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Laser Technology

Four in one

By Russ Olexa

May 2009 - When is a laser more than the sum of its parts? When it can help a company gain new processes by offering that company products it has never worked with before.

Estes Design & Mfg., Indianapolis, has been in the laser welding business since 1976 with Larry Estes, founder of the business, and his brother, Ron Estes, vice president of operations. The company had its start when Larry worked for Hesston Corp. The Hesston product line was acquired by The Toro Co., Bloomington, Minn., and when the Hesston facility was shut down, Estes had the opportunity to buy the equipment and pick up some immediate business from Toro. In 1985, Estes Design moved into a 32,000-sq.-ft. facility and today occupies a 50,000-sq.-ft. building. The company also has a 15,000-sq.-ft. facility close by for assembly and inventory.

Originally, the company fabricated sheet metal and offered welding and complete product assembly for Toro’s turf-maintenance equipment.

"It was pretty basic fabrication and sheet metal work," says Ron Estes. "At the time, 100 pieces of anything was a pretty good production order. We weren’t doing high-volume work; we’ve since changed. We’ve moved to more automated punching and bending machines and Prima Systems [Chicopee, Mass.] laser equipment. Although we’re equipped for higher-volume work, we’re still a job shop. We do single- or 10,000-piece production."

Estes Design produces parts for the medical, office furniture, computer equipment, appliance and food service markets, along with parts for the HVAC industry that involves panels and components for residential and commercial heating and cooling.

However, the company repositioned itself over the years by looking for a market niche. Estes says the sheet metal operation has reached higher levels of automation and sophistication.

"There were a couple of things that moved us in that direction," he says. "There have been several instances over the years where we couldn’t grow the business because we couldn’t find the manpower we needed. This is one of the things that took us down the automation road. Automation allows us to multiply productivity. We can do more business with the core group of qualified people that we have.

"The other reason was that we were looking to step out of the mainstream of sheet metal work involving turret punch presses and press brakes and look at more sophisticated technologies that would allow us to go after a market that has less competition," he says. "The automated bending equipment has this distinguishing capability. The equipment allows us to do a lot more than we can do with a press brake. Also, its repeatability and speed is great, so there are productivity advantages, along with higher-quality parts. And the other advantage is that most of these machines have lights-out capability, or we might be able to run two machines with one operator. So there are plenty of ways to pick up additional capacity without overtime or additional people."

Along with the higher automation, the company also purchased a material handling system that brings in raw materials to two punching machines, a bending machine and a laser for fabricating parts. Then the flat parts are sent back into the material handling system for eventual delivery or further processing.

The material handling system has the capacity for a maximum of 196 shelf units, which can be used for processed parts or raw material. It also has a warehouse management software system that keeps track of all raw material and finished parts.

One of the ways the company stays busy is through a joint venture with another company that markets sheet metal garage-organizing cabinets.

"A company out of Oregon was looking for a centrally located sheet metal fabricator to produce high-end garage storage systems," says Estes. "The company they were looking for needed the ability to do high-quality sheet metal work in carbon and stainless steel. It turned out that we fit the bill on both accounts. We’ve had a good partnership with them for more than three years."

Another niche
Estes says that to expand the company’s offerings and customer base, moving into prototype and design work could perhaps serve new customers. To do this, Estes Design began looking at ways to expand the equipment and started researching five-axis lasers.

"We had two primary objectives for a new laser," he says. "First, we wanted a machine that was able to do laser welding. This was a market we wanted to explore because it would have potential with our existing customer base. Second, we were looking for a machine that was a platform for rapid prototyping operations. It turned out the Prima Domino Evoluzione CO2 4-kW laser system fit these conditions on both accounts. The bonus is that it’s also a five-axis machine that has tube-cutting capabilities and a few other bells and whistles that fit the company nicely. It certainly has the capabilities to do two-axis flat cutting, which is always in demand for our business. We ended up with Prima because it was one of the few companies that offered a laser that had all these capabilities under one cover.

"In fact, our first exposure to Prima was at a Fabtech show," he says. "We’ve had conversations with the company over the last four or five years, and most of these discussions had to do with laser welding applications. We received a lot of help from their technical support team looking at different parts and components that we thought had the potential to convert from traditional welding to laser welding. We also visited Prima’s showroom to see the laser welding in action."

Estes notes that there wasn’t much demand from customers for laser welding at the time, but it was an area that was perceived could make in-house offerings more complete for precision sheet metal fabrication services.

Estes Design didn’t have much of a presence in prototyping, but that was an area in which customers defined the need. Estes says MIG, TIG and resistance welding will be used for many of the parts and products the company manufactures and feels the laser could give faster and cleaner welds less expensively. The company even discovered a way to weld with the laser that leaves no discoloration on the metal, meaning any downstream processes to eliminate this are no longer necessary.

"Marketing of laser welding is a bit of a different animal," says Estes. "Its need isn’t always perceived on the customers’ end. Our first challenge is to educate the customer on the advantages of laser welding because they may not realize that it’s beneficial since it’s not widely used in the job shop environment."

As to doing prototype work, Estes says, "What we found in times like these are that model shops, prototyping shops and even design groups at our customers’ facilities are frequently reduced in size. Then, when the market starts to recover, there’s great demand for these services that the customers can no longer meet in-house. In addition, we see the need to help our customers be more successful by getting their new products to market faster. Our prototype operation is staffed with designers, experienced operators and dedicated equipment geared to handle fast turnarounds. Jobs that used to take weeks are now taking hours. So we felt the prototype operation was needed to round out our capabilities."

Another unique offering of the Prima Domino Evoluzione is the ability to weld using a filler wire to fill gaps or to increase a weld area’s strength. The wire-feed system will place extra weld material into an area rather than just relying on fusing the two metals together.

But Estes says, "Right now, using the filler wire is strictly an R&D process. We’re working with the Edison Welding Institute in Columbus, Ohio, to help us with R&D work."

The company dedicates one to two days per week of R&D for laser welding. In some instances, Estes Design works with customers on their applications; in others, the company is advancing its own knowledge base in this area, such as how to fixture the components and how to fine-tune the process to get the best-looking weld with no need for grinding or cleanup operations.

Prima’s Domino Evoluzione has both a three-axis and five-axis capability. Estes added a sixth rotating axis for cutting tube and pipe, a service few other job shops in the area offer. FFJ

Interested in purchasing reprints of this article?Click here

Sources

  • Estes Design and Mfg.
    Indianapolis
    phone: 317/899-2203
    fax: 317/898-2034
    www.estesdm.com
    e-mail: sales@estesdm.com

  • Prima Systems
    Chicopee, Mass.
    phone: 413/598-5200
    fax: 413/598-5201
    www.prima-na.com

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