Laser Technology

Accurate at any size

By Meghan Boyer

A laser tracker saves Custom Engineering time and expenses when measuring oversized parts

July/August 2012 - Accuracy is a paramount concern for job shops like Custom Engineering Co., Erie, Pa. But using traditional measuring methods to maintain accuracy can prove difficult as part sizes increase—a fact Custom Engineering knows well.

The company fabricates many heavy weldments for the oil and gas, petrochemical, transportation and power generation industries using mostly carbon steel and stainless steel. Workers are able to fabricate and machine the large parts, which makes Custom Engineering a one-stop shop for customers, says Dave Guriel, the company’s quality manager. “Other fab shops may be able to fabricate but they can’t do the large machining or vice versa,” he says.

Some of the large baseplates Custom Engineering fabricates can measure up to 50 ft. long and 15 ft. wide. Workers previously had to measure everything by hand using tape measures, transit lines and string lines, which were tedious, time-consuming processes for workers, says Guriel. “We were pretty good at it, but it’s very cumbersome,” he says. “You’re leaving yourself open for a lot of errors doing it by hand.”

Increasingly tight tolerances required more precise measuring methods, which led the company to invest in a Laser Tracker X from Faro Technologies Inc., Lake Mary, Fla., in 2008. Since its arrival, the laser tracker has cut the company’s time and expenses. The portable tool enables Custom Engineering’s workers to inspect hole layout, flatness and location on parts made from structural beams and plate steel.

“If I pulled that tracker out of here today, they’d be lost without it,” says Guriel, who estimates the tracker is in use at the facility at least 75 percent of the time.

Faster, more repeatable

For Custom Engineering, the numbers don’t lie: The laser tracker can decrease the amount of time required to measure and layout a repeat part by up to 50 percent and a one-time part by roughly 20 percent, says Guriel. Once the laser tracker operator sets up the machine, he can take measurements around a part quickly without tape measures or hand-held inspection equipment, he says.

Decreased layout time is a large benefit, says Guriel. “We’re so busy and the company has grown, so there’s no way we could lay these parts out fast enough and on schedule” without the laser tracker, he says.

When measuring a part by hand, the worker must correctly determine where to place a hole based on the X and Y dimension measurements, says Eric Boyer, account manager for laser tracker with Faro. “With the laser tracker, you can put those coordinates in and the tracker will actually aim the beam where the hole is supposed to go,” he says.

Using a tracker is faster and more repeatable than hand-measuring items because it helps eliminate human error, says Boyer. “You could have a guy and he could be off by an inch and not even know it because he read the dimension wrong, whereas the tracker is not going to read that dimension wrong. It can only drive to the coordinate that you have input into the system.”

Custom Engineering is using the laser tracker to benefit its business in other ways aside from measuring parts, says Guriel. The facility houses many large machine tools, including horizontal boring mills and planer mills. The tracker can measure and determine if the company’s equipment is aligned properly.

“From time to time, they go out of whack. With the laser tracker, we can actually take numerous measurements of the table as it moves to see if the thing is true or not or if it’s out in one direction or out in another direction so we know if we need to perform some sort of maintenance to bring it back in to what the tolerances should be,” he says. “We weren’t able to do that before. We had to hire someone from the outside to do that.”

If the laser tracker finds an issue with a machine, the operator knows to compensate for how much the machine may be off, says Guriel. Being able to handle the machine measurements and fixes in-house saves the company additional costs as it does not need to pay for outside labor to address potential problems.

The Faro laser tracker can check column perpendicularity, the positions of the spindles, where the rig goes, rotational beds and more to help ensure optimum machine performance, says Boyer.

“The thing about third-party contractors is that they get to you when their schedule opens up,” he says. “You could have a machine that’s down for two to three weeks waiting for somebody to come and diagnose it, whereas you could just put your tracker right on it and in an hour or two you have it solved.”

Competitive advantage

Accuracy is a key benefit of measuring with a laser tracker, notes Ken Steffey, product manager at Faro. “The tracker is very, very accurate,” he says. “You really can’t touch its accuracy for the volume you can measure.”

Companies using laser trackers for measurement can achieve very close tolerances. “A tracker in good customers’ hands who are being very careful and know what they are doing at 30, 40, 50 ft. away, you can still be a couple thousandths of an inch, which is really small,” says Steffey.

Because of its accuracy, the laser tracker has given Custom Engineering a competitive advantage and enabled it to take on projects the company would have been unable to complete previously.

“I can think of a job that we did within the last year where we probably couldn’t have done the job without the tracker at all,” says Guriel. “We probably couldn’t have done it manually measuring these parts.”

As the laser tracker is capable of so much, it takes time for an operator to learn how to use it, says Guriel. Custom Engineering’s laser tracker operator attended training at Faro. “You’ve got to get the basics and then from there you really have to have a go-getter who wants to learn and figure things out,” he says.

Training is available with the purchase of any Faro device, notes Boyer. Customers can train at Faro’s facility, and the laser tracker manufacturer provides on-site training as well. “A customer like Custom Engineering makes parts that are so large that you can’t bring one of those to training,” he says.

For all their capabilities, laser trackers really are simple measuring systems, says Steffey. “You can use it for any number of applications, and that’s the thing that makes it a fun product to work with.” FFJ

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  • Custom Engineering Co.
    Erie, Pa.
    phone: 814/898-2800
    fax: 814/899-2729
  • Faro Technologies
    Lake Mary, Fla.
    phone: 800/736-0234


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