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Laser-Focused on Throughput

By: Louis A. Kren

VIDEO: Automated Handling: Laser-Focused on Throughput

Tuesday, May 1, 2018
 

Fresh out of welding school in the early-1970s, Tom Hensley could not have known what technology awaited in his journey down the metal-fabrication path. In 1987, he opened a small two-man shop in Dayton, OH, armed with a couple of welding machines and metal-cutting saws. Over time the company has added press brakes, shears, and laser-cutting machines. In the late ’90s Fab Metals relocated a few miles down the road, in a New Carlisle industrial park, adding more equipment—and customers.



A 36-tray tower and sheet-handling system allow Fab Metals to run lights-out and ensure efficient and continuous material supply for an attached fiber-laser cutting machine.
Today, Fab Metals, with nearly 60 employees, owns the whole park, having taken over adjoining space as other tenants left. Putting the finishing touches on a new 40,000-sq.-ft. building next door to its main 30,000-sq.-ft. operation, the job shop, primarily serving automotive and truck customers, will soon have 100,000 sq. ft. under roof. It certainly needs the space, with eight press brakes, welding and machining equipment, a powder-coating operation and more, all contributing to annual double-digit growth.

A huge chunk of that growth revolves around Fab Metals’ laser-cutting capabilities. The company added its first machine, a CO2 model, in the mid-1990s, followed by a 4-kW CO2 machine in 2002. Due to resulting growth, in 2017 the company decided to upgrade its laser-cutting technology and capacity.

Automation an Eye-Opener

The 4-kW laser, a Trumpf model with a LiftMaster material-loading arm, opened Hensley’s eyes to the benefits of automation.
“From using that first laser cutter without automation in the mid-’90s to bringing in the 4-kW, we learned our lesson about manually loading and unloading laser cutters,” he says, noting the difficulty and time commitment in manual sheet handling as well as the production bottleneck it caused. “We have to be automated, and we just won’t load a machine by hand. Automation really spoiled us.”

Fast-forward to early-2017.

“We were worried about our workload,” Hensley recalls. “We had run that 4-kW CO2 laser cutter for 15 years and it was a good machine, but we needed something faster.”

With a need for speed, by June of last year Fab Metals replaced its CO2 laser cutters with a Trumpf 3030 6-kW fiber-laser machine, backed by Trumpf material-handling automation that includes a TruStore 3030 tower and LiftMaster Compact sheet-loading/ unloading unit. Though impressed by the speed and cut quality of the laser machine as well as the sheet-handling automation, Hensley found that growing orders taxed even this workhorse.

“We still couldn’t keep up because of all of the new work we had coming in,” he says.

Three months after installing the new fiber-laser 3030, Fab Metals brought in another fiber-laser machine, a Trumpf high-speed 5030 8-kW model equipped with the same TruStore 3030 and LiftMaster Compact automation as the 3030.


A productive find by Fab Metals is a sorting option that allows the laser-machine operator to handle parts off of the machine during production. If the operator falls behind, the system will hold sheets until he can catch up.
Both machines primarily process thin stainless-steel and aluminum sheet at Fab Metals, with the 6-kW machine able to cut material to 1.25 in. thick and the 8-kW capable of 1.5-in. cuts. Company officials report significantly higher cutting speeds and smoother cut edges as compared to the old CO2 lasers, as well less energy usage, maintenance requirements and repair needs.

“I’m glad that we brought in another machine so quickly,” Hensley says. “We have no problem keeping the machines busy, and the automated material handling allows us to keep material ready continuously. If need be, we can run 50 different jobs on 30 variations of material every day or night.”

Both fiber-laser cells run lights-out from about 2:30 a.m., when the last second-shift employees leave, until the first shift arrives by 6 a.m. Automatic dialers built into the automation can alert operators and managers to interruptions during lights-out work, and the company can monitor production via installed webcams. The towers, each with 36 shelves, automatically load the machines in tandem with the LiftMaster Compacts according to job programs, and return processed sheets back to assigned shelves during lights-out work. Come morning, processed sheets and parts can be picked back off of the shelves and routed to whatever processes come next.

Surprising Benefits

During attended operations, Fab Metals makes good use of Trumpf PartMaster conveyor units running off of the towers, where cut sheets and parts can route after exiting the cutting machines. The capabilities and advantages of the PartMaster option proved a pleasant surprise to Fab Metals.


Hungry press brakes at Fab Metals stand at the ready to process parts after they exit the fiber-laser machine.
“We did not use it during the first three months after installing the 6-kW machine,” says Hensley, “but we’ve taken advantage of it since then. If we don’t want to place processed sheets and parts back into a shelf, we unload them via the PartMaster and our operator picks them from there. The conveyor just keeps feeding material to the operator.”

Hensley reports significant labor savings in being able to free up employees for other work due to the conveyor’s capabilities.

“With the old CO2 machine, sheets would stack up*, and in the morning four employees would spend half a day stripping off the parts,” he says. “Now the laser operator can just walk over and flip out the parts as they exit. And, if the operator falls behind the machine will stop until we catch up. I love this option.”

Two Is Better than One

Having two fiber-laser machines and their attached automation options did more than just address production-workload issues.

“We also perform a lot of prototype work,” Hensley says. “We’ve always had two laser cutters, and when we brought in the new 6-kW machine we got rid of the old ones, so we had no second machine to work on prototypes. Now we do. In addition, we need a second machine to serve as a backup. When customers want something, they want it now, so we have to deliver.”

Besides the equipment, Trumpf provided all installation, integration and initial operator training, and the new fiber-laser cells—with press brakes nearby and at the ready for post-laser work—run off of Trumpf-supplied software.

To say that Hensley is thrilled with performance of the cells would be an understatement, but he and Fab Metals do not have the luxury to ease back and enjoy the show. They’ll be loading up their new building throughout the spring and the company plans on adding more press brakes as well as automated sheet-bending equipment in the near future. MF

 

See also: TRUMPF Inc.

Related Enterprise Zones: Fabrication


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