Plasma Cutters Help Give New Life to Old Semi Trailers

By: Louis A. Kren

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Like anything else, trucks, and truck trailers for our purposes here, don’t live forever. In these pages we’ve discussed how truck trailers are made and the machinery that makes truck-trailer fabrication possible, productive and profitable. But what happens when these trailers reach the end of their useful lives?

Repurpose and Reuse

EcoVet’s employees, the majority of which are veterans as part of the company’s mission, reclaim nearly every portion of decommissioned semi trailers to produce furniture for commercial and private buyers. Plasma cutters perform the deconstruction work, which is key to the entire enterprise.
Mike Hagood knows. As a former Walmart employee responsible for the company’s zero-waste network, and later in charge of sustainability efforts for Waste Management in Rogers, AR, he spent his time figuring out how to repurpose and reuse.

“Typically,” Hagood says, “truck trailers, when retired, hit the scales, then the shredders, then the landfills.”

Aluminum, steel, wood and whatever else making up those trailers are sliced and diced, with all nonmetal components destined for an earthen eternity. The number of trailers meeting such fate is staggering. Just one company cited by Hagood shreds and dumps 50,000 trailers per year, and similar companies dot the landscape.

He saw opportunities in salvaging trailers, and set out to convert trailer materials into other useful products.

So, nearly four years ago, Hagood started EcoVet, a company that not only would reclaim trailer materials, but employ veterans in the process.

“Ultimately, we are a recycling company, and we demo 53-ft.-long cargo trailers to build furniture, bases and frames. We are trying to change the habit of landfilling trailers,” Hagood says. “We specialize in reverse logistics and end-of-life product management, helping give new life to old products and materials. Our team of veterans design and build handcrafted furniture using materials reclaimed from those decommissioned semi trailers.”

Dependability a Must

Early on, EcoVet worked out deals to sell through Sam’s Club (part of Walmart, which opened its first store in Rogers and calls nearby Bentonville its headquarters home), online and also through a local catalog company. This past year, EcoVet, via the efforts of its 30 employees, including at least 50 percent veterans, has reached nearly $1 million in sales through its three business streams: building furniture, selling lumber and deconstructing trailers.

With a primary mission to recycle, reclaim and reuse, EcoVet assembles products from wood, mostly oak, and metal, mostly aluminum. Otherwise, semi trailers would be shredded and all nonmetal components landfilled.

The lumber and furniture grow out of the demo business, and key to reclaiming operations is reliable equipment that can withstand harsh duty. Four years back at the company’s inception, EcoVet employed two portable Hypertherm plasma cutters, a Powermax125 and Powermax1650, to dismantle trailers.

“I have tried a couple other brands, but those two plasma cutters are still operational, doing the job every day,” Hagood says.

Impressed by their dependability and low maintenance requirements, Hagood and EcoVet have continued to select Hypertherm equipment. Today, the roster includes those originals as well as a Powermax45XP purchased last year, Duramax Hyamp long torches and a brand-new product, a torch sled accessory purchased earlier this year.

The Powermax line of plasma-cutting and gouging systems, which depending on the unit can cut metal to 2.25 in. thick, is built to withstand heavy-duty use in demanding industrial environments, according to Hypertherm officials, which makes the line ideal for EcoVet’s needs.

The Powermax125, one of the units dedicated to cutting the trailers at EcoVet, offers a 100-percent duty cycle, 1-in. mechanized pierce capability and rapid metal removal. It features Hypertherm’s Smart Sense technology that automatically adjusts gas pressure for particular applications. The Duramax Hyamp torches provide versatility for hand cutting, portable automation, X-Y table cutting, extended reach cutting (a must for EcoVet), and robotic cutting and gouging.

Demoliton work at EcoVet begins as crews use the plasma cutters to slice off a trailer roof, and then the walls. From there, they flip over the trailer and, again using the plasma cutters, burn off bolts, allowing wood to fall to the ground. The wood then is cut according to customer needs. The trailers supply the majority of metal used in EcoVet’s furniture designs, and the company even employs a sweeper that collects metallic fragments from the deconstruction site to ensure that nothing goes to waste.

After deconstruction, employees, including many veterans, fabricate custom furniture pieces in EcoVet’s well-equipped shop. The company strives to maintain a 50-percent-veteran workforce.
“We use every facet of that trailer, through recycling, reselling or rebuilding,” Hagood says. “When we make something it is a piece of art, a one-of-a-kind product using the unique character of the wood—mostly oak—featuring marks from forklifts, pallet jacks and even paint. This furniture is something that can be passed to your grandkids because it is unique and is built to last.”

Again, the plasma cutters play a major role in keeping the company moving forward.

“We try to deconstruct two to three trailers per day, and to achieve that level of productivity we need to have the right equipment,” says Hagood. “Our employees like using the Hypertherm plasma cutters because they require very little maintenance and can perform at the capacity required for this work.”

The long torches and sled accessory pay particular dividends at EcoVet.

“We use a 4-ft.-long torch wand on the sides of the trailer, meaning that no longer do we need ladders or forklifts to lift a worker,” Hagood explains. “Also, we were one of the first U.S. companies to employ the sled accessory, which is placed on the end of the plasma-cutting gun and provides a guide that lets a user just walk along the side of a trailer and cut without the torch tip hitting the aluminum panel. This accessory provides a good, straight cut and helps us speed the cutting process.”

Equipment Employed to Its Fullest

Hypertherm and its distributor in Arkansas, Welsco, have spent many days at EcoVet, according to Hagood, keeping the company apprised of new plasma-cutting technologies and new products such as the sled accessory. They also provide EcoVet employees with tips and tricks to get the most out of the equipment.

In turn, the equipment and processes used by EcoVet are employed to their fullest by the company’s veteran-laden workforce.

“Every day we build something different,” says Hagood. “I don’t think we really understand how difficult it is to serve in the military and then come home to an 8-to-5 job. Here, veterans have flexibility, and every day they are creating something new and have a lot of pride in their work. They all have a unique talent, learn quickly and work with very little coaching.” MF


See also: Hypertherm, Inc.

Related Enterprise Zones: Fabrication

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