Laser Technology

Fast & furious

By Lynn Stanley

Above: The turret (background) holds tools that punched the louvers in this sheet metal. The laser head (foreground) quickly cuts out the part.

Combination technology helps customers doing the production quick- step make smooth transitions, lower cost and remove bottlenecks

October 2017 - Like Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the character played by Tom Cruise in the 1986 movie “Top Gun,” manufacturers are going “Mach 2 with their hair on fire.”

Over the last few years, attention has been focused squarely on fiber laser technology and how fast it can produce parts. “It’s been dramatic,” Jason Hillenbrand, general manager of blanking and automation for Amada America Inc., says of the machine’s evolution. “At first we saw fiber laser power output at 1000 and 2000W. Now we’re seeing output power at 8,000, 9,000 and 10,000W.  Nothing like this happened in the CO2 world in this timeframe.”

Fabricators continue to pursue the holy grail of manufacturing: lower cost per part. After achieving higher cutting speeds, however, metal formers are asking, “Now what?” “Lasers are cutting so fast, it takes multiple people to remove and separate parts, fold up skeletons, and load and unload sheet,” according to Hillenbrand. “Downstream bottlenecks have ushered in new bending and welding technology applications and driven material handling advances. We’ve seen an uptick in demand for automated press brakes and more than 50 percent of flat sheet fiber lasers are being sold with some type of automation. But the real question is: How do manufacturers make smooth transitions?”

New conundrums

Hillenbrand takes inventory. “You’ve got high-powered fiber lasers that can cut faster, automated material handling, and press brakes with auto tool change features,” he says. “Yet despite these advances, it can still take an operator an hour or two to get parts out of a flat sheet and move them to a press brake or other downstream operation.”

Here is one reason why: Flat sheet fiber lasers use slat tables that require weekly routine maintenance [the frequency depends on the materials being processed]. Without upkeep, slats deteriorate. Parts run the risk of falling below the skeleton, making it difficult to impossible for a robot to efficiently pick and place parts for downstream processing or inventory.

FFJ 1017 laser image1

The TK part removal system uses suction cups to grab the part prior to its being cut free.

“A company still needs someone to separate parts from the skeleton,” says Hillenbrand. “If the parts are small, they have to be tabbed into the sheet, which adds processing time.”

The answer to the conundrum could lie in a combination turret punch press/fiber laser machine. Amada introduced its first punch/fiber combo in 1991. But the system was viewed as rather a one-off specialty, Hillenbrand explains. “It was more attractive to OEMs and contract manufacturers that used thin material to produce similar parts that specified some sort of forming or tapping operation. Companies that didn’t have these requirements gravitated to the flat sheet fiber laser.”

Historically, choosing technology is application-driven, but Hillenbrand noticed a shift from capability-centric purchases to productivity-centric choices. Manufacturers are assessing whether or not a machine will reduce part costs and provide downstream operations with a steady diet of parts.

“Customers that previously would not have considered a punch/fiber laser combination are discovering they can consolidate processes and machines for a substantial cost savings,” he says. “We’ve observed an increasing awareness of these advantages in the mainstream marketplace.”

One manufacturer had a four-step process that began with punching holes in sheet metal. The sheet was then manually transferred to the laser where individual parts were cut and moved to a hardware insertion machine for final processing. Purchase of an Amada punch/ laser combination machine allowed the company to consolidate three machines into one, dramatically reducing total processing time and part costs.

Amada’s LC2515-C1AJ combines a 22-ton turret punch press with a 2kW fiber laser to support high-speed processing. A 44-station multipurpose turret (MPT) optimizes punching productivity in conjunction with laser cutting. The fiber laser consumes about one third of the electricity consumed by a CO2 laser.

Making moves

“Every time you move from machine to machine, material handling adds cost and time,” says Timothy Brady, punching and combination product manager for Amada. For customers that require cosmetic parts, a combination machine can perform several tasks that meet the “no fingerprints rule.” The fiber laser’s brush table also supports specifications for surface critical material.

“It’s not a consumable table, so you don’t have to worry about parts falling through the skeleton,” Brady explains. “Automation can grab almost any part before it separates from the skeleton, ensuring consistency.”

And while a typical fiber laser may cut a part in 5 seconds, versus 15 seconds on a combination machine, operators must wait for the entire sheet to finish processing and the tables to be swapped out before they can access any of the parts.

FFJ 1017 laser image2

The brush table reduces noise and eliminates part scratches while the sealed table cabin protects the operator from laser reflection.

“The combination machine eliminates this issue. Parts can be picked as they are cut and dropped on a just-in-time conveyor or stored in inventory, thereby boosting productivity,” he says.

Combination technology is flexible, able to form or tap as effectively as it processes flat parts. Smooth transitions are where it really demonstrates value: Amada's punch/laser combination propels parts down the line faster but within a small footprint.

Brady recalls one customer that put the concept into practice when it purchased an LC2515-C1AJ with an ASR3015-NTK for material storage, finished part removal and stacking. “The system gave them rapid access to finished parts,” he says. “Its compact size allowed the company to position the equipment near a JIT conveyor to deliver a consistent flow of parts to press brakes 20 feet away. Streamlining operations like this offers another way to save time and cost.”

Tooling options

Manufacturers are also looking to reduce labor with automation. “We hear this with growing regularity from customers that come through our showroom,” Brady notes. “Amada’s ACIES-AJ punch/fiber laser combination really lends itself to automation and lights out operation. Until now, having to load tools in a turret has been a big issue, especially for manufacturers that are doing a lot of forming. The tool rack device on the ACIES-AJ holds up to 300 tools that can be automatically inserted into the turret. That makes the possibilities nearly endless.”

With 33-ton servo punching capacity, 4kW fiber laser cutting capability and automatic nozzle changes, the ACIES-AJ provides scratch-free processing of complex sheet metal parts, fast hit rates, and unlimited shape cutting flexibility. Material storage towers, parts separation and stacking and JIT conveyor systems enhance the system’s automation capabilities.

Automation provides manufacturers with a way to move experienced operators into roles where their knowledge and skills can be leveraged more efficiently, Hillenbrand says. “Both control and automation technologies allow a company to bring individuals into the trade that don’t have experience with metal processing.”

Brady says education about return-on-investment is the first step for manufacturers contemplating this choices. “Budget is also a consideration,” he adds. “At the end of the day, companies are trying to find a balance between how important machine features are to them versus how much they are willing to spend to maximize green light on time.” FFJ


  • Amada America Inc.
    Buena Park, California
    phone: 714/739-2111

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