Getting the cut correct at Special Steels

Special Steels was established just under 20 years ago in 2002 as a specialist cut-to-length company with an emphasis on imported bar and tube. In those early years the company concentrated on the niche area of bar and tube as not many specialised in this area. But the company’s processes were not focused on the general and more common sizes of bar and tube, which could also be referred to as pipe. Rather the company was built around the more difficult sizes and compositions of solid and hollow bar to process.

“Our business is not about piercing, notching, forming, bending and shearing of angle, channel, bar, rod, tube and pipe that are typically used in jack-of-all-trades fabrication for many industries, whether it is in the construction, food, chemical or petrochemical industries. Rather we concentrate in an area where typical applications include mining, machinery, gears, pinions and cogs, for example. A case in point is one where a solid bar of 130mm diameter could weigh up to 105kg per metre. This requires serious material handling and processing equipment. And there can be no mistakes when processing because they become costly when you have to scrap the material. It is not for sissies at all.”

“Typically we would use bandsaws to cut the material. Bandsaw cutting is a fully automatic process and the most common method used for cutting rod, bar, pipe and tubing. This process is also excellent for large-volume cutting and some bandsaws can handle large product bundles. Despite the many advantages of band saw cutting, it is not an efficient process for cutting thin-walled products.”

Special Steels’ Messer oxyfuel cutting machine has a capability of cutting 20mm to 300mm thickness

“However, with our philosophy to transcend the essential ‘buy-cut-sell’ process, offered by many, we decided to rather explore the possibility of offering value-added services and minimising downtime over and above the required cut-to-size requirements. These benefits include machining preparation work to be done on the steel, reducing machine setup times, minimising material wastage and offering consistent dimensional tolerances for high-volume production. These processes would ultimately free up valuable time on our clients high-end machinery and allow them to perform the more complex machining operations that would add value to their manufacturing capabilities.”

“We decided to develop and invest in the tailor-made solutions and this has now resulted in Special Steels offering CNC machining services such as normal and deep-hole drilling, facing and centring, normal and robotic welding, tapping and bevelling as well as hardness testing, ultrasonic testing, heat treatment, lab services and logistics.”

“This is over and above the bandsaw cutting services that are necessary in our business.”

Laser, plasma and oxyfuel – flat metal cutting
“The days of opening a traditional service centre and making a good living by using the conventional business model are long gone. One hundred years ago it wasn’t too difficult to buy large shipments of steel at mill prices, break the bands, and sell small quantities to local manufacturers at slightly marked-up prices, making a little profit on each transaction.”

“In essence, although niche, Special Steels was operating as a service centre for solid and hollow bar. We took a strategic decision to change this perception and start adding value-add to our services. More recently we have added CNC facing, centring and chuck preparation of round bar up to 4 000mm, as well as all pre rough machining operations, to our services.”

Special Steels’ Messer plasma (high definition) machine has a cutting capability of 20mm to 45mm thickness

“Rough machining is generally an aggressive cutting action and can require longer cycle times with far greater tip wear. This all soaks up costly machine and operator time. Preparing the workpiece for machining ensures efficient usage of a clients most valuable assets, thereby optimising the return on those assets.”

“However, it was our decision to change from only processing round metal to also include processing flat metal that not only required a sizeable investment in equipment but that there would also have to be a significant investment in culture change in the company and a steep learning curve for management and employees.”

“Like most service centres relying on ‘buy-cut-sell’ processing eventually becomes a challenge. Change is inevitable, markets are unforgiving, and price competition becomes unbearable.”

“Cutting with a ‘soft tool’ – be it a laser beam, plasma arc, oxyfuel flame or waterjet has in many ways become a defining technology of modern sheet metal and plate fabrication. No cutting method is perfect in every way, of course. Each comes with advantages and disadvantages.”

“Thankfully, fabricators can mitigate the weaknesses and accentuate the strengths, and one way to do it is to develop a smart strategy around something that’s at the heart of every cutting process.”

“We subsequently added three new processing machines to our capabilities – laser, plasma and oxyfuel cutting. Our Amada CO2 optic laser has a cutting capability of up to 25mm thickness, our
Messer Plasma (high definition) machine has a cutting capability of 20mm to 45mm thickness and our Messer oxyfuel cutting machine has a capability of 20mm to 300mm thickness.”

“Although these three processes might not be tailor-made or niche, they do add value for our clients. Consider the following example. SS Engineering needs some round bar processing done. He gets it done with us. But he also needs some sheetmetal and plate cutting work done. So why allow him to go elsewhere when you can address the situation by investing in the processes and equipment.”

“We are not wanting to be a manufacturing or fabrication setup so there is not much in terms of added on value that we can derive from the components and products that our customers offer.”

“We just want to be in a situation where if you want metal profiled or cut in anyway or shape you must contact Special Steels. We don’t offer bending, rolling, punching or forming yet but who knows going forward. The less time our client spends on the mundane processes of material preparation then we know he is happy because he is concentrating on the high-value processes.”

“That said, every primary cutting process in metal fabrication can produce the desired result when approached intelligently. Having access to the most appropriate machinery and productivity tools for each process will help achieve the best outcome.”

For further details contact Special Steels on TEL: 011 865 4939 or visit