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Air Tractor Achieves High Flying Productivity with VERNON Tool

Lincoln Electric, Automation Division

Air Tractor Achieves High Flying Productivity with VERNON ToolOn any day in Olney, Texas, you are bound to see a dusty cowboy walking through town or in sharp contrast; you will more than likely also see a brightly colored, state-of-art firefighting plane soaring through the sky.  Olney is a rural, relaxed town on the outskirts of Wichita Falls with a few surprises up its sleeve.  The local landing strip seems to be a hotspot of activity for this unique, small town. 

Recently renovated, this WWII built airport has 3 long runways and serves as home to Air Tractor.  A 100% employee owned company, Air Tractor is the world’s leading manufacturer of agricultural spraying and fire fighting aircraft.  Producing more than 2400 aircraft since 1974, this motivated team of employees is quality driven and productivity conscious.  

With more than 50 years in the design and manufacture of agricultural and aerial fire fighting planes, Air Tractor continually proves they know their customers and they know their business.  Being a global supplier and a results driven company, Air Tractor strives to improve productivity and results and drives them to look for efficiencies in their manufacturing operation. 

The Air Tractor plane design is an all tubular fuselage frame, with more than 120 different tubes in each frame.  Finding a method for producing tubes with profiled ends efficiently was a bottle neck they needed to overcome.  After several years of searching, the Air Tractor team soon found out that there were few affordable ways to profile small diameter tubes in an automated, effective manner. 

Rick Turner Vice President, Operations at Air Tractor and Don Cagle, Sr. Group Leader stumbled into Vernon’s exhibit at the 2005 FABTECH-AWS in Chicago.  Conversations lead to another small sport & utility aircraft company, Aviat Aircraft in Afton, Wyoming.  Using an early Vernon MTC machine to fabricate airframes, Aviat resurrected its manufacturing of experimental aerobatic and air show aircraft.  Vernon furnished a formal proposal shortly afterward and interest waned until December 2007.  Air Tractor awarded an order in January 2008. 

Air Tractor Achieves High Flying Productivity with VERNON ToolIt was VERNON Tool, an industrial pipe and tube cutting company from Oceanside, CA that provided Air Tractor with the solution they needed. 

Together with Vernon Tool, Rick and his staff refined the cutting requirements and raw material shape and length.  20’ raw lengths of round tubing were used to fabricate complex multiple intersection joints.  A light-duty Hypertherm Powermax 1000 was employed to burn .035”-.188” thin-gauge material. 

In mid 2008, a MasterTube™ Cutting machine, or MTC, was supplied as the right fit to the Air Tractor challenge.  The MasterTube™ machine is a rugged, 4-axis computer controlled system.  Two axes of motion are used to advance, retract and rotate the tube while two additional axes are for simultaneously carrying the torch angle and horizontal travel.  This field proven design was a versatile and economical solution to the Air Tractor application.

The results were immediate.  According to Rick Turner, Vice President, Operations at Air Tractor “VERNON Tool has changed my perception; we are producing profiled tubes in 50% of the time and the conversion to this method was virtually painless with no down-time at all.” 

Air Tractor’s previous manufacturing process consisted of slipping pre-shaped metal templates being over the raw material.   Once properly oriented relative to other structural members, workers followed the template shapes with a hand-held plasma torch.

After the contour outline was achieved, significant grinding and filling of the weld preparation followed.   Hand fitting each and every member was exceptionally time-consuming and inconsistent.

Subsequent profiles were manually measured and marked to ensure proper overall distance and angle orientation.   With the touch of a button, the Vernon MasterTube machine automates this entire process eliminating all manual measuring, marking and cutting.  It burns the proper contour and weld prep angle on both ends with a precise length and axial orientation.  Tight fit-ups and code welded connections ensure the structural integrity of each fuselage. 

Air Tractor Achieves High Flying Productivity with VERNON ToolAir Tractor may have had reservations on the employment of a mechanized tube cutting machine and PLC controls.  It was soon clear to see that this was far from the case, as the ease of programming was the most important feature to the Air Tractor employees.  “VERNON Tool convinced me how simple the programming process could be; installation, upfront training and conversion to the new process was painless” said Rick.  The VERNON Tool machine was up and running and producing results in a timeframe that this Texas manufacturer could appreciate.  In large part, this was due to a talented young man, Davey Perez an operator with previous CNC experience that had joined the Air Tractor team.  Since the 70’s, Air Tractor had followed drawn patterns for the tube profiles.  It was Davey who accomplished the task of taking 4 different model planes with 120 patterns each and converting them into 500 programs he built himself.  “He was a key contributor to the success we achieved with VERNON Tool” said Rick.

The main goal for Air Tractor had been to improve the cutting and profiling time which would save money and increase productivity time.  Air Tractor also achieved a more accurate end profile with minimal training.  Computer precise shapes meant less fine trimming on the backend of the operation, improving quality and also increasing efficiency. 

With 2010 production goals set at 100 aircraft, there is no stopping the Air Tractor team.  

Whether the job is spraying, seeding, fertilizing, or firefighting, Air Tractor is focused on producing the highest quality and cost-effective agriculture planes available anywhere, at any price.  Both Vernon Tool and Air Tractor rely on innovation to set them on a course for business success.   From Leland Snow’s humble beginning in 1951, Air Tractor surpasses the 2500th aircraft milestone.  Under Ward Blackburn’s leadership in 1948, Vernon Tool is rapidly approaching its 1000th pipe & tubing cutting machine installation.  If Air Tractor and VERNON Tool have anything to do with it – they will fly past their milestones for many years to come with ease.

Vernon Tool is a Lincoln Electric Company based in Oceanside, California.  The VERNON Tool Company is the industry's preferred source and global supplier of 3D profiling, customized pipe cutting, and metal fabrication machinery. 


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