Laser Technology

Capable cutting

By Lynn Stanley

An engineering company brings metal fabrication in-house with the help of fiber laser technology

October 2012 - When Alpharetta, Ga.-based Manufacturing Resources International Inc. chose to bring its sheet metal processing in-house, president and CEO Bill Dunn says he knew the move was challenging, expensive and a bit risky. “We were an engineering company,” he explains. “We were not metal fabricators.” But the right manufacturing partner, a group of young computer geeks and Salvagnini America’s fiber laser and panel bender technology, provided the tools the company needed to take that leap of faith.

MRI is a leading producer of reliable, high-performance indoor and outdoor digital displays and arrays. With more than 10,000 units installed in a wide range of venues, the company provides both standard and custom hardware and technology designs tailored to specific applications.

“We were outsourcing sheet metal processing for nearly a million parts per year,” says Dunn. “The bottlenecks we were experiencing with scheduling and sourcing materials were frustrating. We couldn’t seem to get sufficient amounts of sheet metal when we needed it. In addition to sourcing issues, scheduling problems were affecting our deliveries and causing a spike in costs along with the number of man-hours we were spending trying to solve these problems.”

Managing its massive flow of metal was critical for MRI, which supplies a rapidly growing market. According to Digital Signage Today, the past several years have witnessed a steady migration of media companies, advertisers, retailers and content providers to large-format digital LCD displays, like MRI’s products, as a venue for delivering their messages to consumers. Also known as digital “street furniture,” the signage can be seen practically everywhere, from the end of a bus shelter or the back of a newsstand to shopping malls, transportation terminals, store windows or even inside trains or on the side of a passing bus, says Dunn.

Clean cutting

Local fabricator Accufab, Cummings, Ga., helped MRI identify equipment requirements and trained and vetted its new crop of operators while the engineering company purchased a 137,000-sq.-ft. building. MRI dedicated 30,000 sq. ft. of its new space to house its metal fabrication shop, equipping it with a 4,000 W CO2 laser, 9 ft. by 13 ft. waterjet, 200-ton 12 ft. press brake, semiautomatic hardware insertion machines, an automatic deburring machine, TIG welding center and a P2 panel bender from Salvagnini America, Hamilton, Ohio.  Salvagnini is a global designer and manufacturer of flexible machines and systems for processing sheet metal such as fiber laser cutting machines, panel benders, integrated punch-shearing systems and press brakes.

As equipment came on line, Accufab helped to move the machine processes and personnel to MRI’s new facility. Problems with the CO2 laser soon prompted MRI to consider Salvagnini’s fiber laser technology. “Cut speed, quality and accuracy with the CO2 laser just weren’t what we were expecting,” says Dunn. “Dross was heavy and inconsistent. The CO2 laser also required us to perform lead-ins and lead-outs which prevented common line cutting.”

MRI visited several companies to test parts and see the Salvagnini fiber laser demonstrated. “Piercing on the finished cut line was unbelievably clean,” says Dunn. “This was a huge requirement for us. The ability to cut small features and nest or common line cut parts also was amazing.” 

MRI installed a Salvagnini L3 fiber laser in April 2012. “In less than 30 days we went from [being] a novice fabricator to having experienced subcontractors come to us and ask us to cut parts [1⁄2-in. mild steel plate and 1⁄4-in. stainless steel] they were unable to process. Our rapid transition was due in large part to the equipment, but also the training Salvagnini provided,” Dunn says.

Increased uptime

Dunn adds that MRI began to regain valuable production time with the fiber laser’s quick startup. Unlike the CO2 laser, which required 30 minutes to warm up and needed regular adjustments to the cutting head, the fiber laser, once turned on, is instantly ready to cut or etch metal.

“Our fiber laser is designed and built to be tinker-free,” says Brian Schwartz, southeast regional manager for Salvagnini. 

The operator no longer has to wait for the laser to warm up or make adjustments to the nozzle or the lens. “With the CO2 laser we were running two full shifts, including Saturday and Sunday, to get one shift of actual production, which means the equipment had an uptime of about 50 percent,” Dunn says. “The fiber laser’s speed, reliability and accuracy allowed us to drop one shift and still keep up with demand even though we aren’t yet running the laser at full capacity.”

MRI primarily runs 18 and 14 gauge aluminum, 1⁄4 in. stainless steel and some brass and copper. Fabrication begins with 4 ft. by 8 ft. or 5 ft. by 10 ft. sheets. Parts can range as small as 1 in. by 1 in. up to 5 ft. by 7 ft. Sheet metal is first cut on the fiber laser before being sent to the panel bender for processes that include flanges, offsets, joggles, hems or bends that add strength and stiffness.

Engineers use Pro/Engineer software to generate flat patterns and design in 3-D solids. They also can perform simulation on the fiber laser for real time feedback on concepts and prototypes prior to fabrication. Able to cut parts three to four times faster, the fiber laser allows MRI to perform time-saving processes like common line cutting.

“With the CO2 laser, I had to make the first cut then make a second pass for the next cut,” says Dunn. “Production time lagged while scrap rates increased because making two separate cuts took longer and created a skeleton, or tab, between the parts. The fiber laser eliminates that extra step as well as the skeleton, which means our scrap has been significantly reduced yet sheet utilization has gone up.”

MRI experienced much longer cut times with the CO2 laser at slower cut speeds. This exposed the blanks to considerably more heat, a condition that often resulted in substantial heat distortion and head crashes. “With the fiber laser, heat distortion has been virtually eliminated,” Dunn says.

Part rework also has been minimized. MRI inserts tens of millions of threaded fasteners into sheet metal parts per year. Regardless of lead-in, lead-out or over-cut compensation, the CO2 laser left tiny nubs in the ID of small feature holes, preventing automated insertion of press fit threaded fasteners.

“We couldn’t get rid of the nub,” says Dunn, “and the fastener either couldn’t be inserted into the assembly or it was damaged. We were never able to overcome these problems. Instead we had to hand drill, hand ream and clean every hole times a million. The fiber laser completely eliminated these problems.”

The company also found it could precision-cut thicker materials. “People in the industry told us fiber flies on thin material but dies on thick material,” says Dunn. “That proved untrue in our case. A subcontractor spent two days trying to cut 1⁄4 in. by 1 in. slots in 1⁄2 in. mild steel with a CO2 laser. The CO2 laser was pumping so much heat into the part that the slug from the slot they were trying to cut was literally being re-welded back into the part. They finally threw up their hands and said they couldn’t make the part. When we cut the part on our fiber laser, the slug dropped out cleanly and we finished their production run in just two hours.”

Multiplying cost savings

Design advances are helping close the gap between fiber and CO2 lasers when it comes to cutting thicker materials. “The smaller diameter of the fiber laser kerf permits precision cutting,” says Schwartz. “While the speed of our fiber laser on a 1⁄2-in.-thick piece of material tends to equalize with a CO2, part quality makes it a slam dunk that the fiber laser can cut thicker material without loss of the value-adds the customer needs with speed and time.”

MRI is ramping up production for 1 million parts in-house. In addition to cutting nearly two months from its lead time, using the fiber laser to etch part numbers, cable routing, visual guides and assembly aides (in aluminum, stainless or mild steel) is reducing man-hours. “We run a lot of parts,” says Dunn, “and a lot of them look very similar. We were using labels and hand drawing instructions with a Sharpie. The ability to etch critical data on the parts is eliminating operator errors and speeding accurate cutting, bending and assembly.”

As an OEM, the company’s close communication between its engineers and fabricators allows it to tweak designs in real time. “If a design changes, we can do rework quickly and cleanly on the fiber laser,” says Dunn. MRI expected to recoup its investment in the fiber laser in 12 months, but Dunn says that with the cost savings the machine has generated at every level of the manufacturing process, the company has likely already made its costs back. FFJ

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