Laser Technology

Finding flexibility

By Russ Olexa

February 2009 - Everyone knows a laser system can’t tap holes or form features like a louver--or can it?

It was the production of various part features like tapped holes and louvers for its clients that led Champ Industries, Winnipeg, Manitoba, to look for equipment that could do more than just one thing.

To provide its customers with just-in-time assemblies and components, Champ Industries had to be concerned with and dedicated to flexibility in its equipment. To do this, the company went from stand-alone punching machines and lasers to a combination system that can both punch and laser cut. "It was a way to speed up production while offering unique benefits," says Ryan McClelland, sales and purchasing manager.

Champ Industries is one of the largest metal fabricators in western Canada. It offers custom fabrication, full sheet metal job shop services and product assembly. It recently opened a second job shop and powder coating location in Jamestown, N.D., to accommodate a growing demand in the United States. The company is a supplier of custom sheet metal component fabrications, tube bending, welding and assembly services for parts, such as sheet metal fuel systems for large transit-style buses to small brackets and large tube and sheet metal assemblies.

The history of the company starts in 1967, when David Bridges joined Paul Moore Co., a manufacturer of hospitality equipment. Starting out as an assembler, Bridges eventually became shop foreman.

Two decades later, Champion Industries, a manufacturer of commercial dishwashers from North Carolina, acquired Paul Moore Co. to enter the Canadian marketplace. Bridges was appointed to the position of general manager. Because of a downturn in the hospitality industry, Bridges expanded the operation to include manufacturing glass washers used in restaurants and sheet metal contract work. Magikist, a Winnipeg distributor of car-wash equipment, became a customer and helped Champion Industries with steady, long-term work, allowing it to diversify into other areas.

In 1992, the owners of Champion Industries wanted to go a different direction with locations in the United States. They offered Bridges a chance to purchase the company, and he did, eventually changing its name to Champ Industries. At that time, it had five employees and 5,000 sq. ft. of space. Although Bridges has since died, he built the company to its current size of 81 employees and 58,000 sq. ft. The company now builds production assemblies and components for Magikist and for transit-style buses for New Flyer Industries Inc. and Motor Coach Industries International Inc., along with components for other companies.

Lise Baker, general manager and COO of Champ Industries, and stepdaughter of the late Bridges, says he introduced state-of-the-art technology to its fabrication work, which opened many doors. McClelland says that at one time, the company had its own product line, making stainless steel glass-washing in-line conveyor equipment that a restaurant or bar would use. "We built the same machine for various companies that just marketed them under their own name," he says. "Unfortunately, though, the product was too good. They never broke down or needed replacing.

"When Bridges bought the company, even before he had a laser, it was at a time when the transit bus manufacturers in Winnipeg had just started outsourcing work," he says. "They approached Bridges and the owners of other companies, offering them parts manufacturing opportunities, but they’d have to gear up with equipment to get the work."

Today, the company builds anything from a hinge for bus doors to the complete fuel system--for both bus companies. A large part of the business once revolved around stainless steel parts, so much so that the company was originally called Champ Stainless.

"We were almost exclusively using stainless steel when I started here," McClelland says. "Over the years, we changed. Now we use 60 to 70 percent nonferrous metal for production."

Champ Industries builds a good portion of the frame for its bus customers using various sheet metal and square-tube subassemblies. Tubes make up about 80 percent of these frame subassemblies. The company has jigs built to the bus manufacturers’ specifications to mount pre-bent square tubes, along with various sheet metal components. Then, the company welds these together into a modular subassembly. The bus companies then assemble these modular subassemblies into a finished unibody bus. These buses don’t use a tubular boxed subframe where a pre-made passenger body would be mounted over it, the way commercial and pickup trucks are built.

For the construction of bus fuel systems, Champ Industries has CAD/CAM computer operators who will work with companies to design a system. With all the various bus styles, there can be 25 to 30 fuel system versions, and they need these parts quickly. Because of specialized parts like these, they can’t be done by an overseas company.

Champ Industries forms steel sheet into a fuel tank shape, welds it together, adds inlets and outlets for fuel intake and venting, and paints and delivers the finished tank--all within a narrow time frame. McClelland mentions that high-volume parts, which every bus uses, have already gone or will be going overseas. But usually no two city transit buses are alike. Each has a high degree of customization, which means many parts can’t be produced overseas because they’re needed within a day or two, or at most in a week. Therefore, the company must have flexibility and equipment that can produce these parts quickly and accurately, like a laser/punch combination.

For its laser work, Champ Industries has three stand-alone CO2 lasers from Trumpf Inc., Farmington, Conn., a 3030, 4030 and 4050, and can cut up to a 1-in.-thick plate. It has two stand-alone 2020 Trumpf punch machines--one for each of its facilities. To gain part production flexibility, it purchased one Trumpf 6000L CO2 laser/punch combination for its Winnipeg facility.

Why a laser/punch combination?
"Years ago, when we looked at this equipment, people would say that if the laser goes down, then the punch is down and vice versa," McClelland says. "Also, the cost of the laser/punch combination was close to buying the equipment separately. When we looked at this system originally, we were a punching company. We sheared and punched using a turret punch. Then we purchased a Trumpf punch after we bought a Trumpf laser. But with the 6000L, when the punch part of it is down, you can still run the laser and vice versa. If there was ever a need for a repair, we would delay the repair until we had some downtime so that it wouldn’t interfere with the other operation."

"We also have lasers and punches as separate equipment," Baker adds. "If there was a problem, we could fall back to the other equipment."

For even greater speed and flexibility, Baker says the company bought the Trumpf laser/punch combination with a material handling system that allows it to run around the clock if necessary. "Ultimately, the time that it saves for fabrications lets us become a lot more competitive in a highly competitive market," Baker adds. "So we can pass on the time savings to our customers in the form of less expensive parts."

McClelland remarks as to the cost savings from the laser/punch combination, "We’re quoting a job that used a standard punch. Now, we’re giving our customer a 12 percent reduction in the [part] cost by using the combination machine without changing our profit margin. It keeps customers from going overseas with this work."

Combination benefits
Before buying the combination machine, Baker and McClelland took a technical tour with Trumpf in Germany, where many of these types of machines are used, and watched the equipment in action. "The lights went on in my head that we were doing our parts backward," McClelland says. "We were using both laser and punching technology, but we were using them backward. Every European job shop we went to had multiple combination machines. I was watching the processes they eliminated by having this equipment, and they just made perfect sense to me."

He adds that nothing beats a punch with its speed for holes. By punching the smaller holes on the combination machine, Champ Industries can gain a 30 percent to 40 percent increase over using just a laser to cut them. Plus, it’s getting the same edge quality as a laser by using the punch. He also notes that the company can combine tapping, countersinking and forming in one machine, which a laser can’t.

"By countersinking and tapping on one machine, extra handling costs are eliminated," adds McClelland. "It might cost more to make the part on this machine, but it eliminates other handling expenses and downstream operations. Also, we eliminate any human inaccuracies that might happen when we’re trying to produce a proper countersunk or tapped hole. These features are only as consistent as the programming of the machine.

"There were so many parts that were perfect right off of this equipment," he says. "On our 6000L, the part moves around the machine’s stationary laser head. There’s a hole underneath it, so there’s no slag buildup beneath the part, and therefore, there’s no deburring process. We can also start a hole by pre-punching the sheet where the laser will pierce it and take out that piercing dwell time. You automatically get more speed with the laser this way."

McClelland says that to save punching time, the company uses standardized equipment tools for quicker part turnaround. They can have several hundred features that the punch can process because some tools have multiple punches in them, like a five-station punch.

On the 6000L, Champ Industries will cut and punch mild and stainless steel, as well as aluminum. The thinnest material the company works with is 20 gauge, and thicknesses don’t exceed 11 gauge.

When Champ Industries was in its infancy and all the other local sheet metal job shops were buying the most affordable laser, Bridges wanted the best, says Baker. "Bridges was atypical [in terms of] laser buyers," she mentions. "We never quoted anything else or looked at any other competitors other than Trumpf. We bought the Trumpf 3030 and never looked back. We like to have relationships with our suppliers, and we have a good one with Trumpf. This equipment also helps sell the business. When our customers come in to see our operation, they see this equipment and are impressed. They know the equipment, and they know that our machines won’t be down."

To keep track of all the various parts produced daily, many on a just-in-time basis, Baker says JobBoss computer software is used to keep track of everything, as well as a bar code system to follow the flow of materials and finished parts.

As for seeking to be the best with both equipment and personnel, Baker says, "We don’t compete with [other] companies. We compete with ourselves by continually striving to do what we do better and faster." FFJ

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  • Champ Industries
    Winnipeg, Manitoba
    phone: 204/233-0500
    fax: 204/233-3133

  • Trumpf Inc.
    Farmington, Conn.
    phone: 860/255-6000
    fax: 860/255-6424


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