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Laser Technology

Productive automation

By Russ Olexa

March 2011 - Ignacio Palomarez’s father, Nacho Sr., taught him to "survive Ignacio, always survive" in the fabricating business his father started in 1967.

Palomarez, CEO of Spacesonic, San Carlos, Calif., not only has survived but thrived by relying on technologically advanced fabricating equipment and automation that allows him to produce prototype sheet metal parts from part to print within a few hours.

Palomarez is a forward thinker when it comes to equipment and personnel for his fabricating company. Many of his press brakes use robots for fast, consistent bending, and his laser equipment has material-handling systems for lights-out manufacturing.

He offers a range of services such as engineering; machining; metal fabrication including laser/plasma cutting, bending and punching; manual, robotic and laser welding; assembly work; painting and silk screening within a 100,000-sq.-ft. facility with 140 people.

During the late 1960s, the company grew through military contracts. Being in the heart of Silicon Valley, it also has benefited from proximity to companies in the computer industry. "We have a lot of startup companies producing computer equipment along with established companies like Hewlett-Packard. So little by little, we grew based on the types of contracts that were coming across our desk," says Palomarez.

Some of the industries Spacesonic serves include medical, solar and wind power. The company is working with U.S.-based industries that have more short-run than long-run part production. "Our long-run work might only be 1,000 parts," says Palomarez. "Most of our part contracts are for 200 parts and less along with doing quick-turnaround prototypes."

Cellular manufacturing
When high part production was more the norm for Spacesonic, Palomarez discovered a way to build parts to increase volume while maintaining quality. "At one time, a customer got into a jam forgetting to order some parts. We set up programs to run three different sheet metal thicknesses for these parts that entailed three different programs. Three employees ran these parts over a weekend. This taught us about cellular manufacturing and how productive it can be," he says.

His next phase of production was building eight manufacturing cells based on primary hole-making machines. One cell consisted of several press brakes, a spot welder, two insertion presses and a six-head drilling machine. Another was based on a laser with a 5-ft.-by-10-ft. bed and a pallet-system loader accompanied by three press brakes and a six-head drilling machine. Others were based around lasers or turret punch presses with other equipment that could fabricate the high-run parts the company produced rapidly.

"We have a flexible assembly area that can be configured in many different ways, with roller conveyor tables, overhead cranes, vertical carousel storage units and tools of all types for production such as rivet and screw assembly equipment," says Palomarez.

But with the change in part quantities the company produced, the economic downturn in 2008 and losing customers, Palomarez realized cellular manufacturing wasn’t conducive for automation because cellular automation is designed for long part runs, not for one-piece work. "We found that automation could help us by being flexible enough to produce parts in small quantities," he says.

Adding automation
Along with the industry moving to short-run parts, an issue Palomarez always grapples with is how to compete against China’s low-cost labor. "You just can’t," he says. "The Pacific Ocean is the new Mason-Dixon Line. You’re never going to get people in the U.S. to work for the same money they pay in China. Therefore, I have to find a way to be 20 to 40 times more productive to offset this labor advantage. The only way I can do this is through automation."

As an upfront cost, automation is expensive, but over time it can pay for itself. "In 1989, we bought our first turret punch press with a loader from Amada," Buena Park, Calif., says Palomarez. "It was great. You load up the sheets, push a button and let it run. In the meantime, our operators could do some deburring, bending or other processes. This led us into the new realm of automation."

Palomarez purchased equipment that had the ability to have automation added to it. He bought an Amada Apelio 357 laser/turret punch press that uses a 1.5 kW CO2 laser combined with a 58-station turret punch press. He also purchased another laser with a material-handling system, robotic bending machines and other equipment that uses automation. His latest equipment is an Amada LC3015 F1 4 kW CO2 laser system with an ASF material-handling system.

Jason Hillenbrand, Amada America Inc.’s laser product manager, says the LC3015 F1 is Amada’s new linear-drive laser that offers fast accelerations and decelerations and fast traverse speeds for all three axes to reduce processing time. "It can move the cutting head more quickly and ramp its speed up faster than a conventional-drive system such as a ball screw or rack and pinion," he says.

"Also, the linear drive gives the laser much better accuracy for cutting parts because of how it reads positioning data from the drives," says Hillenbrand. "It has a completely closed-loop feedback system for positioning its cutting head. This is done by using a linear scale and a scan head for each axis. Unlike a servo-drive system that uses an encoder that can’t take into account backlash or drive-system wear, our linear-drive system can. Its scale gives true feedback position to the linear control and can hold 0.0004 in. positioning anywhere on the table."

Palomarez has a basic ASF system that is very compact with a small footprint, says Hillenbrand. "It’s only a little larger than the standalone laser’s footprint. It has two raw material and three offload pallets, each holding up to 6,000 lbs. There’s a built-in scheduling system that works with the ASF system to program which sheets of metal are run and what parts are cut from it."

Palomarez says the Amada AFS material-handling system is very easy to run. "We hooked up the AFS tower to the LC3015 laser, and it runs seven days a week for us with little operator intervention. We found that this equipment was far more efficient than paying operators to move material around."

Laser benefits
Palomarez has five other lasers that are showing their age. He chose the Amada LC3015 laser because he wanted a laser that could do the work of several of the other lasers. Palomarez wants to sell some of them eventually and increase his floor space. "This laser’s speed, agility and ease of use proved to me that it could help me dispose of some of my older equipment. I’m also hoping to make room for Amada’s new EML laser along with a Mars material-handling system," he says.

Palomarez likes several aspects of the Amada LC3015 4 kW CO2 laser. It has a large bed size of 60 in. by 120 in., allowing him to cut many parts from one sheet. He also likes how fast it is and the amount of material weight it can handle. "We’ve cut up to 1-in.-thick steel with it thanks to Amada’s training people who helped us do this," Palomarez says.

With this equipment, Palomarez can turn around a part quickly. For prototypes, "we can work on an engineer’s design in the morning, take him to lunch and have his part ready for him after we get back. And we don’t even charge them for this because it costs us more to do the paperwork," he says.

Palomarez’s objective is to ensure his company survives. To do this, he continually looks to automation and equipment that works harmoniously with it to increase productivity. "I’m not looking to get rich," he says. "I just want to guarantee that we have food on the table until the day we die. How much more security do we want than that?" FFJ

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Sources

  • Amada America Inc.
    Buena Park, Calif.
    phone: 877/262-3287
    www.amada.com

  • Spacesonic
    San Carlos, Calif.
    phone: 650/610-0999
    fax: 650/610-0522
    www.spacesonic.com

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