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Laser Technology

Scaling up

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Economical and fast, the Mitsubishi eX 60 CO2 gives Laser Fabrication & Machine Co. Inc. the flexibility to transition between materials with minimal setup.

Service, support and quality give fabricator traction to grow

February 2017 - George Washington had a passion for punctuality and he lived by the maxim, “Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.” Likewise, Alvin Thacker recognized the value of timeliness and follow-through when he started Laser Fabrication & Machine Co. Inc. in 1997. 

“There was a need for service-oriented, on-time deliveries. We filled a void,” says Thacker.  

Most fab shops, he observes, “start with a shear, manual mill or maybe an ironworker. We started off with a Mitsubishi CO2 laser, a substantial investment for us,” he says. “We were a shop of four in rented warehouse space, but the laser allowed us to hit the ground running— cutting store fixture components, shelf brackets and automotive parts.”

The CO2 laser cut a mix of large and small parts from thick and thin materials. “We managed our quantities and our inventory so we could pull parts when we needed them,” Thacker says. He credits MC Machinery Systems Inc. with helping Wellington, Alabama-based Laser Fabrication to gain traction early on. The Wood Dale, Illinois, company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp. and the North American headquarters for Mitsubishi laser equipment.

FFJ 0217 laser image1

Family business—Manufacturing Vice President Ron Thacker, Owner Alvin Thacker and Sales Vice President Donald Thacker.

Emphasis precision

“My background is precision machining,” says Thacker. “We’ve always offered customers a one-stop-shop solution with an emphasis on precision.”

He was familiar with Mitsubishi. In addition to quality equipment, “they offered machine tool financing at a competitive rate,” he recalls.

Mitsubishi has a sister company that provides captive financing called MAC Funding. “Unlike a traditional lender we don’t just analyze financial balance sheets and credit reports,” says Patrick Simon, marketing manager for MC Machinery. “MAC Funding offers a more flexible approach that also takes into account a start-up’s business plans so that we can help put people in business.”

Thacker incorporated Laser Fabrication in 1998, and promoted his brother Ron as vice president of manufacturing and his brother Donald as vice president of sales. In the last 10 years, the company completed four expansion phases. Laser Fabrication’s two main buildings total 25,000 sq. ft. and house its engineering staff, lasers, waterjet, CNC equipment, press brakes and other machines. The paint line, assembly and welding departments occupy an additional 42,500 sq. ft.  

In addition to serving major metropolitan transit authorities for city bus parts, ISO-9000 certified Laser Fabrication makes point-of-purchase display racking and shelving for Home Depot, Staples and Advanced Auto Parts, appliance parts for brands like Whirlpool and Maytag and parts and fixtures for Honda. As its customer base continues growing, Laser Fabrication has had to scale up capacity.

Its most recent equipment purchase, an eX 60 CO2 laser, is the 16th Mitsubishi machine that Laser Fabrication installed. “We’ve been able to rely on MC Machinery for service, support and quality,” Thacker observes.

Customers’ increasing demand for 1-in.- thick plate prompted the purchase of the eX 60 CO2. “We needed to be able to cut economically and [at] higher cutting speeds for stainless,” Thacker says. “Now we’re cutting parts for everything from tree trimmers and buses to parking lot sweepers, helicopter simulators and everything in between.”

A different take on CO2

“There’s very little downtime or maintenance on the Mitsubishi CO2 [or with the other machines]. We run this equipment around the clock, seven days a week and it’s never been a problem,” Thacker claims.

Mitsubishi’s resonators have been engineered with a dual Cross-Flow design to maximize stability and extend maintenance intervals. Consumption of gas is reduced by almost 90 percent. Ultra-clean resonator materials yield higher performance. And because the CO2 has the flexibility to quickly transition between materials with minimal setup, Laser Fabrication is able to take on a greater variety of parts. 

FFJ 0217 laser image2

Mitsubishi’s Cross-Flow resonator design uses up to 90 percent less gas than traditional fast-flow systems, lowering maintenance and operational costs.

The CO2’s shuttle table allows Laser Fabrication to load one sheet while another sheet is processing. “If the beam is off because you are changing material and you do that 20 times or more a day and it takes three minutes each time, that can add up quickly,” Simon explains. 

Raw stock is loaded and unloaded onto the shuttle table with a vacuum lift. Operators man the CO2 through three shifts. “Parts have to be removed from the skeleton, separated, organized and batched,” says Thacker. “We might run as many as 2,000 different part numbers in a month for just one customer.”

Laser Fabrication gains economies of scale in other ways. “We cut faster with nitrogen because we don’t have to remove oxidation from carbon steels,” Thacker says. “Deburring is minimized. It really helps our downstream processes.”

Despite the growing popularity of fiber lasers, the Mitsubishi CO2 remains a good fit for Laser Fabrication. “Fiber can offer cheaper operation costs but the edge quality in thicker plate isn’t quite there,” says Thacker. “The CO2 fits our package requirements well. In the past we had to go to the waterjet every time we wanted to cut 5⁄8-in. material. We could cut it but it was slow. We also had to use the waterjet for 1⁄4-in. aluminum. Now we cut these materials and sizes on the CO2.”

The CO2 anchors Laser Fabrication’s value stream. “It’s the first step in our process,” Thacker explains. “We cut raw material, then blanks go to machining, bending or welding before paint or powder coat. We’re able to cut everything you can imagine from 1-in. plate all the way down to 0.005-in. stainless stock.”

The ability to cut quickly and achieve repeatable results has allowed Laser Fabrication to take on jobs like heavy plate weldments for the tree trimming industry. Frames weigh up to 4,800 lbs. each. Parking lot framework can weigh up to 4,500 lbs. Each weldment requires over 100 different part numbers, all of which are cut on the CO2.

Grounded by the reliability and repeatability of the Mitsubishi CO2, Thacker is already looking ahead. “We’ve built a partnership with MC Machinery,” Thacker says. “And each of us has kids in the business. We’re a growing factory largely due to hard work and machines we can depend on.” 

Thacker concedes there may also be a Mitsubishi fiber laser in the manufacturer’s future—another building block in a solid foundation. FFJ

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