Laser Technology

Mechanized methods

By Gretchen Salois

Job shops use laser automation to cut downtime and boost quality as they grow

February 2012- With the uncertain economic environment, flexibility in laser automation is important as businesses expand and contract. For some companies, like Fox Valley Metal-Tech Inc. and Impulse Mfg. Inc., the outlook is bright.

Green Bay, Wis.-based Fox Valley is taking orders from new customers. Previously, it owned one laser and had a small tower.

“You could only load six different materials to feed into the laser to make parts, and we typically ran 40 different materials per week,” says John West, president of Fox Valley. “We were running that laser six days a week, 24 hours a day to keep up with our workload and spending 25 percent or more of the operator’s time switching materials. We had no reserve capacity, couldn’t take on large quantity-type orders and as a job shop, every day is changing—both the materials and parts. If the laser was down for any reason, it would impact the entire shop’s workflow.”

With often a 48-hour turnaround time, Fox Valley needed to expand its capacity. “Our older laser was 3,000 W, and the new units on the market were 4,000 W. The additional power allowed faster cutting rates with increases of up to 30 percent faster. We were spending a lot of time loading the tower and that was taking up a lot of our operator’s time. We were interested in finding a way to automate,” West says, adding the company now uses a Mitsubishi 4,000 W CO2 laser from MC Machinery Systems Inc., Wood Dale, Ill., a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp., Tokyo. “We were spending too much time doing material handling, so we looked for a machine that would let us load material one time and have it accessible to the operator when he needed it.”

The company has about 80 different materials in stock in its tower system, including aluminum and stainless in various thicknesses. The automation system can handle material thickness up to 1 in. thick.

When researching how to expand operations, Fox Valley considered how MC Machinery could make future expansions easier to integrate into existing operations. “It was a way to have us have those materials available and have multiple lasers. We have two lasers that are linked to one storage and retrieval system,” West says, noting the automation portion is the River System with navigator robot from MC Machinery and manufactured by Mitsubishi.

“The navigation robot inside the storage tower system picks up the shelves with material on them and loads the material into two buffer zones. A second overhead robot picks up the material from the buffer zones and delivers the material to one of two lasers. We can run two different materials at a time,” says West.

The automation system also has reduced material damage. “The system has allowed us to reduce the dings and bending of material due to the excessive material handling we were forced to do before,” West says. “So we went from the laser department being the area with the highest amount of rework to being the department with the lowest amount.”

Less downtime
Also seeking to expand, Dawsonville, Ga.-based Impulse Mfg. wanted to add to its laser arsenal. “We currently have five of Mitsubishi’s LVP lasers on three automated tower systems. We recently added their new eX laser to an existing tower,” says Clay Reiser, director.

Impulse Mfg. wanted to expand its technology and reduce downtime because of interference by operators. The eX control allows the company to lock operators out of certain screens, he says. The machine at Impulse Mfg. uses a 4,500 W Mitsubishi X-Flow CO2 laser.

“In the past, we ran our lasers lights-out at least one shift per day. These shifts were our most productive shifts when measuring beam-on hour percentages,” says Reiser. “When looking for the root cause of these unfounded efficiencies, it was determined that our operators were bringing the machines down without reason for short periods of time. This unnecessary downtime was never offset by the efficiencies the operator thought he or she was improving. Our goal is to get the operators out of the controls and divert his or her attention to other areas of the machine like the nozzle and centering,” he says.

Impulse Mfg. also “wanted the ability to easily add this machine to their existing automation,” says Mike Pellecchia, regional manager at MC Machinery. “The new machine can be easily integrated with the previous machines, fitting well into their existing floor plan.” Pellecchia says Impulse Mfg. wanted more throughput with faster accelerations and higher rapid reverse speeds, which MC Machinery had pursued with its parent company, Mitsubishi Corp.

Expanded efficiency, capabilities
As Fox Valley expands, it is delving into multiple industries. “We do a fair amount of commercial work that is related to other equipment manufacturing, like food processing machines, packaging machinery, as well as making parts associated with dryers for printing presses,” West says. The company has taken on government projects as well, building enclosures for the electro-magnetic aircraft launching system that goes on aircraft carriers and enclosures and other fabrications that are used on the Littoral Combat Ships for the U. S. Navy.

Adding the Mitsubishi machine allowed Fox Valley to work with thicker materials. “We can cut 1-in.-thick steel, 5⁄8-in.-thick stainless steel or 5⁄16-in-thick aluminum,” West says. “In the past, we had to cut the thicker materials on our waterjet, which is a little bit slower. The other advantage of the system is we could increase our capacity by having two lasers connected to one storage and retrieval system. We were running 20 to 30 percent faster due to additional power, but by having a second laser, we were more than doubling the capacity we had with our old system.”

John Wettstein, partner from Milwaukee-based Northland Laser, a Mitsubishi laser distributor, says Fox Valley needed to sync “their lasers to their material warehouse so they can call up any of the shelves and feed them to a new laser. They brought in two Mitsubishi lasers that are fed directly by this 96-shelf machine.” It also solved the problem of having to go back and forth for racks and streamlined the material delivery for the other work stations.

With the additional laser, Fox Valley can take on large-quantity orders requiring continuous cutting. “One company approached us looking to place an order that would require 40 to 80 hours a week of laser cutting time to go on our system. If we didn’t have this machine, we would have had to turn it down, but with this automated system, we can now take on orders like that,” West says. “In some cases, we can run work at night and no one has to attend to it because it’s so automated.”

Always looking to further innovate its product offerings, MC Machinery encouraged Impulse Mfg. to provide feedback. “The feedback we gave was mostly centered around the controls of the machinery, the resonators and actual platform have been very stable,” Reiser says.

Impulse Mfg.’s latest installation from MC Machinery is expected to decrease downtime by 50 percent. “The eX machine also comes with a new head design. Our older-model Mitsubishi lasers have a breakaway head that is fastened with poly bolts. When a head crash occurs, a substantial amount of time is required to reset the head and perform the necessary centering programs to obtain a quality cut,” Reiser says. Mitsubishi provided Impulse Mfg. with a new magnetic head design.

Reiser says because the new magnetic seating mechanism is in place instead of the sometimes cumbersome poly bolts, “downtime related to head crashes has no where to go but down.” MC Machinery’s collaborative efforts allow customers to feel confident their needs are addressed. FFJ

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  • Fox Valley Metal-Tech Inc. 
    Green Bay, Wis.
    phone: 800/469-9004 
    fax: 920/337-9194
  • Impulse Mfg. Inc.
    Dawsonville, Ga.
    phone: 706/216-1700
    fax: 706/216-1800
  • MC Machinery Systems Inc.
    Wood Dale, Ill.
    phone: 630/860-4210 
    fax: 630/616-4068
  • Northland Laser
    phone: 414/801-6117
    fax: 414/963-6131

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