Illinois tube fabricator takes next step with blast room

Morton Industries Director of Operations Troy Deiss inspects a carbon steel part in the company’s new blast room.

When fire destroyed 80,000 sq. ft. of Morton Industries' North facility in Morton, Ill., in April, it pushed the 77-year-old company to the edge—not of viability (that was never in question), but rather to a place where its leaders could see the past and future of the operation more clearly. 316 Stainless Steel Tube

Illinois tube fabricator takes next step with blast room

And while the recent past has been kind to Morton (conservatively, the privately held company’s revenue is set to jump more than 15% this year over 2022), the question is always how to prepare better for the future.

For one of the nation’s largest tube and pipe fabricators, that of course means capital investment. And in the most recent case, not just in another bending or cutting machine, but in a Titan Abrasive Systems blast room that supports the finishing and painting of a sizable portion of the company’s output.

Though the process used is generally referred to as sandblasting, rather than sand, Morton uses an abrasive grit to remove mill scale from tubular parts in the fully enclosed 12- by 15- by 12-ft. room. Virtually all the 34,000 parts that the company runs through the blast room per year are aluminized steel, with a few carbon steel parts processed here and there.

The parts move from the blast room to etching and then to a cleaning station before they’re prepped and finally powder coated. The parts are coated to withstand high temperatures in applications such as exhaust pipes or engine fluids. Blasting the outside surface of the tubes not only removes impurities, but it also creates a surface that accepts powder coating far more readily.

Morton used to outsource all of its blasting to area vendors, and one was located about two hours away. But growing internal powder coating demand finally prodded the company to invest in its own blast room shortly before the fire.

“A lot of things came together all around the same time to be able to make the decision,” Morton President and CEO Chris Ober said. “There was a need, a constraint—we couldn’t get our local blasters to keep up with our schedule. So, we offered to send people to help, but that gets complicated because of insurance and workers’ comp.

“So, then we had to go find other blast people that could give us some of their capacity. And now we’re sending stuff all over the place instead of just down the street.”

That added a burden on the purchasing department, not to mention all the additional trucking. For Morton, it came down to one question: Do we have the volume to justify an investment? At first, the answer was no. But then one order changed the equation.

“It kind of got shelved for a while,” Ober said. “And then we got awarded a pretty significant package from a new customer that all required blasting. There was a hole that needed to be filled, and we just needed a little extra push with sales to get there.”

Morton Industries employee Chuck Wade powder coats a batch of parts. Preparing parts for powder coating was the company’s top reason for recently adding a Titan Abrasive Systems blast room to its Morton North facility.

The fire delayed commissioning the blast room by a few weeks, but because that decisive customer took some time transitioning from its former supplier, the timing worked out better than one might have thought. And now, parts ready to be powder coated move across the plant floor instead of across town (or down the highway).

“We were really at the mercy of how fast it could come back,” Director of Operations Troy Deiss said. “Now everything stays in-house. We control our own destiny.

“It was maybe seven to 10 days lead time prior to this, but now we can do it in a matter of hours.”

In addition to the time savings a shop can accrue, bringing the blasting operation in-house mitigates risk to the parts themselves, Titan’s President/CEO Brandon Acker said.

“You’re making the material, cutting it, welding it, then you have to load it on a truck, ship it off-site to someone who then is having to unload it, blast it, reload it, and send it back,” Acker said. “So, there’s a lot of potential for damage to a product [with] all that loading and unloading off trucks and transporting it back and forth.

“That’s one of the issues—quality control is another. If you get it in and it doesn’t meet what you expect, now you have to send it back. Now you’re shipping it back and getting it done again.”

As big as adding the blast room was, it represents just one piece of Morton’s overall push toward greater flexibility and tighter turnarounds. Like most other fabricators, customers’ just-in-time demands have made “high mix, low volume” the rule at Morton.

For a company with more than 13,000 active SKUs in its production catalog, responsiveness has become all the more imperative. That’s why Morton manufactures its own bend tooling and maintains a sizable inventory—it never wants a customer to wait days for a spot order when the company can create the tool in a few hours and bend the part shortly thereafter.

It’s also why the company is making a concerted push toward electric tube bending machines and away from hydraulics. With its deep list of different parts, Morton can’t afford to waste time on machine changeovers or do-overs when hydraulic machines bend a piece differently from run to run because something like the fluid temperature changed.

“With the nature of our products—high mix, low volume—you might not see that product for seven, eight, nine months, and you push the button on the hydraulic [bender] and you’ve got to zone back in,” Ober said. “On an electric, it’s going to run the same seven months later.”

And with Morton’s emphasis on robotic welding and electric benders in its new capital equipment purchases, the company wanted to make sure one process was supporting the other reliably—thus the shift from hydraulic to electric bending.

“To be quite honest, we can’t do robotic welding well unless all the component pieces coming in are repeatable,” Ober added. “It doesn’t help to buy a robot if you’re not going to somehow change what’s coming in.”

As seemingly the whole world is switching to electric-powered machinery, Morton wants to be ready when its customers start fielding new demands from consumers, as well.

“So, a lot more aluminums and stainless—white metals and red metals,” Ober said. “We’re working with customers now to say, ‘Hey, as you guys are ramping these things up, we’re expecting some of the product to be phased out in time—your traditional high-pressure hydraulic tube.’

“Carbon steel, we expect that to decrease over time and these other metals to increase,” Ober said. “When you [move] from cylinders to electric motors, now you don’t need all the tubing to power the cylinders, but you need to cool motors because you’ve got to operate in all these extreme temperatures. So, we’re working with customers to transition from all the mild steel stuff into maybe more heating and cooling type of products. I get asked all the time, ‘What’s going to happen when things turn electric?’ I think there’s actually going to be more tubing, not less.”

With equipment like the new blast room, the company hopes to be more responsive than it’s ever been. Having that service in-house, which accepts any product size—as long as it’s angled properly—already is providing a huge advantage.

“We always want to control it within these four walls,” Deiss said. “The nice thing about … the blast room, too, is that the profile is the same no matter what product. In different areas of the facility, you have 1 in., 2 in., 3 in. You have everything in between, all the way up to 12 in. and every half-diameter that you can imagine. It doesn’t matter what goes through the blast room, it’s going to blast the same. So yeah, it’s a quick turn, no matter what the geometry.

“It’s our first exposure to sandblasting, so we’re learning as we go,” Deiss added. “[Titan] has been really helpful, too, in helping us navigate how to reclaim [abrasive] and … if we run into issues with diaphragms or clogs. We’ve been really grateful for that help.”

The Tube & Pipe Journal

See More by Lincoln Brunner

Lincoln Brunner is editor of The Tube & Pipe Journal. This is his second stint at TPJ, where he served as an editor for two years before helping launch as FMA's first web content manager. After that very rewarding experience, he worked for 17 years as an international journalist and communications director in the nonprofit sector. He is a published author and has written extensively about all facets of the metal fabrication industry.

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Illinois tube fabricator takes next step with blast room

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