Laser Technology

Ahead of the pack

By Lynn Stanley

Agricultural equipment company achieves speed and cut quality with fiber laser technology backed by local support

October 2019 - Cattle, corn and soybeans rank among the top crops that U.S. farms produce, reports the American Farm Bureau Federation. By 2050, the global population is expected to increase by 2.2 billion, requiring farmers to grow 70 percent more food than they do today. Manufacturers like Great Plains Manufacturing Inc., based in Salina, Kansas, have helped to mechanize the industry and make it more efficient.

“We’re one of the largest ag companies in the United States,” says Randy Cormack, industrial engineering manager for Great Plains, which got its start in 1976 as a small shop. Today, the manufacturer operates 1.5 million square feet of space across eight locations in central Kansas. Agricultural implements for tillage, seeding and planting, as well as dirtworking and landscaping equipment, make up the company’s diverse portfolio of more than 450 products.

“Great Plains is one of the largest grain drill manufacturers in North America,” Cormack continues. “We’re beginning to dominate the tillage equipment space and we are growing our precision planters market segment as well.” To keep pace with demand, Great Plains outsourced a substantial amount of its laser cutting work. The need to gain better control over its work-in-progress led the company to look at fiber laser technology for its Great Plains and Land Pride locations.

FFJ 1019 laser image1

Great Plains uses its Amada lasers [two new 9kW fiber lasers, four 4kW CO2s and one 6kW CO2] to cut and process flat parts for products like its Disc-O-Vator, one of the industry’s most productive tillage tools.

FFJ 1019 laser image2

Elegant simplicity

“We purchased two fiber lasers in 2018 and have had problems since they were installed,” Cormack says. “The speeds we were promised on those machines have not materialized.” The industrial engineering manager immersed himself in research. He visited the showrooms of four different OEMs and attended Fabtech to gain a good understanding of what different vendors had to offer.

“We looked at every equipment manufacturers’ 8kW fiber laser, then we saw Amada’s Ensis 3015 9kW fiber perform,” he says. “The head design was by far the most advanced thing I’ve seen on the market.”

Because Amada uses fewer components than other OEMs, beam generation is simple, clean and efficient. Amada’s high-powered direct diode technology makes that possible. The configuration supports simple construction and high conversion efficiency.

“To generate the same amount of power in a 9kW fiber laser, other manufacturers use as many as 10 to 11 modules,” says Dustin Diehl, laser product manager for Amada America Inc. “We only use three modules for our Ensis 3015 9kW fiber. Original beam control technology helps to reduce dross and bevel.”

Conventional head designs draw heat and typically have to be cooled with nitrogen. This approach can affect beam delivery and quality. “We were experiencing contamination due to the close proximity of the nitrogen on our other fiber lasers,” notes Cormack.

FFJ 1019 laser image3

Sheet of Land Pride RTR12 series tiller parts processed on the new Amada Ensis 4020 fiber laser.

Ensis optimizes the fiber laser’s beam based on material quality and thickness. The ability to change depth of field as well as beam size and shape was attractive to Cormack.

The fiber laser’s auto collimation mechanism allows an operator to achieve stable cutting over the entire thickness range. Paired with a high-output oscillator, the combination supports consistent high-speed cutting of thick materials with an 83 percent improvement in dross and bevel and a 54 percent improvement in surface roughness.

“We perform these functions away from the head and contamination points, further back in the beam delivery system,” Diehl explains. Amada’s head can be maintained on site without the need for a clean room. Conventional fiber lasers are generally built with sealed heads. “If the head becomes contaminated, it can’t be cleaned or repaired by the customer,” Diehl adds. “That means a company has to wait for the OEM to send a service technician.”

The tipping point, says Cormack, came when he and his associates attended an Amada open house at the beginning of the year. “I put in a purchase order for the Ensis 3015 and, five weeks later, it shipped. I thought, I can have a fiber laser in five to six weeks delivered to my doorstep? That’s unheard of.”

Cutting speed

In addition to the fiber laser, Great Plains ordered Amada’s auxiliary output, which arrived six weeks after the fiber laser. They also chose the gas mixture option.

“We hit the ground running with the Ensis 3015,” says Cormack. “During the first week of operation, it went so well that I wrote a purchase order for an Amada Ensis 4020. We had it installed in August 2019 in our Land Pride division.”

FFJ 1019 laser image4

The new Amada Ensis 3015 provides an 83 percent improvement in dross and bevel and a 54 percent improvement in surface roughness.

Both fiber lasers have sheet load and unload automation. Cut time on the 3015 is just under three minutes for a 5-ft.-by-10-ft. sheet. The Ensis 4020 is used to cut 6-ft.-by-12-ft. sheets. “We run such a variation,” says Cormack. “We can cut 10 gauge at 1,100 in. per minute on nitrogen, then jump to ½-in. plate with oxygen at 78 in. a minute. We nest sheet to sheet all day long. Generally, each nested sheet is different.”

The fiber lasers anchor the two divisions’ production lines. Once parts are cut, operators send them to press brakes, welding or paint. Great Plains’ Salina location has a mix of fiber and CO2 lasers.

“Most of our operators have been here 25-plus years,” Cormack says. “They have run a lot of equipment in their lifetimes. It was a shock for some of them to see the new 9kW run. When they see the parts that come off the Ensis 3015, they have been impressed with the speed and cut quality.”

Aftermarket support has also been important to Great Plains. “I asked each of the fiber laser manufacturers how many service technicians they had in Kansas,” says Cormack. “Most of the OEMs had none. Amada has nine service technicians, with one right here in Salina. That’s a huge deal out here in the middle of Kansas. It’s almost a bigger deal than buying the machine.” FFJ



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