Digitizing the Shop
Written By David Basiji

If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the digitization of the design process in construction. It’s been going on for decades, first with the shift from drafting on paper to 2D CAD, then to 3D CAD and building information modeling (BIM) systems. Design digitization has made it easier to come up with new designs, identify potential issues, and quickly address those issues before anything is built. Digitization also has huge potential benefits for manufacturing, but it seems that the farther you get from the design office, the farther you get from realizing the potential benefits of digitization.

Since 2010, PypeServer’s mission has been to extend digitization to the shop floor, starting with numerically-controlled pipe profiling machines. Though expensive, these machines can cut pipe far faster and more accurately than doing it by hand, thereby paying for themselves in labor and material savings. With the industry’s shortage of skilled labor, adopting these machines would seem to be a no-brainer for any busy shop. Yet for all their potential benefits, pipe profiling machines don’t always deliver their full return on investment for three basic reasons.

First, the digital chain coming from the design office breaks on its way to the pipe profiler. The native machine software often can’t import the file formats that the CAD or BIM systems export. Even with compatible file formats, an inexperienced CAD designer’s part may not import properly when a seemingly identical part from a more experienced designer works fine.  And even when a file is successfully imported, information the machine needs to properly cut the part may be missing from the CAD design. Because of these issues, spool parts created in CAD often have to be recreated at the machine using its native software before parts can be cut. This breakdown in the chain of digitization wastes time and creates opportunities for mistakes.

A second reason pipe profilers can fall short of their promise is that parts aren’t always fully faithful to the design they’re cutting. Even small deviations from the intended design can lead to big expenses over time. The secret to making parts accurately is for the software to sweat the details. If the software uses nominal pipe thickness but the actual pipe thickness is less than nominal, every bevel cut will shorten the pipe more than expected. If the software assumes the plasma beam is a cylinder but in fact it’s conical, the bevel angles and pipe length will both be off. If the software can’t account for kerf or root gaps, accuracy will suffer further. It’s these details that make the difference between a fast or a slow return on investment in a pipe profiler, and it’s easy to see exactly how much money is at stake with the PypeServer ROI calculator. The average welder in the US earns about $70K/year, which is equivalent to about $33/hour, not including benefits. If the welder has to spend an extra minute per cut during fit-up because of small errors in pipe length, bevel angle, or other issues, the extra time spent on 60 cuts per day adds up to $8K wasted per year per welder.

Finally, a third reason that investments in pipe profilers can suffer is a lack of digital integration and feedback upstream. PypeServer addresses these issues by storing everything in a SQL database that can be accessed by the other parts of the company. For example, every part design that’s imported or created within PypeServer is assigned a unique ID, so changes in designs are revision-controlled, and down-rev designs are never used by mistake. Every part that’s cut from those designs is also assigned its own unique ID, and its status is updated in real time (e.g. “uncut,” “nested,” “cut,” “scrapped”) so everyone involved knows when a part has been cut. Labels can be printed with heat numbers, job information, and QR codes that link back to spool sheet drawings so design data can be accessed during fit-up and in the field. Finally, pipe inventory is tracked so raw material usage can be optimized. Without all this feedback to the upstream digital workflow, parts can be re-cut by mistake, design changes may not make it to the floor before a part is cut, and drops can be wasted because nobody remembered that stub sitting in the corner.

Though it’s been underway for a long time, end-to-end digitization still has a long way to go, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, either on the software or hardware side of things. Different companies’ solutions will vary from each other and will evolve over time. For this reason, PypeServer believes it’s in everyone’s interest to favor interoperability. Our goal is, therefore, to be able to work with every pipe profiler and every CAD and BIM software package, so our customers can optimize their operations without getting locked into a single solution.

PypeServer is a sponsor of MEP Force 2020, which will be held August 31 to September 2. Register today at: MEP Force Virtual Event.

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