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Laser Technology

A lights-out journey

By Russ Olexa

January 2011 - Applied Terminal Systems, Auburn, N.Y., was a perfect candidate for an advanced laser system. Not only did the system boost production, it helped the company further its lean-manufacturing campaign, solved a part-manufacturing problem and allowed design flexibility for new products.

ATS is part of McQuay International, Minneapolis, a member of Daikin Industries Ltd., Osaka, Japan, a global heating, ventilation, HVAC and refrigeration company. The company produces products and systems for light commercial applications, water source heat pumps and fan coils. ATS has roughly 560,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space.

"We fabricate about 15 million lbs. of material per year," says Bob Stojkozski, senior manufacturing engineer. "Six years ago we had 13 manual shears, and now we have one with the majority of these processes going over to laser cutting and punch/shear applications. Our products are made from sheet metal with about 60 percent of them using galvanized steel, 30 percent cold-rolled steel and 10 percent using a mix of pre-painted steel or aluminum. These [parts] range from a 20-gauge thickness to 10 gauge."

Lean manufacturing
ATS produces thousands of parts. Each has to reach the assembly line at the right time and place to produce a product that could have multiple variations. Previously, ATS was running product batches but not necessarily in the order required by customers, says Stojkozski. It was a more efficient way for the company to run large orders through its fabricating equipment. But this also meant it had unsold stock waiting for customers and funds tied up in inventory.

"Many of the products ATS produces are made from galvanized steel, and it’s often tough on punch tools," says Stefan Colle, laser product sales manager for LVD Strippit, Akron, N.Y. "They were going through a significant amount of money buying new tooling monthly. They also wanted to look at different production technologies because of the finishes on their parts that sometimes required secondary operations such as grinding. ATS also wanted to improve material usage by applying techniques such as common line cutting."

ATS embraced lean-manufacturing principles and runs demand flow technology, a business strategy shaped by customer demand, says Stojkozski. The company now only supplies parts to the line as needed to meet orders. Its lean-manufacturing effort began through its manufacturing group roughly five years ago. Once instituted, ATS began reaping the benefits quickly.

Using a laser system
To produce parts just-in-time for the demand flow technology strategy, ATS had to eliminate part setups, says Stojkozski. One way to accomplish this was to change the way the company processed many parts. ATS realized an important part of being able to produce products more efficiently was to use a laser system.

"We spent about a year looking for lasers and understanding as much as we could about them because this was a brand-new technology for us," says Stojkozski. "The majority of our equipment includes turret punch presses or punch/sheer machines. So we looked at a lot of different laser manufacturers, and we evaluated them for cost and simplicity. One of the reasons we ended up with LVD Strippit was the cost of their equipment.

"Originally, we were looking for a higher-end laser, but as it turned out, we were able to purchase two LVD Strippit Orion 3015 Plus 4-kW [CO2] lasers for the price of one laser that other companies offered. The other attractive thing was a compact, 10-shelf material-handling tower supplied with one of the lasers," he says.

When ATS was looking at how it delivers sheet metal and the cost of doing it for a laser, a material-handling tower was the most efficient method. However, the company didn’t have a lot of floor space. LVD Strippit’s tower is designed to mount vertically above the laser, creating a combined footprint of 20 ft. by 30 ft.

"This fit right in with our needs. We took a little gamble on them with the tower because it was their new design, but it definitely has worked out for us," says Stojkozski.

ATS now has two LVD Strippit lasers side-by-side and one operator tending both machines. The Orion with the material-handling system continuously runs throughout the weekend, and the other is a standalone.

"We refer to operator efficiencies here, and with this equipment, we’re getting operator efficiencies of 200 percent, as we’re able to run two machines with one operator, and then the extra time we get on the weekends without an operator," says Stojkozski.

LVD Strippit’s compact tower is offered in three configurations: four-pallet, six-pallet and 10-pallet units. It can handle sheet material as large as 120 in. by 60 in. (3,050 mm by 1,525 mm) with thicknesses up to 0.625 in. (20 mm), says Colle. It offers a maximum load/unload pallet storage capacity of 6,613 lbs. (3000 kg).

Lights out
To run lights-out production, the company had to overcome certain obstacles, says Stojkozski. One was implementing a material-handling tower that could select material and place it back in the tower if the sheet wasn’t totally processed. The other was having the right material in the tower. The company also needed a way to switch the assist gases for cutting.

LVD Strippit’s laser technology solved these obstacles by allowing ATS to program the machine for a particular material and set the lens’ focal point. The operator would make sure the material in the tower matched the program and would work with the nozzles and lenses setup prior to the laser running lights out.

"Prior to our laser equipment, we only had one way of manufacturing certain parts, and we wondered if it was the best way of producing them. Now we have the versatility to produce a part using either a punch/shear or a laser," says Stojkozski.

"Productivity was a big factor for us along with looking at laser-friendly parts. We had some parts here that were giving us a very tough time with our punching equipment. [With] some of them we might experience a 20 percent downtime, because they’re just not the type of part that can be processed with the machines that we had [prior to the laser]. So the laser has given us opportunities to increase our productivity on our other machines by using them for the most efficient part production. Then we’ve brought in some additional capacity into our shop using the lasers," he says.

Stojkozski was able to take some products that were not punch/shear friendly, because of the processes needed to manufacture them, and move them to the LVD Strippit lasers that make them more efficient to manufacture. "By using the lasers, our sheet metal department capacity went up by 18 percent. We also found the laser doesn’t really care how bowed or wavy the material is. It will sense this and just keep cutting," he says.

Another challenge ATS faced was the quick turnaround of prototypes. ATS does a lot of product development involving new parts that need perfect fit, form and function, says Stojkozski. The lasers allowed the designers to create "more than just a box. They can now get more creative with their designs," he says.

The laser also has allowed the company to redesign parts, such as making two parts into one. This couldn’t be done before because the equipment wasn’t flexible enough. "We had problems processing stainless steel, as the turret punch press tooling had to be changed out more often because it wore out faster. With the lasers, we can easily run stainless because it cuts very nicely," says Stojkozski.

When buying a laser, "sometimes customers think that the best laser machine is the fastest, but this isn’t necessarily true," says Colle. "Today, customers aren’t automatically looking at speed but rather the laser’s throughput. Our Orion laser with automation allows a customer to pick from different stacks of material and store their finished parts. Once the maximum stacking capacity has been reached, the pallet is put back into the tower system, and it will take a new empty pallet out of the system to start stacking fresh material. So the system can work all night or all weekend long without any operator intervention."

Stojkozski can’t say enough about LVD Strippit’s service. "We knew the lasers would be new for us, and they walked us through every single step. With anything new you might have growing pains, but our growing pains with the laser were a whole lot less than what we expected. Even though the tower was one of the first ones for LVD, it’s worked out great for both of us." FFJ

Interested in purchasing reprints of this article? Click here

Sources

  • Applied Terminal Systems
    Auburn, N.Y.
    phone: 315/253-2771
    fax: 315/282-6417
    www.mcquay.com

  • LVD Strippit Inc.
    Akron, N.Y.
    phone: 716/542-4511
    fax: 716/542-5957
    www.lvdgroup.com

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