Dimension Fabricators won its second patent late last month, and while it’s closely related to the first patent, the two things couldn’t be much less alike.
The first was Cage-Rite, a clever but simple notched ring that holds steel rods in place for the assembly of cages that will reinforce concrete. The second is a 50,000-pound machine that spins the cage around and lifts the rods up for placement, cutting production time by 75% or more.
The crew that puts these cages together is a sturdy lot but there’s no way they can lift the larger pieces, which run thousands of pounds. They’d need a crane, and each lift with a crane takes time and creates a fall risk.
“It’s a tremendous productivity improver,” Dimension President Scott Stevens said of the new machine.
U.S. Patent No. 10,654,091 was awarded May 19. It’s officially known by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a “rebar cage assembly apparatus,” a perfectly descriptive and completely unimaginative name.
In the cavernous space where Dimension operates in the Glenville Business and Technology Park, it’s commonly known as “Goliath,” though it hasn’t been formally named yet.
Stevens is joined at Dimension by his sons Dan, Greg and Todd Stevens. All four are civil engineers by training, which is well-suited to Dimension’s core business: fabricating steel cages ranging from large to enormous that will reinforce poured concrete for bridges and other large-scale construction projects.
Goliath was more of a mechanical engineering project, however.
Todd brings a lifelong interest and aptitude for mechanical design into the picture. As Dimension’s plant engineer and manager of a fleet that includes a circa-1947 General Electric locomotive, he gets to put the aptitude to use regularly. A number of Dimension’s production machines have been designed and built in-house.
Todd started designing Goliath in 2014 and submitted the patent application in August 2016. It took longer than that to finish, he recalls, and there was some backtracking along the way. The tracked treads that rotate the cage were a challenge, and programming the automation was even harder.
It’s still not finished, really. What’s there is done, but Todd plans to add some robotics.
Total cost to date: $400,000 to $500,000, about two-thirds of it labor.
Greg, Dimension’s operations manager, developed the device that carries the company’s first patent: Cage-Rite. (Official patent name: “rebar cage stiffener ring.”)
The excitement of winning that patent faded when other companies started making knockoffs and Dimension had to start paying to defend its design.
The Goliath machine will be harder for competitors to replicate. But having secured the patent, the Stevenses need to figure out what to do with it.
Leasing it out to contractors for on-site construction is a possibility, if it could be hauled as a trailer or be placed on a barge, but doing that could undercut Dimension’s own business.
“We’re trying to navigate that business model,” Todd said. “Capital equipment manufacturing would be a big step.”
On Friday, the crew in the large-cage assembly area clambered onto Goliath and demonstrated it:
The crew boots a length of steel rebar — a relative lightweight, perhaps 250 pounds — forward onto cradles at floor height and steps back.
The operator works the control panel and rolls the cage so the first notch is at knee height.
The operator hits the button again and the cradles rise to the height of the notch, whereupon the crew muscles it into position and twists wires around it to lock it down.
Then they step back, kick another bar forward, and the cage is rolled around to the next notch. In fairly rapid succession, they’ve got their cage done.
With finishing touches later on, the 7.5-foot diameter, 40-foot long cage would be ready for shipment to New Jersey-based utility PSEG, which will use it for the base of a tower holding high-voltage transmission lines.
If Dimension can ship this cage and 19 more like it in the short time frame PSEG specified, it’s in a good position to land a much bigger order.
“It’s going to be quite a challenge but we’re going to make it,” Scott said.
That was the main point of building Goliath, Todd said — to increase production speed and volume.
The steel cage nearing completion in Goliath’s grip Friday afternoon might have taken a full day to fabricate with just muscle on the shop floor and a crane overhead.
“Each bar could take 15 minutes if you’re working with eight guys,” Todd said.
Goliath can roll a cage up to 12 feet in diameter. The bigger the cage, the greater the time savings.
Goliath offers one other advantage that suddenly became important in March 2020: It lets everybody stand six feet apart.