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Laser Technology

The cutting & punching edge

By FFJournal staff

Integrated technology boosts productivity and keeps fabricator competitive

February 2013 - Competition is stiff among manufacturers these days. Established companies, in particular, find they have to keep looking for process improvements to stay competitive.

“Faster, better, with less labor is the new mantra of the precision sheet metal industry,” says C.A. Theis, general manager of Data-Matique, a full-service, high-precision sheet metal and machining manufacturer. The company was founded in Garland, Texas, in 1973 and supplies products for industries ranging from aircraft manufacturing and bank automation to postal sorting and motor vehicle part production. 

The company markets itself as a one-stop shop for high-precision fabrication, welding, assembly and inventory management for everything from small, simple jobs to complex or high-volume production runs. Because it serves some of the most complex and advanced industries in the world, quality control is tremendously important. 

Its sprawling and highly technical 83,000 sq.-ft.-plant employs more than 90 skilled professionals and houses some of the most specialized and systemized equipment the industry has to offer.

ffj-0213-laser-image1

In 2007, Data-Matique began to seriously consider some new equipment and purchased the Prima Power C5 Compact Express. The C5 Express adds unmanned operation to the 20-station, 33-ton C5 turret punch press through highly compact load/unload automation. By using the space above and below the machine, the loading and unloading enhancement requires only slightly more space than a turret punch press.

“The C5 Compact Express was our first automated sheet metal machine,” says Theis, who has been with Data-Matique since its early days. “We can load 6,000 lbs. of material on the machine and walk away from it. It loads, punches, forms and unloads automatically. We are certainly interested in automation that helps reduce labor costs. With automation like this, you can have one man operating two or three machines. We currently run the C5 unattended on some jobs, and are striving for lights-out automation.”

More automation

With the C5 Express, the company quickly saw the benefits automation could deliver and soon purchased a Prima Power LP6 laser/punch combination with the LST6 load and stacking robot. 

The LP combines proven technology and intelligent integration of punching, forming, tapping and laser cutting in a single unit. This integration enables the fabricator to determine the optimum process for each step of production, then use the turret punch press where it is easier or faster and the laser where it is more effective.

ffj-0213-laser-image2“The aircraft parts that we build are very hole-intensive in order to keep the weight down,” explains Theis. “There is also a great deal of punching and forming on these parts. With the laser/punch, we can punch the holes, form the countersinks, laser cut the perimeter and go straight to the press brake. This eliminates secondary operations since we don’t have to deburr because it is such a clean cut.” 

The Prima Power LP combines the C-Series 20-station turret punch press with the latest generation of CO2 lasers. The punching part of the LP consists of a 33-ton turret punch press that has excellent forming capabilities—0.630 in. high with no die interference, auto-index, Multi-Tool, programmable clamp settings and brush tables.

Another benefit of the LP6 is a reduction of piece part costs through faster punching time, reduction in direct labor assigned to set up and punching, and reduction in the number of manual operations. It also enables the use of full sheets while eliminating the need to shear to size blanks being processed.

Much of what the company processes on the LP is stainless steel co-rolled with aluminum for aerospace applications like commercial aircraft seating components. “There are so many electronics at the seat now that they have shrouds underneath to hold them in,” Theis says. “There’s nothing 90 degrees on an aircraft, so we get a lot of odd-shaped stuff, and the laser really works well with that.” In addition to being lightweight, the shrouds also have to provide for ventilation.

The laser advantage

“The parts we do on the LP usually are pretty hole-intensive and require some countersinking,” says Theis. “Yet we like to use the laser because you also get a better utilization of your material.”ffj-0213-laser-image3

Using a 0.006-in. laser beam to cut parts, for example, rather than punching that may require 0.125-in. or larger spacing, permits tighter nesting. Theis says it also reduces programming time. “If you nest a lot of different types of parts together real close, just placing the punch where you want it is a task. But programming a laser beam is much faster,” he says. “Some of our sheets have 30 different items, and if you’re laser cutting them, it just follows the line. But if you’re punching them, you have to go in and place the punches you want, sometimes at compound angles, and it gets a bit more complicated.” Having the ability to punch some holes and cut others allows for optimal production. Another advantage: the laser can cut an odd-sized hole for which you may not have a punch.

Greater machine use can be achieved if the load/unload system is purchased with the LP, allowing unmanned operation from load, punch, upform, laser cut, unload and sorting of parts in one machine.

“One of our main motivations was to try to set the machine up and walk away from it,” says Theis. “We’ve had good experience running it unattended.” Operating in that mode, he says, operators still can keep an eye on the LP6 as they work on another machine or task.

“But we’re trying to get to lights out,” Theis says, “and we’re getting more successful at that. It depends on the part, on how it runs and maybe the type of material. Through experience you learn what you don’t have much trouble with—the type of programs and the type of material—and we do leave them running.”

Short run jobs are a little more complicated, Theis says, sometimes requiring operators to stack different sheets of material to match the changes in production. “But they have to be similar because we can’t change the laser nozzle,” he says. “It’s all possible—like running several short jobs through the night, maybe with two sheets of this and four sheets of that—but you have to have a really good programmer to pull it off.”

ffj-0213-laser-image5Putting current processes in the context of his years of experience, Theis says, “That’s where it’s all going. Machine tools are doing all the labor, but the programmers—they’re becoming more and more sophisticated.”

In addition to streamlining production, technology in equipment like the LP6 also has increased accuracy and repeatability. “Accuracy is not a problem at all,” Theis says. “That’s what’s really amazing, too. In the old days you couldn’t do it. But with the accuracy of these machine tools, a lot of things you used to have to run in the machine shop you can do on the laser/punch.” In the two years since Data-Matique began using the LP, Prima Power has further developed its combination laser/punch offerings to include servo-electric punching versions with the choice of a CO2 or fiber laser resonator.

“The LP has dramatically increased our capacity,” says Theis. “In the past, the choice was either punching or laser cutting on one machine. We have made parts that went on both the laser and the punch, but then you are moving it from one machine to the other and you lose tolerance. In addition, punching the entire part created a lot of deburring. Conversely, if you just laser cut the part you can’t perform secondary operations like countersinks or forming operations. However, the LP allows us to punch and laser the part on one machine, giving us a higher quality, more precision piece … and a lot faster.” 

With the Prima Power LP, Data-Matique is running parts faster, with increased precision, while also using less labor. “The LP has allowed us to reduce our costs and be more competitive in the marketplace,” says Theis. “Cost reduction is extremely important. You must find a way to build parts for less money. If you can’t, you are in trouble. That’s what automation is all about.”  FFJ

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Sources

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