Welding Automation Helps Build the NYC Skyline
Fabricating a project that uses more than 1500 tons of steel or welding 60-ft joints on beams and trusses for some of the largest buildings in New York City may seem stressful. Yet to the guys at Orange County Ironworks (OCI), that’s just an average ...
Fabricating a project that uses more than 1500 tons of steel or welding 60-ft joints on beams and trusses for some of the largest buildings in New York City may seem stressful. Yet to the guys at Orange County Ironworks (OCI), that’s just an average day. Working in tandem with its sister company, Gabriel Steel Erectors, OCI is one of the biggest players in the city for the fabrication and erection of structural steel on both new structures and retrofits of existing buildings.
OCI started out as a small fabricator in 2004. Today, under the ownership and guidance of Dan Teutul, the business has grown from a 15,000-sq-ft shop servicing upstate New York with railings, stairs, and residential structure work into a nearly 100,000-sq-ft, world class, heavy structural fabrication and erection business. Located about an hour from the city in Montgomery, N.Y., OCI has created structural steel stability for the biggest and most famous buildings. Clients include Apple, Tiffany’s, Citigroup, Pier 17, Rockefeller Plaza, the Museum of Modern Art, and dozens more.
Growing the Business
How did Teutul grow the business so successfully? “I am passionate about efficiency,” he shared. “In 2015, we were really becoming more involved with non-bridge, heavy structural steel work with heavy welding on skyscrapers in the city. We needed to find a way to become more efficient when welding these long beams. We knew we could bring in more business. We just needed a way to weld faster.”
Teutul and his team spoke with several welding manufacturers to find the right solution for their needs, ultimately selecting a dual-head gantry-style submerged arc welding (SAW) system with floor-mount rails that can be extended to match the length of the components being welded and with a width capacity of 3 m. The welding heads can perform inside or outside fillet welds. The system is ideal for I-beam and box beam welding with single- and twin-wire SAW processes.
OCI uses a twin-wire SAW process with 3⁄32-in.-filler wire, and typical parameters are in the 750 A/28 V range using two 1000-A direct current (DC) power sources. The wires are AWS EM12K solid wire. Flux is either a neutral, bonded flux, intended primarily for multipass butt and fillet welding of carbon and low alloy steels. The narrow running slag allows higher currents in narrow joint clearings to increase deposition rates and, consequently, higher productivity. It contributes significantly to superior mechanical properties, notably impact tests at low temperatures.
“Our welding operators are great — probably the best in the business — and we are fortunate to have them,” said Teutul. “Believe me, they stay very busy, but this gantry system can lay down four to five times more wire than our best and fastest guy. I figure we can weld 12 in./min manually. This gantry can weld 26–32 in./min on each head. So, that’s an increase from 12 to 60 in./min. Welding automation fulfilled my passion for efficiency and grew our business.”
With the increase in production, faster welding meant more competitive bids on jobs. This combination grew business to the point of adding a second dual-head gantry just two years later. Working with six main general contractors, as well as various others, 90% of OCI’s work is structural steel in the city. This increased need for a large amount of welding on long beams meant OCI needed to keep finding unique solutions to increase its welding speed.
“As amazing as the gantry is, many times we need to perform welds before the piece is ready for the gantry,” explained Steve Maythenyi, vice president of production for OCI. “We purchased six rail-mounted welding tractors paired with 500-A welding power sources to perform the root pass in the very bottom of a deep groove; then, we move it to the gantry for the remaining 20 to 30 fill passes.”
These tractors operate on 42 V power and magnetically clamp to the workpiece. The tractor can operate in either a flat or vertical position.
In another situation, OCI had numerous short, complete joint penetration welds that were more than what an operator could manually weld at an efficient pace. The rail-mounted gas metal arc welding tractors in this setup allowed OCI to increase its deposition rates, efficiency, and production.
OCI also has two portable 1000-A SAW tractor systems with a modular design.
“These portable tractor systems give us the ability to move them quickly and easily wherever we need them in the plant. They save us a lot of time,” continued Maythenyi. “Moving a 20- to 60-ft I-beam to a welding system is not as productive as simply moving a tractor to it.”
OCI determines which projects are welded manually vs. semi-automatically based on length of weld. Typically, any welds longer than 2 or 3 ft go to the tractors and gantry.
“There is less starting and stopping with the semi-automatic systems,” said Mike Campo, shop foreman for OCI. “Therefore, there are less discontinuities, which produces cleaner welds, and our welds have strict AWS D1.1 code standards and stringent inspections.”
Being an integral player in some of the most famous builds and retrofits of the New York City skyline does come with some challenges. One particularly large project was 388 Greenwich St., now known as Citigroup’s global headquarters.
“The job was to remove the concrete columns to create a larger, more open atmosphere in the ground-level lobby,” said Teutul. “Obviously, removing columns threatens the structural integrity of the building. We needed to create structural support for the building, and it included a lot of plate work. Over 1500 tons of steel went into that three-year job.”
OCI’s dual-head gantry system for twin-wire SAW.
OCI had 20 to 30 welding operators working on the Citigroup project in the field. At the facility, more welding operators, the gantry, and the tractors were all welding at maximum output.
“The 500-A power sources used to power the tractors were pushed to maximum duty cycle on a regular basis. We don’t have a lot of downtime, the machines don’t get a break unless we’re closed — and we work six days a week,” stated Campo.
Another project, the 99 Hudson building, which is the tallest building in New Jersey, included columns that were custom built box-beams made from 3/4-in. plates and weighed 9000 lb each. They required a 4 1⁄4-in. fillet weld for the beams. With more than 70 passes to create such a large weldment, the quality had to be perfect, and the productivity had to be high. Here, ER70S-6 solid wire in bulk drums was another key to productivity, as these joints consumed thousands of pounds of wire.
This project also prompted the question of how to measure the weldment. Since there wasn’t a gauge large enough, OCI created a customized fillet gauge.
“The inspector asked for a picture of our custom laser cut gauges. He hadn’t seen anything like it in his 30 years of work in the welding industry,” said Campo.
Maintaining interpass temperature on these box-beams was a challenge. To solve it, OCI equipped its dual-head gantry system with two massive heating torches, and they wrapped the beams with insulated blankets to slow the cooling process.
The two main concerns when bringing in semi-automatic or automated welding systems are cost and employee response. Teutul considered both. But ultimately, his passion for efficiency won the challenge.
“We needed to invest in this equipment to be competitive with our bids,” said Teutul. “It worked out. The ROI is hard to calculate. However, growing a business from 30,000 to 100,000 sq ft and tripling our number of employees, which is somewhere near 120 now, is all the data I need.”
Mechanized welding systems and bulk wire drums improve productivity on structural steel projects.
Regarding employee reactions, OCI’s welders have had their job security proven over the last 15 years.
“Maybe we don’t have as many welders as we would without all the equipment, however it’s hard to find qualified welders. This way, we’re not just throwing men at a project. We can choose the best operators for the best work,” he explained.
Even during the pandemic, OCI did not slow down and neither did its welding distributor and equipment manufacturers.
“Productivity, reliability, and support are what you want in an automation partner and what truly matters,” said Teutul.
Rail-mounted welding tractors boost productivity and deploy quickly.
This article was written by Jamie Scripnick (application sales director, automation, ESAB North America, Toronto, Canada) for the American Welding Society.