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Five-Axis Laser Simplifies Complex Part Production

By: Joe Jancsurak

Friday, December 27, 2019
 


A five-axis laser can serve dual purposes, as shown by this two-bed setup with the five-axis laser bed on the right and a flat laser bed on the left.
As a Tier One automotive supplier, Marne-MI-based Competition Engineering has accelerated its sales from $2 million in 1997, when it became part of the Huizenga Manufacturing Group in Grand Rapids, MI, to $20 million today. During that period, its workforce grew from 20 to 80 employees and its manufacturing space from 14,000 sq. ft. to its current 60,000-sq.-ft. facility. Here it maintains its dual product focus: sheet metal stamping dies (progressive, transfer, line and assembly dies), and sheet metal prototypes.

Such a product range calls for a diverse inventory of equipment that includes eight mechanical presses ranging from 150 to 1000 tons, two 1000-ton hydroforming presses, nine machining centers, a wire EDM machine, seven decoilers, seven coil feeders and four 15-ton cranes. The company’s most recent addition (February 2018), a Rapido Fiber five-axis sheet metal laser from Prima Power, Arlington, Heights, IL, enables it to keep pace with growing sales, says Competition Engineering general manager Scott Leasure.

“We’re using the five-axis laser in our prototype area to cut two-dimensional blanks and to finalize trim lines on shaped parts used in automotive emission systems,” says Leasure, who explains that such parts tend to be low to medium volume and complex—perfect for five-axis capabilities.

Leasure and Competition’s chief engineer David Lillibridge decided to purchase a five-axis laser to meet the company’s prototyping needs while at FABTECH 2016 in Las Vegas. “We were outsourcing prototyping work at the time, which made on-time delivery of parts a challenge,” says Leasure. “It took several months of exploration to decide on the type and model to purchase.”


A five-axis laser that trims from all directions accomplishes the trimming of a complex part in a single operation.
The Rapido system, with its 28-in. Z axis, 60-in. Y axis and 160-in. X axis, and rotary-tilt laser beam positioning head, was selected as it enables trimming to tight tolerances required of the prototype parts that Competition Engineering produces.

Best of Both Worlds

Whether to use five-axis technology depends on the quantity and complexity of the part, explains Leasure, who notes that 90 percent of the parts produced on the five-axis system are prototypes. “Here it makes sense,” he says, “but if thousands of the same part are required, then the laser may not be the best processing option. The reason: The cost of a die built for thousands of repetitive parts is offset as part quantity increases. Therefore, it makes sense to utilize a purpose-built die and a less expensive mechanical press, rather than a slower and more expensive laser.”

“However,” says Lillibridge, “with certain parts five-axis cutting performs better due to the complex shapes of the parts. Therefore, equipment-related decisions based on quantity and complexity are made on a part-by-part basis. For example, with a stamping you can start with a developed blank and form it into a completed part if the trim-line tolerance can tolerate the possible variances from forming a developed blank. Nevertheless, if you need to form a part into a complex shape, and trimming calls for multiple dies/stations or possibly cam trimming, that can become a complex situation. A five-axis laser that can trim from all directions accomplishes the trimming in a single operation. This ability to simplify complexity makes it an effective option.”

Currently, Competition Engineering’s laser cutting machine serves a dual role, although that could change. “The system is fully utilized,” says Leasure, “with 50 percent of the work requiring five-axis capability and the other half being two-dimensional blanks. As our need for greater five-axis capacity increases, we may add an additional flat-bed laser and use the five-axis exclusively for jobs requiring that capability.”

Software Helps Overcome Learning Curve

Typically, new equipment comes with some sort of learning curve and the addition of the five-axis laser cutting system offered no exception for Competition Engineering. “Although we understood CNC and five-axis machining, we did not know anything about laser cutting,” says Leasure. “It took two or three months for us to become proficient and another four to six months to become really efficient.”

The system’s CAM software, from Tebis America, Troy, MI, helped, says Leasure, noting that its features and capabilities enable fast, accurate programming. “With the prototypes we are producing, part editing plays a key role. With the five-axis software, the program measures the part and makes adjustments to bring the trim line within tolerance. This software’s ability to make edits is valuable. In addition, the Tebis team understands the challenges associated with prototype and sheet metal dies. This enabled them to help us with the learning curve.”

The Tebis learning curve is ongoing, according to Lillibridge. “We’re using a small portion of its capabilities right now as we don’t use its complete design capabilities, but that will come,” he says.

In the meantime, Leasure explains that improved on-time performance continues to offset the cost of the equipment. “We’ve reduced lead times by two weeks on six- to eight-week projects, resulting in a 25 to 33-percent reduction,” he says. “Now that we’re seeing what the equipment can do for us, we wish we would have purchased one a few years earlier.” MF

 

See also: Prima Power North America, Inc.

Related Enterprise Zones: Fabrication

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