To Beam in on New Business, J.B. Steel “Hires” High-Tech Robot

By Roger Yohem, Inside Tucson Business

J.B. Steel - New Plasma Cutter
To beam in on new business, J.B. Steel ‘hires’ high-tech robot
Using plasma torch-cutting technology, the high-tech PythonX will open up new markets for J.B. Steel, owned by Nelson Brown. Roger Yohem photo.

This month, J.B. Steel is blasting out of the industrial dark ages into an amazing new world of computer-controlled robotics. With a few simple mouse clicks, the company’s new Plasma Cutting Fabrication System will do the work of 40 steelworkers.

To make itself more price competitive and to grow business, J.B. Steel has invested about $750,000 in a fully automated, high-tech system called PythonX. It’s a revolutionary robotic workhorse, inspired by the automotive assembly industry, that will substantially improve productivity.

“It’s all about efficiency. This machine, when we are running at full capacity, will take the place of 30 to 40 people,” said Nelson Brown, owner and president of J.B. Steel. “We fabricate and erect our own steel and that has been a very good business for us.  But there is too much labor expense involved.”

J.B. Steel, 2850 E. Ganley Road, now owns the only PythonX in Arizona. Brown said the acquisition was vital to compete with out-of-state fabricators, mostly in California and Texas, for large commercial projects. Traditionally, Southern Arizona has been the company’s niche market. The new machine will enable it to compete for business in Phoenix and New Mexico.

“Either we did this or the other fabricators would have blown right by us,” Brown said. “We’d have become too small and insignificant.”

The PythonX is manufactured by Burlington Automation in Ontario, Canada. Basically, a computer reads the shop drawing file and “tells” the PythonX where and how to make precision cuts, drill bolt holes, scribe and mark, bevel, and make miter cuts. The six-axis robotic arm can cut and cope intricate shapes using plasma torch technology.

Steel beams, up to 36 inches wide by 17 inches tall, are fed into the cutting station on a conveyor. All cuts are made on a single pass. No manual cutting is required and workers do not have to stop production to turn or flip the steel.

“The error factor is less than one-sixteenth of an inch, better than if we did it by hand,” Brown said. “Now, instead of three man hours to manually fabricate a beam, the machine can complete it in less than 10 minutes. This is 90 percent reduction in labor for an 1,800 percent increase in productivity.”

In addition to the PythonX, J.B. Steel has installed a conveyor system and built a small building to house the cutting station.

The savings in manpower will not come through layoffs. Instead, Brown bought the PythonX instead of “over hiring” new steelworkers when the economy picks up.

J.B. Steel holds the structural steel contract for the new UniSource Energy headquarters being built in downtown Tucson. That project, including the many multi-part stairwells, will be the first job for the PythonX.

Brown also plans to use the machine to fabricate steel for the 70,000 square-foot expansion of Sargent Aerospace & Defense in Marana. Other projects that J.B. Steel has worked on include the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain Resort, University of Arizona Medical Center Cancer Center, Sam Hughes Place multi-use complex, and the Vail Unified School District’s Empire High School.

To get ready to launch the work of the PythonX, factory technicians from Burlington Automation have been on site at J.B. Steel as part of the startup, training and certification process.

In 2007 at the peak of the building boom, J.B. Steel had about 85 employees. Now, there are 30. Brown hopes that the robot will help grow the company to add 20 to 30 more jobs.

“We bought it during the down cycle.  If we had been really busy, we wouldn’t have had the time or the resources to handle this,” Brown said.  “Now that it’s here and we realize how much more competitive we will be, getting ready has been kind of a mad dash scramble.”