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Laser Technology

Abundant opportunities

By Tom Klemens

Above: Purchasing a TruLaser 5030 fiber expanded Professional Fabricating’s capabilities to making quick, clean cuts in stainless steel as well as plain steel and nonferrous metals.

Adding a new solid-state laser cutter boosts job shop’s productivity as well as sales

December 2013 - When John Moran opened his job shop Professional Fabricating Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., 20 years ago, he wasn’t buying much new equipment. Back then, growing the business meant long hours and almost constant maintenance and repair. But over time, as the company was able to purchase newer equipment, it has reaped the benefits of those investments.

Moran’s most recent purchase, a Trumpf TruLaser 5030 fiber cutting machine, has quickly proved its worth. “Since I picked up that laser, our sales have increased by 50 percent,” Moran says. It is providing faster turnaround on orders, he says, and gives the shop new capabilities that are in demand.

As a custom job shop, Professional Fabricating serves a variety of clients. “We’re into 15 or 20 different industries,” Moran says. “In the economic downturn, we were able to survive because we were so diverse. And we’ll do one of anything or go into high-volume production.” The company’s product mix includes institutional furniture, office furniture, and health care items such as hospital beds and other support equipment. The company also does work for OEMs in the electronics industry.

Moran says his shop regularly works with aluminum, stainless steel and regular steel in the form of sheet metal, plate and structural tubing. “We used to send out a lot of 1⁄4-in. aluminum to get waterjet cut,” Moran says. “With this fiber laser, I can do 1⁄4-in. aluminum with waterjet quality and it’s 1,000 percent quicker.”

FFJ-1213-laser-image1

In the beginning

Like many such start ups, Moran began his company with limited resources. “When I started, I went to auctions and just bought all the old equipment, anything I could afford,” he says. Fortunately, he wasn’t short on drive. “I had been a machine builder for about 10 years, so I understood machines very well. So I’d spend 10 hours a day manufacturing, and then 10 hours a day working on the equipment. It was the nature of work in that day.”

Moran says after about five years he had the beginnings of a secure customer base. “That’s when I made a promise to myself to only buy the newest and the best equipment out there so I wouldn’t have to work 20 hours a day anymore. Now it’s starting to pay off, after 20 years.”

The shop’s first laser was a Mazak CO2 machine with a 4 ft. by 8 ft. table. “I bought that about 10 years ago,” Moran says. “And probably two months after I had it, I realized it was too small. You know how that goes.” That machine has been a good workhorse, so even when he acquired his new laser earlier this year, Moran kept the older machine. “We modified it so we can put holes in flat tubing if we need to. And when my new laser is booked, I turn the other one on. It’s sitting there, and it’s paid for.”

In early 2013 Moran purchased his first fiber laser cutting machine, a Trumpf TruLaser 5030 fiber, which at 5 kW is one of the industry’s highest powered solid-state 2-D laser cutting machines. “I had everything in the company paid off—didn’t owe anybody a dime—so  I figured my next move should be a new laser,” he says.

What intrigued him most about the TruLaser 5030 fiber was the job it does on stainless steel. “It beats everything out there when you get into 1⁄4 in. on down stainless steel,” Moran says. “And being a job shop, we get into a little bit of everything. I’ve been getting into a lot more health care type of applications where there’s a lot of stainless steel,” so the laser’s performance in that arena has been a plus.

“Some of the things the new Trumpf 5030 fiber can do just amaze me,” Moran says. “I can cut a 0.040-in. slot through 7 gauge stainless and it drops out a 0.015-in. slot sliver—and that’s on 7 gauge stainless! There’s not a CO2 laser out there able to do that.”

Moran also likes the fact that cutting with the 5030 fiber doesn’t leave scale on the cut edges of the steel. “Before, with my CO2 laser, we had to descale the edges when we were done cutting so when we painted it the paint didn’t peel off ,” he says. But that’s not the only secondary operation the 5030 fiber has eliminated. “With the fiber I can cut an 1⁄8 in. hole through 1⁄4 in. steel, where I used to just pierce a hole then drill it. Now I can cut the hole right through.”

In addition to process simplifications such as those, the TruLaser 5030 fiber has expanded Professional Fabricating’s capabilities and provided new opportunities. “The biggest thing is I can design quality into the part,” Moran says. “I can do slots and tabs to connect thicker metal with thin metal that I never used to be able to do. I never used to be able to cut a 1⁄16-in. slot through 7 gauge. If I have to mate up 16 gauge to 7 gauge, I can get a slot in there so I can do a lot more slot and tabbing.”

Getting and giving service

Moran admits that for him, service is every bit as important as pricing in making purchasing decisions. “It costs you a lot more money when you’re down,” he says. Knowing that Trumpf builds its own lasers and maintains high-level in-house technical expertise is something he sees as a plus as well.

FFJ-1213-laser-image2

“So far Trumpf’s response has just been incredible,” he says, adding that maintenance requirements for the 5030 fiber are much less than for his older laser. “Maintenance on my old CO2 laser was about $20,000 a year. My maintenance on the fiber laser is nonexistent. We have to change the water every now and then, and change the oil and that’s about it. There are no mirrors to have cleaned and no tubes. I don’t have any maintenance on it, which was another reason I went with fiber optic versus CO2.”

Making the switch

Although any change is a challenge, Professional Fabricating’s switch to the new laser has gone smoothly. Moran attributes much of that to the fact that Trumpf builds its equipment so that it is easy to run. To learn about the 5030 fiber, his operators went to a four-day class, then worked with the machine for about a week. “Then the tech came in and by the end of the week they were up and running,” he says. “It was not that hard for us to pick it up. But then again, I’ve got some really good people here.”

With an eye to the future,  Moran says he has seen a decline in labor skills over the last 20 years. “And often you need a lot of experience to learn how to get the most out of equipment,” he says. One example from his personal experience is running old press brakes that the operator had to shim. “There are a lot of things that you can’t teach,” he says. “Now you can get smart people, but they do not have the hands-on skills they used to have.” Thanks to equipment like the Trumpf 5030 fiber, Moran says, “now it’s a lot easier to hire a high school graduate that is smart enough to run the machine, but doesn’t need the hands-on skills that they used to have to have.”

In addition to requiring less prior experience for an operator to become productive, the TruLaser 5030 fiber features built-in productivity enhancements. Moran particularly likes its automatic tip changer, and for good reason. “I used to have a half hour downtime, minimum, in changing the tips when switching from one metal to another,” he says. “This thing does it automatically, so I have more run time.”

Moran also purchased Trumpf’s LiftMaster Compact, which automates material loading and unloading, further boosting productivity. “I can actually load multiple jobs and have it run over the weekend with lights out,” he says. 

Coming soon

Today the thriving company has about 50 employees. Moran says the company grew by word of mouth for 15 years, reaching $4.5 million in sales without a dedicated sales force. “In the downturn of 2008-2009 I hired my first fulltime sales person,” he says. “That’s when you hire sales people —when sales are bad.”

 What’s next for Professional Fabricating? “We haven’t tried selling the Trumpf laser yet for blanking work,” Moran says. “But now that we’ve been up and running for six months, we have a better understanding of what all the capabilities are. There aren’t any job shops in my area with this technology, so now it’s time to turn the sales guys loose.” And from the sounds of things, opportunity may once again be knocking at Professional Fabricating’s door. FFJ

Sources

  • Professional Fabricating Inc.
    Grand Rapids, Mich.
    phone: 616/531-1240
    fax: 616/531-1427
    www.profabgr.com
  • Trumpf Inc.
    Farmington, Conn.
    phone: 860/255-6000
    fax: 860/255-6680
    www.us.trumpf.com


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