Laser Technology

Display of power

By Nick Wright

Above: Bates Metal cuts with nitrogen on its 3015 eX-S to achieve faster cutting speeds on thinner gauge materials.

With an energy-smart laser, Bates Metal augments output of fabricated retail displays, helping clients secure sales

May 2014 - In 2010, a book hit the shelves that gave insight into one of the more inexplicable, yet satisfying phenomena in consumer society: impulse shopping. “Shopper Marketing: How to Increase Purchase Decisions at the Point of Sale,” delves into the psychology of what drives us to purchase beyond what we intended. Some 70 percent of purchases are unplanned, according to the author’s research. Optimizing point-of-sale displays makes those unplanned grabs even easier.

These details aren’t lost on Bates Metal Products Inc. Founded in 1956, the Port Washington, Ohio-based fabricator makes it easy for retail clients to capitalize on in-store displays and point-of-sale setups with its products. Bates Metal’s racks, displays, signs and merchandise tables are custom-built for not only shopper engagement but also for easy, sensible storage, as is the case with its shopping cart and basket cradles.

What consumers buy is ultimately the main attraction for impulse shopping—the displays are merely supporting roles. But back at Bates Metal’s facility in east-central Ohio, the fabrication process has a main attraction of its own: a 3015 eX-S CO2 laser cutting machine from Mitsubishi Laser, distributed by MC Machinery Systems Inc. of Wood Dale, Ill. Debuted at Fabtech 2013 in Chicago, the eX-S joins the productive, efficient eX line as a more accessible, entry-level version. 


“The eX-S laser is the mainstay of our manufacturing process,” says Jimmy Bates, co-owner of Bates Metal. It features a 2,700 W resonator, and while it isn’t quite the charge of its 6,000-W eX cousin, offers the savings of a smaller resonator and provides gains in other areas for Bates Metal. Equipped with a 60 in. by 120 in. cutting table, Bates increases production by limiting the number of times sheets must be changed.

The machine can continue to cut while operators are loading parts, Bates says, with the help of its shuttle table. The fabricator’s older machine, a previously owned 1994 Mitsubishi laser, lacks a shuttle table and memory for big jobs. “With our old machine you had to load a sheet into it, then it cut however many parts. Then it stopped,” Bates says. “Then you had to pick the parts off the table, pull the scrap off, and put a new sheet on the table. When you’re picking parts off, the machine’s not doing anything.” 

With the new eX-S, the shuttle table alone has increased production by about 40 percent, he estimates. Once the new sheet is on the table, it’s ready to be cut as soon as the previous job exits the cutting bed to be picked. 

“So you’re pulling parts off while the machine’s going ahead to cut the next sheet. The downtime between sheets is minimal. It’s a minute or two, if that. That little fact alone has increased production tremendously.”

Efficiency gains

Aside from signs and displays, Bates Metal fabricates stampings, tubular components and assemblies. Most of those are made from commercial-quality cold-rolled steel. Though, since adding the eX-S, the company’s capacity to cut stainless steel and aluminum is growing.

The eX-S is billed as a CO2 system, cutting thicknesses up to 3⁄4 in., but Bates notes that he’s using nitrogen. “We set it up with what we call a 12-pack,” he says, referring to a 12-nitrogen bottle configuration. 

It costs about $4,000 per month but Bates Metal is currently switching to a 700-gallon nitrogen tank that will slash that price by about 75 percent. “The nitrogen surrounds the laser to focus the beam. It has to have that constantly to cut,” Bates says.

The eX-S typically requires just one operator, “unless we get into thicker material,” Bates says, in which case a second employee helps load sheet or pull parts. The company still uses its older Mitsubishi laser, which is a 1,600 W machine purchased from a technical college in 2010. That machine remains in the stable for prototyping and backup production. 

 To illustrate efficiency gains, Bates recalls asking an operator one day if he could work a 12-hour day beyond his scheduled eight to alleviate a production backlog. “He says, ‘I’ve already worked 13. I’ve been working the new machine for eight hours and on the old one for five.’ I can’t argue with that as far as hours for production are concerned.”


Augmented line

According to MC Machinery Systems, all the features of the eX laser are included on the eX-S, except for the resonator wattage. That dialed-back wattage lets fabricators apply that power to related ancillary functions like material handling or a shuttle table without pulling extra juice, says Jeff Hahn, national laser product manager at MC Machinery Systems.

“The eX-S still has the same cast frame, same controller with same functions, and has the same diamond path (fixed beam length) on it as the eX,” he says. With high-speed cutting, operators might need automation in order to keep up with output. This machine is compatible with traditional automation because it’s spec-for-spec the same machine as the existing eX. “For the same price point as a standalone eX, a company can have an eX-S, with dialed back wattage and an automated pallet changer for faster cutting than stand-alones can handle,” Hahn adds.

The eX line, the fifth generation in Mitsubishi’s line of brawny 2-D lasers, replaces the former LVP series. Mitsubishi touts the eX line’s low running costs and ecofriendly features in terms of gas and power consumption, as well as consistent, stable operation. It features a 60 percent faster gas change time than previous models, a helical rack-and-pinion drive system to reduce noise, fast-accelerating x and y axes, as well as built-in jet piercing suited for mild steel. An ECO mode can adapt to jobs and optimize power usage.

Before Bates brought on the eX-S and had any CNC equipment, the shop usually relied on having stamping dies built—a long process. Bates says the new laser has almost completely eliminated its reliance on tool and die because of its ability to cut whatever shape they need—whether it’s a retail display for BF Goodrich Tires or a key dropbox for Budget Truck Rental.

“One thing we’ve definitely noticed is all the parts are consistent,” he says. “Before, we might shear a piece of material and set it up in the punch press for holes. Well if someone doesn’t hit that stop and punch exactly right, that hole could be off.”

Although the machine’s power is scaled back, that doesn’t mean any might is lost. It represents power savings, efficiency gains, and a point where just one of Bates Metal’s 65 employees can wrangle more production out of his or her shift. The accuracy, says Bates, is just part and parcel of owning a refined laser model. Because of that, perhaps like the displays it manufactures, Bates’ decision to bring on the machine was made all the more easy.

“We know once we cut with the laser, all those holes will be consistent. Always.” FFJ




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