Laser Technology

Breaking the lean barrier

By Nick Wright

Two manufacturers slash delivery times for parts with Robinson Laser’s online suite

March 2013 - In manufacturing, few processes are instantaneous. Lean manufacturing concepts nip and tuck at the inefficiencies of an operation, striving to maximize machine use. Just-in-time keeps inventory to a simmer, just hot enough to bring production to a rapid boil when it’s needed. But one company has moved beyond the lean barrier and developed a system that reduces ordering, quoting and submitting laser cutting jobs to mere seconds—all online.

Originally a coil processing service center founded in 1987, Robinson Laser, East Chicago, Ind., has more recently made laser cutting flat steel parts its bread and butter. It operates about 10 integrated Trumpf 4,000 W lasers that carve out steel orders submitted online with no human intervention. It makes for a quote and cut turnaround time unrivaled by any local cutting service.

Where a manufacturer’s laser cutter is overwhelmed with work or a manufacturer simply doesn’t have a laser, waterjet, plasma or any other method to cut metal, Robinson Laser is a hired gun.

An example of the former is Airfloat, based in Decatur, Ill. Airfloat manufactures material handling equipment for serious loads—10,000 lbs. to more than 1 million lbs. The structures use an air-bearing system to, in effect, suspend items such as planes, trains or automobiles upon a film of air, like an air hockey table, so they can be moved around. 

In the last two years, Airfloat’s business has picked up, says Shane Metzger, COO at Airfloat.

ffj-0313-image1“We’ve been extremely busy, and we just outstripped our capacity to laser cut all the plate we needed to make our products,” he says. “So we were actively looking for someone to help in that capacity.”

Airfloat used a few local shops on occasion, but bottlenecks would occur with their own work. By word of mouth, Airfloat tried Robinson Laser.

“Robinson can process larger jobs much quicker and we can have the material here to start the actual fabrication fit-up and welding, sometimes weeks before we could do it ourselves,” Metzger says. Ninety percent of what Airfloat uses is A36 or A572 plate. Most of the thicknesses are 1⁄4 in., 3⁄8 in. and 1⁄2 in. Running steel across its own laser for a big job could take weeks. With Robinson Laser, turnaround is between two and five days.

The other benefit, Metzger says, is Robinson Laser is more competitive on price when it comes to larger jobs 

(2,500 lbs. of plate) than smaller jobs, which Airfloat can handle in-house. The frequency varies, but at times Airfloat sends jobs to Robinson Laser three or four times a week.

“So now we look to Robinson as our primary source for laser cutting parts on big jobs,” he says.

How it works

Robinson Laser’s online suite lets customers first upload DXF files and select gauge, grade and surface. With RPS PriceCheck, it then spits out a real-time quote based on average material market price and machine time utilization (as a part with complex geometry or holes takes longer to cut). It will automatically save the part drawing in each customer’s catalog for future use.

Next, the customer has two options: If the customer approves the quote, it can be moved into PriceLock, which is the recalculated anticipated cost of production. This price is good for seven days. 

Then, the customer is encouraged to submit its own price using PriceSelect, which, in a way, negotiates the initial quote price instantly. The idea behind PriceSelect, launched in 2011, is to cut through the back-and-forth of traditional price negotiation quickly and give the customer a real-time price based on changing factors for those seven days. Say the price is quoted at $1 per part. If a customer wants to pay $0.95 per part and PriceSelect rejects it, the customer resubmits the next day and possibly secures the deal.

“At the end of the day, the whole purpose is to create a transaction that’s profitable for both parties,” says Paul Labriola, president and CEO of Robinson Laser. “In a volatile, changing market, if the customer has a price target he would like to reach, that’s OK with us. If we can achieve that, we’re very happy.”

Robinson Laser stocks and cuts hot-rolled steel from 14 gauge to 5⁄8 in. thick, and up to 74 in. wide by about 12 ft. long, however the majority of submitted part orders are much smaller. 

The algorithms under the hood of Robinson Laser’s software can aggregate a variety of parts that are being processed at the same time so the machines can nest them in real time. This benefits customers by presenting the best pricing profile at any given moment.

The go-to laser cutter

For companies without metal cutting capabilities, Robinson Laser is an equally practical primary source for laser jobs. Engineers at Rosenthal Manufacturing, based in Northbrook, Ill., also heard about Robinson Laser through the grapevine, and since September 2012, the company has gone to Robinson Laser exclusively for cutting. In contrast to Airfloat’s large-volume part orders, Rosenthal has smaller quantities of many different items.

“We gave them a shot because we do more unique parts for our machines through laser cutting. We tried them and their fast turnaround is what we needed,” says Matthew Balmes, project engineer at Rosenthal.

Almost all of Rosenthal’s products, which include sheeters, stackers, rewinders and roll slitters, use flat steel for their panels, brackets and cabinets. It puts orders in at least once a week, ranging anywhere from $3,000 to $11,000, depending on the flow of work.

“Rosenthal has uploaded over 200 plus parts of not more than three pieces of each part,” says Labriola. 

Robinson Laser has saved Rosenthal production costs on one of its standardized machines, the Genesis roll slitter, which incorporates dozens of different parts. But if Rosenthal places an order for, say, 13 machines’ worth of those parts at once, the price per part comes down per machine.

“Their company is great if you’re doing mass quantities,” Balmes adds.

In addition to grouping parts, Rosenthal uses Robinson Laser’s PriceSelect feature for nearly every order.

FFJ-0313-laser-image2“We normally upload parts by our serial number. It’s nice because if I need to order another part it’s already in the catalog by serial,” Balmes says. “I can group all those parts together, so all you need to do is just pick a part from that serial number and I can see all parts laser cut for it.”

Some of Rosenthal’s parts carry over across certain machines, which makes it easy for Balmes to group those duplicate parts together. “The steel quality has always been very nice, and they make sure it’s packaged well,” he says.

More transparency

Words like “digital” and “real time” appear on many companies’ collateral as superlatives for convenience. But with Robinson Laser, every aspect, from sign-in to shipment, literally is handled electronically. For Robinson Laser, as with any company, it’s all about speed. “The key for us is speed. My productivity is through the roof,” Labriola says.

The company’s core online tools make for transaction transparency, which Robinson Laser is taking to the next level.

“We replicate the customer’s drawing exactly, because it’s digital. There’s no deviation from the engineer’s drawing as to what it is we’re pricing and quoting,” Labriola says. “All the info is out there. It can’t be misinterpreted, because it’s not interpreted at all. It’s direct to the math of how much a part can be cut for.”

Set to debut at the beginning of March is a price search feature, which lets customers download the Robinson-generated digital drawing of a part. Customers can take that drawing and quote to another laser cutter to compare prices.

“We find that as a win-win. It helps our customers and advances the industry,” Labriola says. “We’re all going digital. Some are there much sooner than others, but sooner or later someone is going to follow us.”

The faster companies like Robinson Laser can move, the higher the bottom lines grow for companies like Airfloat.

“We do many custom engineered jobs, and their completion is very much predicated on how long it takes in engineering, laser, fabrication and assembly,” says Metzger. “Anything you can do to collapse that time will allow us to focus on providing a better overall customer experience.” FFJ

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