Automating from the river's edge

Posted on 07/27/2017
Posted by Hypertherm

Company and products

From the shores of Oregon's Willamette River, a flurry of activity takes place at one of the largest shipyards in the Northwestern United States.

The team at Gunderson Marine in Portland is working at full throttle. Men and women hunch over plans, trucks back up to docks, and forklifts move about loading and unloading large sheets of steel.

The activity never stops with shifts running around the clock. It's been this way since the early forties when Chet Gunderson decided to expand his then 20-year-old business with the purchase of 11 acres of waterfront property. Chet envisioned a shipyard, and with the United States about to enter World War II, his timing couldn't be better. Soon the lot was humming with orders to build gunboats, lifeboats, and landing craft for the U.S. Navy.

Gunderson Marine, now owned by The Greenbrier Companies, has built thousands of marine vessels since then. Those vessels include every type of barge imaginable-ocean, deck, double-hull tank, railcar, dump, heavy industrial, and numerous others.


For the vast majority of Gunderson's nearly 100 year history, those vessels, and before that wheel hubs and trailers, were built using largely manual methods. Walt Stokman, a production coordinator for the shipyard, describes one aspect of production – the cutting of a part.

"We would cut everything by hand, primarily with an oxy torch. We'd get the material, measure it to length, measure where cut outs needed to be, put down a template, mark the cut-outs, cut everything out, and then grind to try and make the cut look half way decent."

Gunderson managers knew that though their manual method worked, it wasn't very efficient. An initiative to modernize its facilities coupled with concern for its workers and an ever worsening shortage of skilled labor, resulte d in Gunderson Marine looking at more automated options.

Stokman explains, "Doing all this work manually is not the best for a person's body. You're leaning out over the table, stooping, bending. We knew there were ergonomic improvements we could make. We also realized that we needed to reduce our manning requirements. It's so much more difficult to hire qualified help or even just find people willing to be trained to do this work."

In other words, the team at Gunderson knew it couldn't continue to do business the way it had for the past 90 years and stay competitive.


The company began its modernization efforts by adding three large CNC tables to its operation. The tables, equipped with Hypertherm HyPerformance Plasma, were a huge help as they allowed Gunderson to significantly speed up the cutting of flat plate. In addition, the company replaced some of its oxyfuel hand torches with Hypertherm Powermax air plasma systems. Three large Hypertherm HyPerformance Plasma tables helped Gunderson speed up the cutting of plate in its large facility.

The company's modernization efforts didn't end there. Though its three CNC plasma tables made the cutting of flat plate much more efficient, the company still found itself doing a lot of manual work. Ideally, Gunderson was hoping to find a solution that would allow it to cut the many three dimensional shapes required when building barges, in addition to plate.

"We researched quite a few machines, and narrowed it down to four or five, before ultimately choosing a 900," Stokman says. "The winning thing for the 900 is that the robot is able to cut on all four sides of the steel, of the structure, so that was nice."

The 900 is the SteelPRO 900 made by lnovatech Engineering in Canada. It is a dual-purpose system offering both robotic beam line cutting and standard plate cutting. A Fanuc robot holding a Hypertherm HyPerformance Plasma torch can cut all around beams and tubing, along with structural shapes such as bulb flats (a long flat piece of steel with a short, tapered lip on one side), channels, and angles, while the table cuts flat, base, and stiffener plates.

Stokman calls this last part a huge benefit. "It has the plate table so when we're caught up, we can cut 2-D parts on our plate machine. If we need a rush part, we can just put that on the machine really quickly, or if there is an engineering change we can quickly cut out a one off part without interfering. It is very versatile. We can cut just about any shape we can dream up."

The shapes cut from mild steel, range from ¼" to 1" thick. Once cut, Y-bevels and bolt ready holes are quickly made using Hypertherm's SureCut technology. "Cut quality is very good, great actually. It exceeds all the standards we need to adhere to. Holes are nice and round; everything's even."

A job that used to take six people, now takes one; and because Gunderson is running three shifts. the savings quickly multiply. This allows Gunderson to move more people downstream, for instance, onto welding, helping speed up overall production. Sickman estimates that there are days when the company is putting more than 4,000 lineal feet of material through the lnovatech machine.

The ability to work so quickly is due in large part to the software lnovatech uses. Much of it is custom designed such as the software lnovatech created to work with Gunderson's ship design program. This software, which Sickman says was created for a fraction of the price other vendors wanted, allows Gunderson to easily import files.

"We are able to import directly into the nesting software, and then in short order all of our nests are ready and we can cut material."

lnovatech also added code to the nesting software (Hypertherm's ProNest®) to work with Gunderson's specialized cut list. This software alone is credited with saving the company 24 hours of office work a week while also removing any potential for human error.

Despite all of this automation, the machine's operator still has the ability to change power levels, speed, gas settings, arc voltage, cut height, and pierce height at the operator station. lnovatech's Miquel Clement says, "The Hypertherm units are very well built so they can change power settings on the fly." The system is also easy to operate. Sickman says, "Training is quick. We've probably trained 20 people. After just two hours, they're on their own and ready to run. It's that simple."

While Gunderson still uses oxy-fuel for some jobs such a trimming a bulk head and a chop saw for small jobs, for the most part all of its cutting is done with plasma. This includes the stiffeners that are so important when building any sort of marine vessel.

"The new system allowed us to reexamine the way we cut and attached stiffeners to our barges. We were able to change our design; the way we cut the stiffeners. The new way allowed us to increase our weld surface but decrease our weld size. We were able to speed up our welding process. Instead of a three pass weld, we can now do a single pass weld."

The weld is longer but thinner which Stokman says actually makes for a stronger connection.

Gunderson's decision to continuously innovate has served the company well for the past 100 years, and as the company begins its second century in business, Gunderson Marine is well positioned.

Robotic cutting with automated plasma technology means the company is more efficient than ever. It is building more and better barges, ensuring activity along the Willamette River will continue for years to come.

Posted on 07/27/2017
Posted by Hypertherm