Laser Technology

Unattended operation

By Meghan Boyer

Lights-out manufacturing with an automated laser system helps boost productivity for Anel Corp.

March 2012- In 2011, Anel Corp. achieved 48 percent growth while maintaining 99 percent on-time deliveries to its customers, a feat achieved in part by incorporating lights-out laser manufacturing at its Winona, Miss., facility.

The custom fab shop produces parts for a variety of OEM customers but has been seeing a lot of growth recently in its hydraulic-tank and fuel-tank business. The growth helped drive the purchase of a Sirius 3015 Plus laser-cutting machine with a 10-shelf Compact Tower automation system for material handling from LVD Strippit Inc., says Randy Watkins, Anel’s general manager. Anel purchased its first LVD laser, a 3 kW shuttle table system, in 1997. The new machine is a 4 kW CO2 laser.

“The tank business is a very competitive market,” says Watkins. “We felt we needed to be able to cut parts at the lowest cost possible. By running lights-out, that offered us the ability to reduce the cost on our laser-cut parts,” he says.

What Anel wanted to achieve with its second LVD laser was unattended operation, says Stefan Colle, laser product sales manager at Akron, N.Y.-based LVD Strippit. With the laser, the company purchased LVD’s Compact Tower with an integrated load/unload system. It fits vertically over the Sirius shuttle table system with a footprint not more than 35 ft. long and 25 ft. wide, says Colle.

The tower system is available in four, six and 10-shelf models. It can handle sheets as large as 120 in. by 60 in. and material thicknesses up to 0.75 in. with a maximum load/unload pallet storage capacity of 6,613 lbs.

Anel works with a variety of material thicknesses, which is why the company chose the 10-shelf tower to accompany its Sirius laser, says Ardy Reed, Anel production manager. “All 10 shelves can’t be load shelves. Some have to be unload shelves. If you go with a smaller tower like a six-shelf or four-shelf, you’ve limited yourselves to the number of different material thicknesses or sizes you could cut,” he says.

One of the largest production challenges Anel had was getting material to and from the machine, says Watkins. “With the addition of the compact tower, we saw where we could make one or two deliveries a day to that machine and then provide the programming and it’s done the way it’s supposed to be,” he says. “You could have hours and hours of uninterrupted run time,” he says, noting he has seen the machine run in excess of 20 hours at a time.

More fabricators are looking into purchasing lasers with material-handling equipment that allow them to run the laser unattended during the weekend, notes Colle. “Being able to cut 100 extra days a year makes a lot of sense for a lot of people,” he says. “They’re all looking for better efficiency. That’s the answer.”

Production changes
Introducing unattended operation to the company led to additional changes, says Watkins. “Having the 10-shelf tower being able to run like that caused us to look at how we were nesting, how we were running our production altogether,” he says. “It has definitely increased the number of hours that we cut and increased our productivity numbers in our cut department.”

The company’s older laser is a two-table system. The most sheets operators can run at any time is two unassisted, which keeps jobs small, says Reed. “We would have two or three sheet nests that we would send out there so a guy could run those three, get the job complete, sort the parts out, then send them to production,” he says.

Being able to run lights-out changed the way Anel approached its job sizing. “Once we got the tower and were able to run unassisted, it made more sense to us to increase the number of jobs we put out to that particular machine,” says Reed. The existing laser can run an eight-hour shift and might receive eight small jobs to complete because it is reliant on workers to load and unload material, he says. The new laser, however, might receive only one or two very large jobs and run considerably longer.

“It boils down to they are able to take on bigger orders, bigger batches of parts with the same amount of people that they have,” says Colle.

The system takes raw material out of the tower, processes it and the cut parts go back into the tower, says Colle. “For instance, if you start on a Friday with a full tower of material, on Monday you can walk in the building and your tower can be full of finished parts,” he says. The more nests an operator enters into the job list, the more work the laser can accomplish without interruption.

Ease of use
The laser is simple to understand and operate, notes Reed. An employee generates a program and takes it to the machine during the day shift, loads it into the controller and starts the laser, he says. The system then runs into the second shift where an operator checks on it once or twice a night. The machine will run for 14 or 16 hours and then a worker sorts parts from the machine and distributes them throughout the plant for secondary processing, he says.

When it’s time to remove finished parts from the tower, the operator uses the touch screen controller that comes with the Compact Tower to communicate with it, says Colle. “He does not even have to interrupt the laser, he can just order the Compact Tower to bring out finished parts and, if necessary, at the same time order the tower to accept new raw material,” he says.

When comparing the company’s first laser with the latest LVD machine, Reed notes that the company “automated a lot of things that were operator dependent on this newer piece of equipment.” The largest change was the user interface, he says.

The laser is equipped with LVD Strippit’s 15-in. Touch-L controller, a new touch screen controller with an improved graphic user interface, says Colle. “There’s a lot that can be done now at the machine in terms of programming. The machine itself is loaded with features to avoid operator intervention or operator checks,” he says. “In the past, laser operators needed to clean nozzles, calibrate lenses. Now all of these things are basically automated.”

Training on the machine took less than two days in part because of Anel’s workers’ experience with the existing LVD laser, says Reed. “Our learning curve was a lot shorter. The only thing that we really had to understand was where the buttons were now,” he says.

Although they are more than a decade apart, both of Anel’s LVD lasers are working well for the company.

“We are very, very happy with it and happy with the service,” says Watkins. “That [first] machine, in service since 1997 and still running full production, weighed very heavily with the decision to go back to LVD” for a second laser, he says.

“Over the course of the years, we’ve developed a very good working relationship,” says Reed. “We’re on a first-name basis with those guys. We think of them as part of the family.” FFJ

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  • Anel Corp.
    Winona, Miss. 
    phone: 662/283-1540
    fax: 662/283-2949
  • LVD Strippit Inc.
    Akron, N.Y.
    phone: 716/542-4511
    fax: 716/542-5957


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