Though copper pipe has been used to carry water since the days of the Egyptians, it was not until the late 1920's that practical and economical thin-walled copper plumbing tube was developed to compete with iron pipe. Once developed, it did not take long for copper - an easily worked, corrosion-resistant product - to replace threaded iron pipe as the standard for many residential and industrial uses. Cerro Copper Products Co., a member of The Marmon Group of companies of Sauget, IL, then known as Lewin-Mathes, decided to enter this market. The former copper scrap dealership was just a few years into production of its copper tubes when World War II ended. Following the war, the company was well equipped to meet the demands of the greatest building boom in the nation's history. Copper plumbing tube became the standard for most home construction, putting Cerro Copper at a significant advantage.

The company now employs 800 people within a 250,000-foot facility in Sauget, IL. To maintain its competitive edge in the copper industry, Cerro Copper has had to update its material handling operations along the way. Beginning two years ago, Jim Hintz, director of engineering for Cerro Copper, began the first of a two phase manufacturing and material handling system overhaul that increased manufacturing capabilities for the copper giant. An integral part of the new system, completed last year, involved the installation of 750 square feet of chain-driven live-roller accumulation conveyor from another industry leader, Mathews Conveyor of Danville, KY. Mathews Conveyor is a material handling total systems provider with 94 years of experience. According to Mark Reichle, of Van Pak Corp., Maryland Heights, MO, the distributor who sold and installed the job, Mathews Conveyor was the clear choice for Cerro Copper.

"During our initial meetings with Cerro, we recommended Mathews Conveyor because Mathews has a proven history of reliability in the heavy-duty industry," Reichle said. "We strongly suggested that Cerro Copper, like many other companies in the heavy duty industry, be up and running with conveyor from Mathews Conveyor."         

          Along with new conveying systems, Cerro Copper's updated system also involved the purchase of a third spinner block, a new straighten and cut-off machine, and new transfer lifts and turn tables. The new system created a total of six lines, each capable of storing seven coil-handling baskets each. All of the six lines feed off their own machines, including four straighten and cut-off machines and two tandem coilers. Previously three lines fed five different machines, resulting in severe bottle necking. The new system gives the company more finishing capacity and results in the production of a larger number of products that can be put into inventory. Because Cerro Copper ships from numerous storage warehouses strategically located throughout the U.S., stocked inventories are needed to meet constantly changing customer demands.

Production of copper water tubing at Cerro Copper begins when copper cathode and/or high grade copper scrap is received and unloaded. The copper is melted, purified and cast into logs that are cut to make billets. The billets are reheated and extruded under water to make hollow shells. The shells are cold drawn on bull blocks and coiled. Next, the coiled copper, roughly nine feet in diameter, is lifted by crane and placed into a heavy duty metal "basket" weighing 1,100 pounds. Baskets are 10 feet in diameter and two feet deep and are the core of Cerro Copper's coil handling system.    

During finishing, the coiled tubing exits the baskets and is fed into spinner block machines that reduce the wall thickness and diameter of the tubes to user-specified sizes, usually 1/2 in. to 3/4 in. in diameter. Lastly, the tubing feeds into straighten and cut-off machines that cut the tubes to finished lengths. The copper tubes, or pipes, are then distributed to plumbing distributors for use in building and home construction.

Prior to the installation of Cerro's new material handling system, the coil handling baskets were transported using dual strand chains about 3-in. in width. "With the old system, the baskets accumulated by bumping against each other, which was a problem in itself," said Hintz. "As a group, the baskets weighed several tons and put a lot of strain on the continuous running chain. The chains also required a lot of lubrication, creating an overall dirty environment," said Hintz.

Unlike the previous system, the new conveying system from Mathews Conveyor uses chain-driven live-roller accumulation conveyors that require little or no lubrication. In addition, the conveyors utilize a proximity sensor that allows baskets to accumulate in zones without line pressure build-up. When the proximity sensor sees a basket in a particular zone, the adjacent zone is stopped and a safe 4-in. to 5-in. gap is left between baskets.

     "The new system also uses less energy because the conveyors only run when transporting baskets," Hintz said. "This translates into lower production costs for Cerro Copper."

The new conveyors from Mathews mean lower maintenance for Cerro Copper as well. With the old conveying system, entire stretches of conveyor had to be removed and replaced when problems were detected - not a welcome activity for a company that runs around the clock. With the new conveyors, sections of conveyor can be easily replaced if necessary. "We purchased replacement parts during the initial installation that we haven't had to touch," Hintz said. "The conveyors are performing as we anticipated, and that makes us very happy. We would buy more Mathews' conveyors in the future, if the need arises."

For now, however, with its manufacturing and material handling system fully overhauled, Cerro Copper will continue to manufacture its copper pipes to plumbing distributors throughout the U.S., just as it has done for much of the past 75 years.
CAPTIONS Caption 1 Cerro Copper Products' new conveying system from Mathews Conveyor uses a proximity sensor that works to accumulate its coil handling baskets in zones without any line pressure build-up.                     Caption 2 As part of updates made at Cerro Copper Products, a newly installed machine straightens and then cuts copper tubing into finished lengths for use in building and home construction.