Laser Technology

An open & shut case

By Tom Klemens

Combining a new laser cutter with an older material feeder boosts productivity and capacity without breaking the bank

September 2013 - When Custom Metal Products set out a decade ago to manufacture custom-designed commercial hollow metal doors and frames, it took a straightforward approach to material preparation. The Wilmington, N.C., company began with just 10 employees and used Wiedemann turret punches after two Cincinnati shears—one for frames and the other for doors—cut the sheet steel to size. As it has grown, however, the company’s methods have changed significantly. Today, after a second major equipment upgrade, the company has a new fiber laser that prepares parts overnight in lights-out mode, which has given its productivity a major boost.

Originally components were sheared to the correct length and width, then transferred to turret punches that punched out the hinge locations, miters and other features required prior to their forming and assembly into doors or frames. Then as now, material ranged from 22 gauge, typically used as internal stiffeners, to 12 gauge for its heaviest frames.

Although still a relatively young firm, Custom Metal Products has fabricated metal doors and frames for some high-profile projects—if you count below-sea-level installations. The company supplied stainless steel doors and frames for the tunnel portion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

Process improvements

By 2008 the company’s output had grown to a point where using the shears and turret presses was limiting production. To alleviate the material preparation bottleneck, it invested in a pre-owned Salvagnini S4 punching-shearing system. That equipment handled both functions without the need to move material from one machine to another and significantly increased capacity. The following year, the company added a second pre-owned S4 with a Salvagnini MD 3015 tower store for automatic material feeding.

“They were good machines and they improved our production from before tremendously,” says Custom Metal Products’ vice president Bill Dries. Also in charge of the firm’s human resources, Dries notes the addition of the S4 combination machines helped the company make better use of its manpower. “That let us move people to other locations in the shop and use their time more wisely.” 

Always looking for ways to improve production, Dries and operations manager Bill West, who had joined the company around the time it acquired its first S4, both were keeping an eye on laser cutting developments.

“The production levels with both those other machines were great, compared to what we had before,” Dries says. “But after researching the laser for a number of years and having time studies done, it just made sense to make the switch.”


One factor in the decision was the aging technology in the S4 systems, both of which had been previously owned. The first was built in 1999 and the second in 2000, along with its accompanying MD tower.

“Those machines were getting to an age where we had to upgrade to a newer technology,” Dries says. Late in 2012 the company purchased a new Salvagnini L3 fiber laser. “That laser just kept coming out on top,” he says. By April 2013, material preparation had been switched completely from the S4 systems to the fiber laser.

“It’s an awesome machine,” says West, “and it takes a lot less manpower than we needed to run a couple different machines.” Again, the company has been able to more effectively deploy its human resources thanks to automation.

The one-two punch

What sealed the deal, however, was Salvagnini’s ability to reuse the company’s 10-year-old material storage and loading system with the new laser. “The tower was built with the S4-760 model in 2000,” says Dries, “so it was very impressive that they could incorporate it into a laser built in 2012.”

Already familiar with Salvagnini’s success in recommissioning equipment like the two S4 systems, West also was impressed, but not surprised. “It was a Salvagnini anyway, so they just rebuilt the whole electric cabinet and upgraded everything on it,” he says. “It’s almost like a new tower.”

“This laser seems to be doing even more production than both the S4 machines did together,” Dries says. “So again, it’s allowing us better opportunity to do more work.”

“One of the main reasons is the lights-out manufacturing ability we have with the laser,” says West. “I can program several jobs and walk away from it, then come back the next morning and the work’s done. That’s a tremendous cost savings for us.” 

Dries says that advantage had become obvious as he researched the benefits of investing in laser cutting equipment. “We went to trade shows and traveled to two or three different companies [that use Salvagnini lasers] in Atlanta,” he says. “At one company, the production manager was showing us around and I asked, ‘Where is your operator?’ He explained they didn’t have one person standing by the machine. You turned it on, and then went and did something else. And that was a selling factor for us.”

In addition to reducing labor requirements, laser cutting is producing less scrap at Custom Metal Products while at the same time using less electrical power than the punching-shearing system. West estimates the electrical savings to be as much as 30 percent. “It doesn’t take much power to run a laser source,” he says. “They’re very efficient.”

Facilitating product mix

Although it has been a low-volume, high-mix operation from the start, Custom Metal Products is seeing benefits from the flexibility the laser cutter offers. Although typical doors are for 3-0-6-0 or 3-0-7-0 openings—36 in. wide by 72 in. or 84 in. tall—the details vary considerably. For example, the company also fabricates radius frames. “We’re a custom shop,” says Dries, “so really every single job is different. We don’t make 600 doors, or frames, of the same thing in one size. Every single job is different.”

Because the laser cutter’s workload is so easily programmed, this variability is not an issue. “Our metal sizes range from about 48 in. by 86 in. to 60 in. by 120 in.,” West says. “We can probably realistically do about 200 pieces a day of metal which, if it’s all doors, is 100 doors.”

The company at its peak had 110 employees, Dries says, which was before either the S4 machines or L3 laser cutter, and before the economic downturn. “Now we have approximately 70 employees and we’re just as busy as we were when we had 110,” he says. “But just like any company, we’ve had to learn to work harder with what we have and be able to be more productive with less people.” And technology, he notes, is playing a larger role than ever in making that possible. “We’re learning every day, that’s for sure.” FFJ



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