Pipes and joints systems vs. T-slot aluminium profiles: Comparing modular systems

When analyzing different modular system options to implement or adapt a production line, a lot must be taken into perspective. Maximizing a production floor’s efficiency, ensuring employees are working in a safe, ergonomic manner and making sure the production blueprint can be adapted over time are key points to keep in mind throughout the conceptualization process.

Comparison between the tubular and the aluminum profiles systems
Comparing modular systems

While both T-slot aluminum profiles such as 80/20’s or Vention’s and tubular systems like Flexpipe’s offer great solutions to manufacturers and design engineers, the products have unique characteristics that will influence how they will be of better use in a production context.

Advantages of each system
Chart showing the advantages of each system

 

 

 

A Matter of High Precision

Image showing the two types of modular systems
Image showing aluminum extrusions and pipes and fittings

Because T-slot aluminum constructions are sturdier, they are an obvious choice for production systems involving robotics and automation. They are made with refined equipment that can offer very tight tolerances. Their durable and resistant nature can also support a variety of robotic applications facing rapid and repetitive movement, such as:

Image with text showing various types of use for aluminum extrusion structures
Aluminum extrusion structures are the best options for automation and robotics systems 
Image and text presenting types of use for aluminum extrusions
Ramps and platforms are a good way to use aluminum extrusionsImage and text presenting types of use for aluminum extrusions

Photo credit: https://airinc.net/8020-extrusion/fixtures/

The Depth of Intubation on Flexpipe Products

In the tubular system, there is an intubation space of 1 inch when you insert the pipes into the fittings -even if the tubes should be fully inserted-. This remaining space makes the assembly process easier, by giving a margin of error for small cutting or design mistakes. While this detail might come in handy in some contexts, the facts remain: tubular structures are not as precise as aluminum framing systems. 

 

Depth of intubation
Depth of intubation on Flexpipe products

The Best Uses for Flexpipe products

The tubes and fittings structures are therefore more adapted to other types of use. Here are a few examples of various material handling systems that would be more efficiently built with pipes and joints instead of aluminium profiles -which, in those cases, would be considered “overkill, over built and over paid”-:

  • Flowracks (return lines for empty containers to ensure continuous production, supermarket racks to have stock nearby, L-shaped flow racks for proximity of parts, one-piece flow conveyor stations for lean manufacturing and gravity-fed workstations to free up floor space)
Flexpipe is a great option for racking and carts
Flexpipe is a great option for different types of racking and carts
  • Racks (adaptable racks, shelving with added value, wip racks to reduce defects and storage racks intended as a poka-yoke)
  • Workstations and workbenches (U-Cell stations to improve lead time, ergonomic stand-up stations, work centers to have task relevant information nearby, personalized adjustable working tables to meet your worker’s needs and ESD workstations to reduce defects)
Image and text presenting the types of workstations Flexpipe can be a great option for
The types of workstations Flexpipe can be a great option for
  • Modular boards (Point-of-use or shadow boards, rotating cube and 8-faced boards, meeting space, 1 and 2 sided boards, 3 sided boards and 4 sided boards)
Flexpipe is the best option for modular boards
Flexpipe is the best option for modular boards
  • Carts (Kitting carts, tuggable carts, wip carts, warehouse picking carts and truck carts)

Different loading capacities

  • Pipe and joint systems like Flexpipe mostly use 28 mm OD pipes, with or without plastic coatings.
  • The thickness of the pipes generally varies between 1 and 2 mm, providing various solidity levels which can be adapted to the project’s specifications. But since the diameter of the tube stays the same, Flexpipe structures will never be as strong as aluminum extrusions structures could be if they were made with the biggest size of profiles.
Chart showing Flexpipe's tubes capacity
Flexpipe’s loading capacity difference between pipe types
  • The metal joints and various fasteners also contribute to the strength of the frame.
  • The strongest structures can support a maximum charge of 2000 pounds!
2000 LBS charge on a Flexpipe cart
A 2000 pounds bloc of cement on a Flexpipe cart
  • T-slotted aluminum profiles are offered in different types and sizes, the most popular being the 6063-T5, often ranging from 1 X 1” to 1,5 X 1,5” inches. The choices in inch or millimeter square make it a good choice for light to heavy-duty framing projects.
  • Being able to choose between different sizes of profiles ranging from 20 millimeters square to as large as 180 by 360 millimeters makes t-slot profiles a perfect option for projects involving very heavy loads.
  • According to an article on Formaspace, the biggest aluminum profiles used to make 80/20 extruded frames can carry very heavy charges: 6105-T5 aluminum alloy has a tensile strength of 35,000 lbs. per square inch! 
Image of aluminum extrusion structure on Assembly Mag
Aluminum extrusion structure. Photo credits: Assembly Mag

Testing, prototyping and trystorming made easier with pipe and joint systems

Because of the lower costs involved with pipes and fittings “modular systems” and the simplicity of the tubular approach, tests can be carried out more easily before implementing new structures. Manufacturers can therefore quickly reconfigure a wide range of assembly line components based on feedback, with minimal capital outlay. 

Engineers can spend more time brainstorming and constantly optimizing assembly processes rather than designing each structure from scratch, resulting in a greater employee satisfaction and optimization of the production process!

Flexpipe employees working at Flexpipe
Employees working at Flexpipe

Because pipes and fittings systems are simpler and involve less components, it’s easier for engineers to shop online, figure out themselves how they can use the product for their specific needs and become creative more quickly! It’s also easier for employees working on the assembly lines to get involved in the optimization process, stay proactive and improve their work tools, which is great for professional satisfaction and motivation!

Aluminum extrusion profiles:

Since the cost is higher, the testing part becomes more expensive and financially risky with the aluminum extrusion profiles, making the whole testing and trying process more complicated than it is with the tubular system. This constraint tends to result in a longer, more complex planning process when creating new modular structures. 

Adapting and evolving: a constant concept

Perfectly embodying the Lean Manufacturing concept, the Flexpipe production systems can easily be adapted to follow the productions new needs and reality. Again, the simplicity of the structures ensures that any changes can be applied quickly and tested right away, thus leaving room for errors and constant improvement along the way.

Before / After montage
Before / After montage showing the evolution of a Flexpipe structure

Modifying already existing T-slot frames is a little more complex, since they’re also more complicated to assemble in the first place. Because of the various components involved in the system, the modular aspect of the structures is not as easily adaptable to feedback and testing. On the other hand, the various components open up more options and possibilities for robotic integration and automation specialized types of systems.

Budget planning: costs differences

Although the cost of the products obviously varies depending on the specifications of the project, aluminum tends to be about 30% more expensive than Flexpipe. For some manufacturing companies designing and working with an important number of workstations and productions systems, the choice of material becomes very important. General application has significant importance when it comes to choosing the best option; however, when it comes to intra-logistic applications where push-carts and flow racks are required, for example, the cost and flexibility of pipe and joints systems trumps T-slot aluminum extrusion profiles.

Chart showing the different prices for the same structures, in aluminum or pipes
Costs vary between both systems, for the same type of structure

The aesthetics: all about the looks

Aluminum profiles

Some professionals like the sober, straight lines and modern looks of the T-slot aluminum profiles and consider them to be a better choice when it comes to the aesthetics of their framing system. While it is possible to buy colored aluminum extrusions, it is more common to see clear aluminum finish or the typical blueish color of anodized aluminum often seen on Vention’s extrusions for example, because of the considerable costs involving the powder coating process for coloration. 

Vention's aluminum extrusions' natural finish
Aluminum extrusions’ natural finish

Pipes and fittings

On top of the traditional black and stainless colors, tubular systems like Flexpipe offer blue, yellow, green, white, red, orange, gray and ivory colored tubes. The choices in colors mostly aim to make it easier to use color coding systems on a production’s floor, but can also bring a lighter atmosphere to a work environment! 

Flexpipe's different colors of tubes
Flexpipe’s different colors of tubes

If you’re looking for a sleeker, sober look, Flexpipe’s stainless tubes matched with chrome-plated joints could very well match your taste. 

Flexpipe’s chrome-plated joint set
One of Flexpipe’s chrome-plated joint set

Same productivity goals, complementary use

While both products offer customized, creative and efficient solutions in various production structures, their technical particularities make their respective use complementary. Each of them is more appropriate in different contexts of the production system. On your typical assembly line, any robotics or automation related construction system will likely be more effective and precise if it’s built with t-slotted aluminum profiles. On the other hand, pipes and fittings systems will be the obvious choice when building flow racks, workstations, modular boards or carts!

Assembly line involving both aluminum and pipes
Assembly line involving both aluminum and pipes systems. Photo credits: Shutterstock

Temie Fessa, a project manager for Flexpipe who has been working in the field for over ten years, says many of his clients will use both systems in different contexts. He points out that when engineers or consultants have been using aluminum extrusions on their production line for a long time, they’ll tend to keep the same habits when it comes to designing new structures, as a professional legacy. Because they are so used to the t-slot aluminum framings, they won’t question their choices or look for other options unless they are given a specific assignment related to budget cuts, for example.

And since the price of steel tubes and fittings is much lower than aluminum extrusions, once they’ve discovered the tubular systems and how easy it is to use, many companies will start integrating the tubular products as much as they can in the production environment, especially when they don’t need the heavy duty aspect or the precision provided by the strut profiles. Using steel pipes tubular systems therefore gives them the opportunity to cut the costs, without any downside.

julien-depelteau-portrait
Julien Depelteau - Chief Executive Officer

Julien is Flexpipe’s president and co-founder. He came upon lean manufacturing in 2006 and launched Flexpipe in 2010. His mission since then has been to introduce the modular system to new markets by making it affordable and accessible.