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Modular Fixturing Helps Marine Propulsion Manufacturer Go Full Speed Ahead

By Fairbanks Morse

On paper, it should have been smooth sailing. When Fairbanks Morse installed a robotic welding cell at its Beloit, Wis. headquarters, the goal was to increase output of the massive marine propulsion systems they manufacture. So when Robotics Engineer Steve Hill found that productivity at the 125-year-old company had plateaued, he needed to identify the challenges that were throttling automation speed.

The USS Enterprise. Fairbanks Morse built and delivered emergency diesel generators for two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, including the USS Enterprise.

“What challenges were we facing?” said Hill. “I think the better question to ask is what challenges weren’t we facing? We have a very diverse mix of parts. Repeatability and process standardization were huge challenges, because many of our fabrication methods are based on tribal knowledge. We also had a lot of outdated prints and fabrication methodologies.” The net effect was a robotic welding cell starving for work while waiting for sub-assemblies to be tack welded, and for larger weldments to be fixtured up.

The answer, Hill knew, had to be modular. He had used modular fixturing from Bluco Corp., Naperville, Illinois, at a previous facility, so he knew it was perfectly suited. “Bluco is synonymous with modular. Plus, I knew there would be engineering support with it, so it was a no-brainer.”

The Fairbanks team experiments with Bluco toggle clamps that generate up to 400 lb (181.44 kg) of force.

Hill started by uploading CAD files to Bluco’s secure website. Then he collaborated with Bluco Sales Engineer Josh Hill (no relation). “I explained how I needed to pitch it to management. He basically helped me build the case for it. That alone had me sold 100 percent,” said Steve Hill. “Josh took the time to come out for a visit to get a feel for the environment here. Then he designed what our leadership needed to see. He didn’t just hand me a catalog like a competitor did. The interpersonal interaction between Josh and our team was the catalyst that got this put out onto the shop floor.”

The Bluco solution, consisting of five tables with rolling legs atop 12 m of rail and featuring a specialized component kit, is able to fixture nine different parts. The solution also included a batch of custom digital templates made by Bluco specifically for Fairbanks Morse. Steve Hill said all six of his operators were proficient with the entire system within two weeks. On top of that, Fairbanks immediately saw massive time savings. “We had an 18' (5.49-m) long oil pan that used to take over a month from start to finish,” he said. “Now it takes two days. That’s astronomical for us.”

The new Bluco solution was assembled with the help of Bluco engineers using CAD models. It includes five tables and 12 m of floor rail.

How did they save all that time? “The guys had to lay it out before, using chalk lines and tape measures, and only two individuals in the entire shop knew how to build them,” said Steve Hill. “The guys that started off building these weren’t even the operators that already knew how to build them from tribal knowledge. These guys were finish welders, not setup welders, and they built the part in a third of the time that the seasoned operators were able to do it. And it was dimensionally correct. That’s what is absolutely mind-blowing to everyone here. I can’t even really describe it other than to say it blew everyone away, including the leadership here at Fairbanks.”

The Bluco solution went beyond just new hardware—it also included custom design services that solved some of Fairbanks’ toughest fixturing challenges. “We do have some specialized parts that are extremely difficult to build, but that’s where Bluco engineers made the difference,” said Steve Hill. “They came up with incredible solutions, providing custom templates to build some of the most challenging parts we have.”

Bluco’s five-table solution for Fairbanks Morse features a specialized component kit and is capable of fixturing nine different parts.

Because the Fairbanks team can access these digital fixture templates from a workstation on the shop floor, productivity soared. “We didn’t just get a rail system; we got an entirely new process. In this one purchase, we were able to have an 80 percent developed SOP right out of the gate, just by going to this digital design,” said Steve Hill.

While time savings and ease of use impressed the Fairbanks team, the ROI of the Bluco system has also turned heads. “Our ROI is so high that I’m actually unable to calculate it. But what I can say is that the Bluco table paid for itself. It’s exceeded [our expectations for] ROI. We’ve been able to have a full return on investment in six months,” he said.

Marine propulsion systems manufactured by Fairbanks Morse power all types of marine vessels, from tugs to cargo ships.

Looking back, Steve Hill sees the challenge Fairbanks Morse overcame with complete clarity. “We purchased a large automation system with a high expectation of increased throughput. But we didn’t have repeatability to lead up to the automation. You have to have that. The Bluco solution provided that. It stabilized everything and made the process repeatable. It’s a win all around.”

For information on Fairbanks Morse, visit or call 800-356-6955. For information on Bluco Corp., visit or call 800-535-0135.

Bluco Fixturing Provides Time Savings, Ease of Use, and Strong ROI

The results of Fairbanks Morse’s modular fixturing project, supplied by Bluco, exceeded the expectations of the marine propulsion systems manufacturer. Key results include:

  • One modular kit for nine parts;
  • Parts are dead square;
  • Fixturing time was cut in half;
  • A 100 percent ROI in six months;
  • A repeatable process new welders can learn in a week; and
  • Enough savings of time and money to fund additional tables.

“We’ve got Bluco fever,” said Steve Hill of Fairbanks Morse. “That’s not a joke. We’re implementing more Bluco tables and expanding the functionality of some existing tables by adding more modular components. Leadership wants everything here that’s fabricated to be done on a Bluco table. Period.”

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