Structural Steel Fabrication Productivity Comparison - Ficep and PythonX

Ficep is perhaps the world's leading supplier of structural steel fabrication machinery. BUt is it in danger of becoming a relic? How "thermal cutting" is changing the game.
Jan. 20, 2010 - PRLog -- The change from vacuum tubes to transistors is a metaphor for the type of advance that is now occurring in the rather unglamourous industrial process of structural steel fabrication. The fundamental technology involved is now being categorized into two categories: dedicated "metal against metal" machines and flexible plasma or laser cutting systems. The choice is one that must be examined from many viewpoints, based on both where the fabricator has been and where they want to go.

Among makers of traditional "metal cutting metal" equipment, Ficep SpA of Varese - Italy is the recognized leader in variety of machines and overall sales. They are known for machines that are highly optimized in performing specific functions on specific styles of workpiece. The result has been lines of equipment that focus on performing selected operations on selected steel shapes. This philosophy gives rise to features such as high cutting spindle speed, workpiece shuttling, specialized workholding, and others that make an individual machine very efficient at the specific tasks it was designed to perform. The "division of labor" among different machines gets all the jobs done, but with the tradeoff that any particular piece of steel likely has to be processed on sequential machines (sawing, drilling, torch cutting), which increases thetotal time to finish the jobs and adds transfers of the steel between machines. For details, see:

Only recently has a different method to this equipment specialization philosophy emerged. The basis of this approach is using flame cutting via robot or other automated method to accomplish multiple fabrication tasks. The PythonX system, from Burlington Automation of Hamilton, Ontario is considered to be the first system of this style of machinery. PythonX employs an advanced industrial robot and plasma torch to do essentially all structural steel fabrication steps (except welding) on a single workstation. The PythonX methodology is to move the workpiece completely through the machine's "work envelope", accomplishing every needed operation: sawing, drilling, coping - even scribing alphanumeric characters - on the steel beam from beginning to end. A completed piece emerges from the PythonX, rather than having to transport the workpiece from one machine to the next to get all the operations performed.

A clear benefit of the PythonX approach is reduction in floorspace required versus using several machines to conduct all the fabrication operations. The rule of thumb is that one PythonX system replaces up to five different Ficep work centers and occupies 20% of the space needed by those machines. Perhaps more important is the fact that the "one machine does it all" philosophy reduces the multiple transfers of workpieces between machines or "out-in-out" of inventory while waiting on machines to finish their current job. This reduces material handling labor hours, and boosts turns on working capital since steel beams don't back up between the various specialized machines. For more information, visit

So which is the more prudent path to follow? The traditional approach of employing multiple fabrication machines, with each optimized to be very fast and productive at a few limited tasks? Or the new flexible "torch cutting based" system that has the ability to perform all the required fabrication tasks on one machine? In some cases, there is probably going to be a place for each fabrication philosophy approach. Circumstances that call for high volume of bolt holes drilled into steel beams don't require much more than a beam drill line and bandsaw. On the other hand, jobs that entail more complex steel sections - copes, notches, flange flush cuts, piecemarks - will be quickly and completely produced on a single PythonX system. As the structural steel industry adopts and accepts the new flame-based fabrication systems like PythonX, the market will ultimately decide. Chances are, it will conclude that there's a role for both of these approaches, the "fit" being determined by the requirements.

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Burlington Automation is a designer/builder of custom industrial machinery located in Hamilton, Ontario CANADA.
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