Mining Nuggets of Gold Along the Fiber-Laser Learning Curve
The 170,000-sq.-ft. metal stamping and forming operation of Premier Tool & Manufacturing, Peosta, IA, took on a whole new look in mid-2012, when the firm welcomed the area’s first fiber-laser cutting machine. Focused for most of its 23-yr. existence on building and running dies for high- and low-volume work, Premier’s business model took a turn toward low- or no-cost tooling about 3 yr. ago. The company’s vice president of operations Brian Seemann says that “the market shift to zero-tooling-dollar work has created significant opportunities for us, so investing in laser cutting made sound business sense as we expect this trend to continue.”
Premier Tooling and Manufacturing launched operations in 1990 with nine employees in a 5400-sq.-ft. plant. Now its 170,000 sq. ft. of operations, including a 40,000-sq.-ft. die shop, employs 150. The firm is home to 45 stamping presses, to 1500-ton capacity, as well as CNC production-machining centers, weld booths and assembly cells.
Premier’s 5- by 10-ft. Fibermak fiber-laser cutting machine, from Ermaksan, boasts a 3-kW laser source that the firm has been able to push to 1180 in./min. when cutting 16-gauge mild steel.
In 2011 the firm brought in a CNC turret press to react to the upswing in zero-tooling or low-volume fabrication opportunities coming its way. But to really attain the process speeds required, outsourcing such work to local CO2-laser-cutting job shops gained favor.
“While we have some great options nearby to outsource laser cutting,” shares Seemann, “in 2012 we decided that we wanted to gain more control of this critical process, and no longer rely on the schedules of outside suppliers.”
CO2 or Fiber?
Early into its mission to select a laser-cutting machine of its own, Premier’s search team concluded that fiber-laser technology, rather than CO2, fit better into its mix of customers and products. So says industrial engineer Jeremy Kaiser, who notes that its business has drifted away from a customer base requesting high volumes to a more diverse customer base looking for lower volumes.
“We stamp and fabricate primarily mild steel, as well as some stainless and aluminum, from 16 to 6 gauge,” Kaiser says. “We make a lot of seat components for the ag, construction and truck industry, as well as emission-control parts and assemblies. A day’s worth of work might mean 1000 relatively large parts, or 10,000 smaller parts, and for some of our projects it no longer makes sense to build dies.”
After evaluating several suppliers from which to source its laser-cutting machine, Premier settled on a 5- by 10-ft. Fibermak model from Ermaksan, outfitted with a 3-kW laser source. Included in the deal is CAD/CAM programming software from Lantek that houses built-in process-parameter charts based on workpiece material type and thickness, as well as the ability to automatically generate parts nests. The software also accommodates unique requirements such as film burning and common-line cutting.
Busy from Day One
Almost from the day the machine was brought up to speed by Premier’s production team, it’s been churning out parts for a solid shift five days/week. At that rate, Seemann calculates an efficient return on investment of around 3 yr. But, he expects that since the laser work has only been, so far, mostly for existing customers, as the firm’s marketing efforts begin to pay off new customers will eventually allow the addition of a second shift of laser cutting.
“We don’t see other shops in this area operating fiber-laser machines,” he says, “so we expect to quickly leverage a competitive advantage with our machine. That advantage comes since these machines, compared to CO2, consume less energy and require less maintenance.”
The firm’s competitive advantage also continues to grow as Premier’s staff climbs the learning curve and finds ways to squeeze every ounce of productivity from its new machine. Knowing that such a learning curve often can take considerable time to navigate, we were excited to hear of a few notable nuggets of gold the company already has mined as it’s refined its procedures. Kaiser explains.
“We’re learning all the time, trying to cut faster than the charts say we should. And, another focus has been on reducing, or even eliminating, pierce times. For example, on one nested sheet of 8-gauge steel that we process often and which contains hundreds of holes, we fine-tuned the laser focal point and the assist-gas pressure and shaved pierce time from 8 sec. down to 3 sec. That alone trimmed 20 min. from the overall cycle time for the job.
“We’re also cutting thin-gauge sheet (0.071 in. or less) without piercing at all,” Kaiser continues. “On 16-gauge steel, for example, the laser originally was set up to cut at 280 in./min. After removing the pierce, as well as change nozzle style and, again, fine-tuning process parameters, we’re cutting 16 gauge at 1180 in./min.”
One last little efficiency nugget that’s helping quicken the laser’s payback period: Premier has requested that customers order parts in full-sheet quantities. “All of our jobs are quoted per sheet,” Seemann says, “so if a sheet nest can fit 10 parts, that’s the minimum order quantity. We avoid remnant issues—handling, storing, tracking etc.—and in most cases have been able to achieve 90-percent material utilization.”
Continuing his look up the learning curve, Kaiser says the emphasis now has shifted to better-utilizing the Lantek software, more fine-tuning of the process-parameter database, and learning more about using common-line cutting.“We’re also taking a look at our cell layout to optimize product flow (the laser shares space with three press brakes and a small mechanical press) and adjusting our preventive-maintenance schedule to avoid unplanned downtime.” MF
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