speed and reliability even on inconsistent material quality.

These make the equipment “easier for people to learn and understand,” West says. “We found that we could train new operators faster. If I can get someone producing parts in weeks, as opposed to months, and become very proficient at it, I can produce more parts and get more done. It is more economical for us.”

And accurate cuts mean that the savings continue down the line. “We had one customer that was making rectangular skids out of 4-inch-square tubing. We did a study with him, and we found out that cutting these parts on the tube laser gave us much better squareness, as compared to the saw,” West comments. A more consistent tube, both in length and squareness, allowed this customer to save some time in his welding process and maintain the skid’s squareness.
Accurate cuts from tube lasers
Accurate cuts from tube lasers provide saving down the line
Accurate cuts from tube lasers provide savings down the line.
“Although it was a very simple, straight cut, and he paid a little bit more for the component part by having it come off a tube laser versus a saw, he saved five-fold at the other end [when] doing the welding.”

CTI also sees this benefit in house. “We probably have 20 percent of the products going through some kind of secondary processing,” West says. “We have found that we can adjust the cutting to improve the fit-up. Sometimes a part goes downstream, and the welders think the fit-up is OK. They don’t even realize that if they asked us to tweak something, they could improve their fit-up. We are finding that in our secondary processes, we are able to mate them up pretty well and enhance our welding capabilities.”

Continuing to find efficiencies and re-evaluate processes gives CTI an edge, and there will be more collaborations with BLM in the future, West predicts. Next on the list will be using the LT-Free to find new strategies for productivity.

“The LT-Free will help us significantly reduce the cost of post-processing a bent tube. If there are certain features in a tube, when you bend it, those features may change or move. If you put a round hole right in the bend profile, the hole gets distorted, so you can’t put it in before the bend. The LT-Free will let us do that post-cutting processing much more economically than how we are doing it today,” West says. CTI will learn whether that will free up existing laser capacity, as well as improve cost and competitiveness on the parts.

BLM Group USA Corp., Novi, Michigan, 248/560-0080,

Chicago Tube and Iron, Romeoville, Illinois, 815/834-2500,