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Fiber-Laser Technology Lights Metalformer's Bright Future

By: Brad Kuvin

Tuesday, November 01, 2011
 

When Terry Hansen, president of precision metalforming company Ultra Tool & Manufacturing, Inc., committed to fitting a sheetmetal-fabrication department into his 73,000-sq.-ft. operation in Menomonee Falls, WI, investing in old technology did not fit into the equation. What’s “old technology,” according to Hansen?



An Ultra Tool operator carefully removes delicate aluminum discs from the worktable of the firm’s new fiber-laser cutting machine. Fiber lasers, like all solid-state lasers, do a great job cutting highly reflective materials such as these 0.037-in.-thick discs, which will soon decorate the walls of a Las Vegas casino. Says Ultra Tool president Terry Hansen: “This is not what I would call our typical customer. I’m extremely excited to bring this type of new business to Ultra Tool.”
“For me,” says Hansen, “CO2-based laser-cutting systems, which we’ve run here since the mid-’80s, represents old technology. You’re forced to deal with the cost of the lasing gases, relatively inefficient operation, the nuisance of beam-alignment and other maintenance issues, etc. And, while CO2 lasers do perform well when cutting ferrous alloys, I wanted to grow our core customer base by expanding out of mild-steel and stainless-steel production and fabricate reflective metal alloys like brass and aluminum—difficult to do with CO2 lasers.”

That philosophy led Hansen and the Ultra Tool engineering team to, in March 2010, invest in a fiber-laser cutting machine—a 2000-W Salvagnini L1Xe model with a 5-by-10-ft. worktable.

“All of my concerns with CO2 technology disappear with the fiber laser,” says Hansen. “It’s clearly a better long-term investment for us.”

When we spoke with Hansen, his fabrication shop was processing a very large job for an architectural fabricator. The laser was cutting 0.037-in.-thick aluminum discs that will be used to decorate the walls of a Las Vegas casino.

“That’s not what I would call our typical customer,” Hansen says. “I’m extremely excited to bring this type of new business to Ultra Tool.”

The Right Wavelength

Why can a fiber laser more readily cut aluminum and other reflective metal alloys, while a CO2 laser struggles to do so? It all comes down to physics and beam wavelength. CO2 lasers typically emit at a wavelength of 10.6 μm, while solid-state lasers (such as fiber lasers) emit at wavelengths generally one-tenth that of a CO2 laser. The smaller-wavelength beam is much more readily absorbed by reflective materials. In addition, this same property also allows the beams to be transmitted from source to target without the use of mirrors; a fiberoptic cable does the trick.

In addition to cutting architectural aluminum, Ultra Tool’s fiber-laser cutting machine processes some 50 part numbers on a regular basis for about 25 customers. Of these, roughly 75 percent are existing customers of the company’s stamping business, while new customers make up the remainder of the work running through the laser.

Existing customers of Ultra Tool’s stamping business like the economical advantages of fabricating relatively low-volume work rather than having to invest in progressive dies that might not pay for themselves for several years. While it’s difficult to define the break-even volume that justifies stamping tooling versus the higher piece-part costs of fabrication, Hansen figures it’s around 10,000 parts.

Faster, and More Efficient

Ultra Tool’s new fabrication department, which in addition to the laser-cutting machine includes a new press brake, CNC tapping center and a resistance-welding machine, represents part of the firm’s investment over the last five years of more than $6.1 million in new technology. Additional investments have been made in new presses, design software and an inhouse sensor laboratory.

“The first big job our fabrication department earned for us was manufacturing a hydraulic pump bracket for the Nissan Murano,” shares Hansen. Laser blanking and then forming the bracket (on a new Durma 150-ton CNC press brake) saved the shop’s customer more than $120,000 in up-front tooling costs that would have taken more than 8 yr. to achieve a complete return on investment. Volumes for the pump bracket part are 15,000/yr.; Ultra Tool produces the parts in lot sizes of 1000 to 1500.

Ultra Tool typically employs its new laser-cutting machine to cut mild-steel plate to 3⁄8 in. thick, and at times runs ½-in. plate through the machine; it’s rated for steel to 0.70 in. thick. The shop also cuts stainless steel to 1⁄8 in. (Salvagnini rates the machine for 0.312-in. stainless) as well as aluminum to 1⁄8 in.—the machine is rated to 0.187-in. aluminum, brass and copper.

Where’s the fiber-laser advantage on steel compared to a CO2 laser? Hansen came to understand the advantage back in 2009 when he attended a seminar at local equipment distributor Weller Machinery, in Germantown, WI. Weller’s representatives (as do other laser-cutting-machine vendors) generally note that when cutting 20-gauge steel sheet, for example, a 2-kW fiber laser will cut twice as quickly as will a 4-kW CO2 laser. And, the process will be nearly three times as energy efficient (around 30 percent for a fiber laser compared to 10 to 15 percent for a CO2 laser). Hansen left the Weller Machinery seminar convinced that fiber-laser technology was the perfect fit for his new fabrication department, and remains confident that the machine will continue to attract new customers in new markets to his company.

New Horizons

“The fabrication department is critical to our growth potential,” says Hansen. “We’re finding that the new customers we’re attracting not only appreciate the efficiency with which we can fabricate, but also are attracted by the refined and mature quality and delivery systems we have in place.”

Hansen also notes that even though his firm has been running the fiber-laser cutting machine for just over a year, it’s already at 30-percent capacity and gaining ground. The master plan calls for adding automation to the laser—a material storage tower and sheet loader, to store and move blanks in and out of the laser—when the workload requires it.

“We laid out the department specifically with material-handling automation in mind,” says Hansen. “We’re in the process of beefing up our sales force and investing in marketing to promote our new fabricating services. As we grow, we’ll add press brakes to boost capacity of the fabrication shop. The sky is the limit.” MF

 

See also: Salvagnini America, Inc.

Related Enterprise Zones: Fabrication


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