Tube cutting enters the 21st century

By Greg Farnum

There are plenty of ways to cut tubing--ways that have been perfected through decades of real-world factory-floor experience. Sawing, lathe cutting, rotary cutting and shearing tubes are well understood processes performed on modestly priced machines.

So why does Jeff Arendas insist they should be replaced with a pricey new laser tube-cutting system? "The benefits of laser tube processing are similar to the benefits of laser sheet processing--it's faster and more flexible," says Arendas, product manager, LaserTube Systems for BLM Group USA Corp. "They can cut complex tubular parts requiring multiple successive operations like drilling, punching, milling, sawing and deburring and can do it in a single setup. In addition, there's the matter of tooling. Normally, hard tooling like a notching die or a punching die is used in tube fabrication. With the laser, though, you can dispense with hard tooling, so you save on tooling cost and on tooling lead time. Also, the tight dimensional accuracies that you get from laser cutting can eliminate time and cost of downstream welding and assembly operations."

Still, lasers have brought these advantages to tube cutting since the early 1980s, advantages that in many cases have been offset by the high price of lasers compared to traditional tube-cutting equipment, particularly when a single profile or a simple operation is required. What's different today?

"Sure, people have cut tubes on lasers for years," says Arendas, "but each tube was first cut to length and then manually loaded into a rotary chuck mounted on a flat cutting laser. What's changed today is the introduction of truly automated laser tube-cutting systems." The key here is automated bundle loading.

One of BLM's entries into this field is the LT712D laser tube-cutting system, boasting a CNC control with a database of tubular components, a CAD/CAM package focused on tube fabrication, and automatic loading/unloading of tubes up to 152 mm in diameter.

"With today's automated systems, you drop in bundle lengths of tubing rather than simply loading one piece of tube. Couple this with their CNC controls where you can simply dial up the next program and run it. That means you only touch the tube one time as opposed to many times before, so you reduce setup time, gaining speed and eliminating labor. Customers tell us they've taken as much as 75 percent of the labor out of tube fabrication lines with automated laser tube cutting."

The fruits of innovation
One of those customers is Polaris Industries of Minneapolis. Polaris is a $1.6 billion manufacturer of ATVs, snowmobiles and other recreational vehicles. For years it processed its tubing with conventional fabricating equipment, involving from three to five machines and associated labor. Then, in 2000, it launched a $2 million investment in automated laser tube cutting, acquiring three BLM laser tube cutting systems. Polaris was an innovator in this respect, as the systems, which had been used in Europe, were new to North America.

The new machines gave Polaris the ability to rapidly switch from long to short production runs as needed and helped reduce time to market. The most dramatic benefit though, was in labor reduction. Studies by Polaris' manufacturing engineering department measured the labor input on 14 specific parts, which among them accounted for 650,000 parts per year. The studies revealed that the new systems reduced labor by 74 percent on these parts when compared with the conventional machines used previously.

Importantly, payback for the new laser systems was pegged at about 12 months. Because Polaris is such a large volume producer, the new systems' production efficiencies mounted up quickly, and smaller operations couldn't necessarily expect this sort of rapid ROI. Still, given the fact that high cost is seen as one of the major drawbacks of laser tube processing, the figure is significant.

Arendas insists that for customers like Polaris, the capabilities of automated laser processing have brought a new flexibility to their design function. "The precision of the new systems, allowing people to cut self-locating features into individual tubular components of a multi-part assembly, can simplify fixturing, assembly time and cost and can give designers new options. There's an old saying that 70 percent of product cost is determined during the design stage. So the manufacturing guy on the plant floor is trying to squeeze cost out of the remaining 30 percent. To take best advantage of automated laser tube cutting you've got to design for the process--taking advantage of things like reduced fixturing needs and better robotic welding opportunities because of better fit-up."

BLM, of course, isn't the only company offering automated laser tube-processing systems. As Peter Beck points out, Mazak Optronics, Schaumburg, Ill., is heavily invested in this area.

Time is money
"Our FabriGear series of cutting lasers is specifically designed for efficient, single-setup processing of both long and short tubes, pipe and structural components," says Beck, who is 3-D product manager for Mazak Optonics. He notes that it is essentially a production cell that contains automatic load and unload and is capable of unattended operation.

"We've been involved in 3-D laser cutting for a number of years, and back in the early 2000s we saw the need to add dedicated 3-D laser cutting of tubing to our product offerings. First we launched our larger machine, the 300 model, which handles tubing up to 300 mm, then we saw a similar demand in terms of smaller tubing so we launched our 150 model for diameters of 150 mm and under."

Officially designated as the model FG-300-V, the larger FabriGear can process tube up to 266 mm in diameter and pipe up to 152 mm sq., with a 480-kg.-maximum part load. The smaller FabriGear FG-150-V model handles tube in diameters up to 152 mm and pipe up to 152 mm sq. with a maximum part load of 330 kg. Both are available with either a 2,500W or 4,000W continuous-duty CO2 laser.

"There are several advantages to our FabriGear machines," claims Beck, "but most of them relate to throughput, to being able to get the tube done in one operation. Keep in mind that there is a cash value to total processing time; reduce that processing time and you reduce your expenditures. At the end of the day we reduce that processing time by producing a complete part in one operation, which means less part handling, fewer machines required, fewer operations and less maintenance. Another benefit is that this allows companies to move into just-in-time processing. With the older-style conventional machines, because there is more setup time required, people tend to do larger lot sizes. With our FabriGear system, setup only takes 1 or 2 min., so there is less needfor inventory."

As enthusiastic as Beck is about FabriGear's engineering, he is even more enthusiastic about its controls and software. "To me, the key that's made automated laser tube processing take off is in the software, the ability to program quickly. This is an aspect of these systems that may sometimes be overlooked but is extremely important."

The FabriGear systems are outfitted with a 64-bit CNC that controls the five-axis laser cutting system and four programmable rotary chucks and integrates with a dedicated, user-friendly CAD/CAM package that uses fill-in-the-blank screens to quickly generate NC code, performs dynamic nesting, contains a number of pre-programmed cutting cycles and allows users to save frequently used process parameters and setups.

"We worked on the CAD/CAM package for quite some time," Beck continues. "It can import data from a variety of sources, everything from 3-D modeling software to napkin drawings. It gives you the dimensions so all you need to do is put in cut conditions. It can be as little as 5 to 10 min. from importing the part data to creating a part program and simulating that program to ensure there will be no contact between the part and the laser head and then sending that new part program out to the shop floor."

The other key player in this space is the Tubematic from Trumpf Inc. Equipped with CO2 lasers in the 2kW to 3.2kW range, Tubematic can process round, flat, oval, square and rectangular tubes up to 6.5 m long and 150 mm in diameter. It can hold raw material up to a maximum weight of 120 kg, with a maximum finished part weight of 40 kg. The system can be expanded with a variety of loading units. For unloading, large tubes can be removed from the brush table during production. To do this, the unloading unit is equipped with four finished-part supports that are activated according to the work progress. Alternatively, the machine unloads parts of up to 300 mm in length into a container using a chute.

Trumpf boasts that the accuracy of the Tubematic laser facilitates downstream assembly and welding operations. With the right contouring, the company claims, fixtures for subsequent welding and elaborate alignments are unnecessary.

The China factor
Looking ahead, Arendas notes that American manufacturers have to be flexible and technologically innovative if they are going to survive against low-cost foreign competition, and for producers of tubular components, that means automated laser processing.

"Many manufacturers of tubular components are making things harder for themselves than they need to by using equipment that requires high labor input, and they can't meet 21st century tolerances," says Arendas. "This becomes especially problematic when you consider that China now looms large in providing fabricated tubing. Take the handles on the lawnmowers you see at Wal-Mart for instance. This is a very high-volume part. For parts like this, people will go to China. But take the frame on that riding mower; that's a much more highly engineered product, and those are still made here. So there's still a market here in North America for those higher-value, highly engineered products. There is also something of a backlash against Chinese manufacturers because of long lead times, quality issues and inability to make changes. You want to change the location of a hole on a part you've out-sourced to China? Sorry, the boat's already sailed. With the laser, you can efficiently produce these highly engineered products, make these last minute changes and be competitive, and I think that's the wave of the future." FFJ


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