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Laser Technology

Best of both worlds

By Nick Wright

With new Amada fiber and CO2 systems, a Minnesota fabricator speeds throughput for clients that build structures and make machinery

October 2014 - Recently, most of the laser technology-focused articles in FFJournal, as well as other metalworking industry publications, have heralded fiber lasers as an increasingly common choice for cutting metal over legacy CO2 systems. Fiber laser technology has made inroads in terms of cutting speeds that CO2 machines inherently can’t keep up with. Plus, the machines are smaller overall. Despite those advantages, CO2 machines aren’t going to disappear any time soon.

In fact, there remain companies that need to harness the strengths of both new fiber and CO2 machines. Most metal fabrication operations that cut thick and thin material fall into this category. 

One such fabricator that recently invested in both new fiber and CO2 machines is Standard Iron & Wire Works Inc. Based in Monticello, Minnesota, about 40 miles northwest of Minneapolis, Standard Iron was founded in 1930, primarily as an architectural metals firm. Production demands brought on by World War II spurred the contract manufacturing side of its business, which grew in midst of a post-war construction boom.

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The company continues to service both construction and contract manufacturing customers. It means to move ahead of competitors with a wide range of capabilities, a goal it is achieving with some key machinery purchases. Standard Iron owns four 6 kW LC 4020 F1 NT CO2 lasers with AMS automation, and two 4 kW FLCAJ 4020 fiber lasers with AMS automation, all from Amada America Inc., Brea, California. These units replaced older laser cutters from other manufacturers that became too costly to maintain. The newest installations are the fiber lasers, added in July this year. 

Standard Iron operates four facilities encompassing more than 400,000 sq. ft. of fabrication space—two in Minnesota, one in Grand Island, Nebraska, and one in Monterrey, Mexico. None of the locations caters to one specific industry. Rather, the types of jobs performed are diffused across each facility depending on client location and needs. 

Having two types of lasers gives Standard Iron the best of both worlds, Vice President Bill Demeules says, even as he recognizes that fiber lasers are gradually taking a bigger slice of the laser market. 

“The CO2 lasers are still better for heavier or thicker materials, but there are some advanced lasers coming down the road that will make them obsolete,” he says. “For right now, it’s helpful to have the capability of two different lasers that can cover the material thicknesses that we do.”

High profile parts

With two divisions each catering to architectural metal and contract manufacturing, Standard Iron keeps shops busy with the a full spectrum of metalworking jobs, from raw material to powder coating. The architectural metal business has completed miscellaneous metal elements for Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, as well as The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnestota, and Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. 

But there’s no love lost for the Packers, an archrival of the Minnesota Vikings. “We tell them we used purple primer on their parts,” jokes Demeules. The contract manufacturing business finished parts for companies that build agriculture, construction, energy and transportation equipment. With multiple facilities in the Midwest, Standard Iron keeps especially busy with farm machinery related orders.

“We actually make cotton stripper parts, tractor parts and others. We have our cotton stripper built in the winter and we have some sprayer parts we do,” says Bill Pohlmann, shift supervisor at Standard Iron. Many of the blueprints he gets are for parts he cannot readily identify. Other components end up in combines and harvesting equipment for Deere & Co., CNH Industrial and others.

“Customers give us CAD files and we have programmers that flatten out parts, then we nest through Ncell,” says Pohlmann. “We typically do more complex parts, which is what the big agricultural manufacturers farm out.” 

The company processes various grades and alloys of steel, stainless and aluminum from 22 gauge to 2 in. thick, with sheet sizes up to 80 in. by 160 in., and plate dimensions up to 8 ft. by 20 ft. Standard Iron cuts material thinner than 3⁄16 in. on the Amada fiber lasers, thicknesses at which the technology excels at cutting cost-effectively. Materials thicker than that go to the CO2 machines. At about 7 gauge thickness is where material can move to either the CO2 or fiber.

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While Amada has several lines of equipment built upon fiber laser technology, the FLCAJ 4020 uses Amada’s own 4,000 W fiber laser engine. 

It uses two modules (2,000 W each) for better efficiency and lower power consumption than other 4 kW fiber engines, according to Amada. The FLCAJ 4020 has twin 160 in. by 80 in. cutting tables and four linear motors (two in the X axis, one each in the Y & Z axes). This provides higher acceleration rates and traverse speeds. Standard Iron harnesses its cutting speeds, which exceed 4,000 in. per minute. It has an automatic nozzle changer, water assist cutting system (WACS) and cut process monitor for stable cut processing. 

“What makes this machine different from some of our other fibers is primarily the table size,” says Jason Hillenbrand, laser product manager at Amada. The lasers use many of the same features with the exception of the LCG-AJ, which uses a helical rack and pinion motion system. “They all cut very fast but the FLCAJ 4020 is geared for larger sheets and is also set up to process thick material.”

Assisted by automation

Standard Iron’s customers require high-quality parts, on-time delivery and competitive quotes. The Amada lasers’ accuracy, reliability and speed have helped achieve these requirements, Demeules says. “Our lasers are the machines that feed our shop. Over 90 percent of our [finished] products have laser cut parts in them.”

The combination of CO2 and fiber is further augmented by Amada’s automation systems. All of Standard Iron’s lasers have automation for safety and to facilitate unattended operation. It makes it easier to keep machines running at any hour, as well as monitor cut time and beam on-time. Without operators having to regularly handle parts, the operation is made safer. 

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“We skeleton cut everything to 30 in. by 40 in. so we don’t have to lift everything,” says Pohlmann. “Our lifting limit is 75 lbs., so for anything more we have cranes to lift material off, but cutting down skeletons reduces the risk of injuries.”

Standard Iron used to rely on a shear, but has since eliminated it, moving that work to its laser (as well as its turret, also supplied by Amada). The repeatability with the lasers is more reliable, especially for parts cut within 0.003 in. tolerance. 

While it’s too soon to tell whether the fiber laser is making a dent in Standard Iron’s electric bill, Demeules had already noticed that part throughput is faster. 

Overall, “we’ve been pleased with the reliability because they’re key pieces of equipment,” says Pohlmann. “When we look at equipment, we look at all the options and choose a solution that we’re comfortable with. The service and reliablity are important parts of it, not just pricing.” FFJ

Sources

  • Amada America Inc.
    Buena Park, Calif.
    phone: 714/739-2111
    www.amada.com
  • Standard Iron & Wire Works Inc.
    Monticello, Minn.
    phone: 763/295-8700
    www.std-iron.com
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