Plasma Technology

Changing strategies

By Russ Olexa

February 2009 - A little versatility can go a long way on a shop floor. Alvin Thacker, president of Laser Fabrication & Machine Co. Inc., Wellington, Ala. needed to quickly cut thin-gauge sheet metal, as well as plate up to 4 in. thick, a range not easy to accommodate. With a mix of lasers and a waterjet already at work in his facility, it was a prime opportunity to add a plasma system--effectively diversifying his cutting capabilities to meet customer demands.

Thacker realized cutting thick plate on his lasers was a stumbling block because of how slow they were. He says most of his thick plate cutting usually doesn’t require precise tolerance cuts, but it does need a clean edge and speed to meet his customers’ demands. A plasma system solved this equation for Thacker, a veteran of metal cutting and fabrication environments.

"The day after high school, I got a job in a machine shop," he says. "From then, it was just work, work, work and no play. I always wanted to start my own shop. When lasers came around in the late 1980s, I was involved with another shop, and I pretty much ran it for them. In the early 1990s, I was working for yet another person at the time, but I ran the shop as if it were my own. We decided to start a laser job shop, and it was the first one in Alabama. After about five years, I decided to jump ship and do it myself. I bought a laser by cashing in my IRAs and anything else I could find, and Laser Fabrication has been going ever since. In fact, a year later, we purchased another laser. This came from cash turnaround work because a bank didn’t want to lend money against a laser system at the time. The second and third lasers came around as we increased our work and customers. Now we have four Mitsubishi lasers, with one being a five-axis and the others flat-bed lasers. We also have a Flow waterjet.

"Being a job shop, we have every cutting capability, along with stamping presses, CNC saws, CNC machining centers and even a powder coating line," he says. "With my precision machining background, I’m never afraid to tackle anything."

Laser Fabrication has a wide range of customers to which it supplies parts, including the military. It makes components for the Abrams tank and for armored personnel carriers, including shrouds that contain bulletproof glass on a vehicle, as well as fenders. Engine accessories and interior parts, like hand holds for Blue Bird buses, are also part of the mix. At one time, the company made parts for wheelchair lifts for buses. But eventually, the customer demanded that Laser Fabrication produce the entire lift. This wasn’t something Thacker wanted to do, but he had little choice if he wanted to keep the business. Now he produces a complete lift.

As to his powder coating facility, Thacker says, "We couldn’t afford to send out components because of the long lead times we were quoted. So we started our own powder coating line, and we also do a two-part epoxy painting method required by the military."

A new cutting method
Cutting plate steel up to 1.5 in. thick was always a challenge, says Thacker. It could be done on a laser but not easily or quickly. With more work coming in that required cutting steel plate from 1 in. to 1.5 in. thick, he needed a way to do it faster without tying up his lasers or waterjet.

“"aving a waterjet running around the clock seven days a week to give a quality edge on 1-in. plate always concerned us because if it went down, I didn’t have time to lose," Thacker says. "We had the lasers as a backup, but we really needed something for our thick plate cutting. I feel that lasers just aren’t efficient cutting plate day in and day out."

Thacker searched for a plasma system and finally settled on the Komatsu TFP3051 Fine Plasma Twister system with its 30-kW (150-amp) power supply and 5-ft-by-10-ft. bed. "We went with a Komatsu after seeing the accuracy and quality that this precision cutting equipment would give us," he says. "We looked at other brands, and they do a nice job, but as far as positioning accuracy, none had the features that the Komatsu has, like its Fanuc drives and controller.

"I don’t want to just burn out plate with a plasma system," he continues. "I’m not selling cut plate. I’m selling a quality cut part. We’ll cut holes out and sometimes leave extra stock available to machine a precision hole later that the plasma can’t do when we need something like a ±0.003-in. hole diameter tolerance. It’s the cutting precision and accuracy that sold me on the Komatsu system. Also, its power requirements were just right for 1-in. plate."

Comparing the plasma system with his waterjet, Thacker notes that the waterjet cuts thick plate slower, and the rate per hour of use is higher. Also, the expendables and electricity to run the 100-hp pump motor are more expensive.

"When it comes to cutting 1-in. or 3/4-in. steel plate, we don’t try it on our lasers anymore," says Thacker. "It goes on our Komatsu Twister plasma system. A laser will struggle to cut 1/2-in.-thick plate at 60 ipm, while our plasma system will cut 1/2-in. plate at 120 ipm. The Twister really does a nice job.

"People say expendables are high on plasma," he says. "That’s true, but you get so much more done during the time you use the plasma system. You don’t have to piddle around for a half a day to get the job cut right."

According to Thacker, lasers aren’t always the best option for heavy plate cutting. At Laser Fabrication, plate that’s more than 1/2 in. thick can present challenges for lasers, particularly if there’s mill scale on the steel.

"If you throw a rusty or oily sheet or one with mill scale on it on the plasma machine, it doesn’t bother it at all," he says. "Also, a badly cut edge could hang up a slug. Then you might have to take a hammer to it to remove it. It’s not pretty. It all boils down to us trying to produce a good quality cut for our customer."

Thacker says Laser Fabrication averages about $15 per hour in consumables for the plasma system, which includes shields, electricity and gas. But the cost per hour is low when cutting at 50 ipm to 60 ipm and getting parts out, compared with a laser, when a lot of time could be spent getting the parameters set properly.

"I’ve spent half a day tweaking a laser just to get the proper cut, and that’s hours you don’t recoup," he says. "Then the next steel plate could cut differently because of its thickness or the mill scale on its surface."

Laser Fabrication has 50 employees and 80,000 sq. ft. contained in several buildings at the same location. About 98 percent of its work is laser cutting. Assembly work varies as to the job, except for its wheelchair lifts, which it fully assembles. Thacker says about 30 percent of the parts are welded and assembled, and the other 70 percent are cut, then bent. The company has cut 0.01-in.-thick stainless steel washers on its lasers to 4-in.-thick stainless steel plate on the waterjet.

As for the other features of the Komatsu system, they include quick metal piercing, automatic gas control, quick arc change, Twister swirling assist gas, a push-pull exhaust system, spatter shield, a quick change torch, a consumables life manager and a torch anti-spatter jet. FFJ

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  • Komatsu America Industries LLC
    Wood Dale, Ill.
    phone: 630/860-3000
    fax: 630/860-5680

  • Laser Fabrication & Machine Co. Inc.
    Wellington, Ala.
    phone: 256/892-1600
    fax: 256/892-1616


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