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For structural-steel specialists, the standard in automation over the past several years has been the CNC beam drill line.

A beam drill line is a machine tool that uses a conveyor to move a steel beam or ‘girder’ into position, then drills holes – especially bolt holes – in several locations along the steel workpiece, according to the instructions provided in an engineering drawing of what the final section is supposed to look like.

An automated beam drill line is more efficient that the old-fashioned way of making measurements on the rough piece to mark it as indicated by the engineering drawing, then drilling the holes by hand – typically using a heavy-duty drill press.

The automated beam drill line can download the digital drawing file, determine where the holes are to be placed, probe the beam using the drill head and positioners, then drill through the steel at high speeds using hardened carbide drill bits and cutting lubricants.

The bolt holes are made in very little time and most of the manual work is getting the drilled beams on and off the line and loading the engineering file into the machine’s computer ‘brain’.

Cutting different features (such as copes, notches, bevels), trimming off the end of the steel piece to get it to the required length, and ‘writing’ different characters and symbols into the steel are additional operations, of which none can be performed by a CNC beam drill line.

While a beam drill line helps the fabricator drill structural bolt holes very fast, it does not speed up the other needed operations.

A fabrication technology from the plate fabrication trade performs hole drilling operation as fast and as precisely as the beam drill line, but brings this same level of automation to all the other cutting and engraving tasks performed on steel beams.

The method uses high-definition plasma cutting to thermally cut through or scribe the workpiece.

The plasma-based method is similar to the beam drill line in that the steel is moved into the cutting chamber, the engineering drawing is loaded into the plasma machine’s PC-based control system, and the cutting torch tip touches the workpiece to figure out (and remember) exactly where it is in 3D space and what all of its various features are.

Then the plasma torch starts cutting bolt holes and notches, copes, cutouts, bevel cuts, miter cuts – the full range of operations associated with structural-steel fabrication.

Thermal (plasma) cutting technology applied to structural steel can produce all these features, going from one side of the beam to the other.

When it’s done, all the needed operations are finished – there’s no need to transfer the finished beam to a downstream process.

In a way, the plasma technology is a ‘full-service’ suite for structural steel suppliers.

More and more of the plasma-based systems are being developed, with different capabilities and price points.

Burlington Automation

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