Laser cutting with less labor and less hassle

Machine automation and software help IMS keep the laser running and customers coming back

THE FABRICATOR® JUNE 2007

June 12, 2007

By:

Can a four-man job shop keep up with the demands of its manufacturing customers? IMS, Shakopee, Minn., will make you think about that and give you reason to question other practices going on in your job shop.

laser-cutting-machine

In February 2007 a four-man precision metal fabricating shop—with the help of two temporary employees—laser-cut more than 500 jobs comprising 73,863 metal pieces and weighing more than 315,000 pounds.

That's good news for Chris Hollenback, president of Integrated Manufacturing Solutions (IMS), Shakopee, Minn., and his business partner, Nick Kopka, also the company's vice president. IMS spent more than $2 million 16 months ago on metal fabricating equipment and software to get the business up and running.

Hollenback also tools all the parts, creates NC code, and monitors the laser cutting process. With this dual role of front-office executive and shop floor manager, he understands that when the laser is running, IMS has already covered its fixed costs for the month and is on its way to making money. To maintain this dual role, Hollenback relies on two Mitsubishi laser cutting machines, a 3,500-W ML3015LVPlus with Auto-Flex EL4 LUL material handling system with dual raw material carts and dual unload carts and one 4,000-W ML3015LVPlus with Auto-Flex MS HP eight-shelf tower with four unload carts; iManufacturing software from Ncell Systems Inc. that automatically nests the parts, creates optimized NC code, and queues jobs to the lasers; and Global Shop Solutions, the enterprise resource planning (ERP) software that keeps track of jobs and coordinates production schedules to keep customers satisfied.

Hollenback believes IMS is fabricating the only way a company can if it wants to be around for the long term. High quality, quick turnaround, minimal labor, and smart operations—all contribute to a new approach to fabricating.

"The traditional [fabricating] model is that there is a master packet of the customer's drawings and all of the crap that goes in there," Hollenback explained."When the order comes through, the customer service person goes to the file cabinets, pulls out everything, and then does what I call shuffling the deck—going through all of the master packet to find the information that needs to be entered for the order. When that person is done, the dump and run occurs. The customer service person walks over to the person performing the next step, dumps it on his or her desk while usually making some off-handed comments, and giggles.

"This sequence of events usually takes place about four times before the job packet actually hits the production floor," he added."You then have batch and queue in the front office."

That, of course, leads to shop floor problems where operators pick and choose the jobs they want to do, saving more difficult jobs for later in the afternoon or perhaps for another shift. The master packet provides the operator with all the information needed to determine if he or she might want to do the job.

Hollenback said IMS's approach is different."Let's use Toro as an example. It puts an order out on the Internet. We download it as a tab-delimited file. We bring it into an Excel spreadsheet. Nick coordinates the Excel spreadsheet, inputs the data that we need, creates an engineering routing form and a bill of materials, and then enters the orders into the ERP system. Work order data from the ERP system automatically populates data fields in shop floor software where the laser nests and NC code are created.

"And our process routings are generic. It's engineer, laser-cut, shake and break, and then form if it's needed. So every routing is four steps or less.

"The routing is a basic guide to manufacturing the parts. All of the detail information—work instructions, prints, CAD files, and programs—are available online," Hollenback said.

Cincinnati bending machine

IMS is dedicated only to laser cutting and forming parts. A 90-ton, 8-foot press brake from Cincinnati Incorporated handles the bending chores.

The shop floor workers check the routing slip online and either pack the job away for delivery to the customer or move it to the press brake for secondary bending. In either case, when the job is done and ready to be shipped, the routing slip and print are included with the order. Because IMS generates paper files only on demand, staff doesn't need to spend time refilling information that normally might be traveling in a master packet with the job.

Software organizes the job. Automated material handling feeds the laser cutting machine for the job. The laser cuts the job. Then the next job is begun all over again. Manual intervention is needed only for sorting, bending, and packaging. Hollenback believes that's the way it has to be.

He admitted having Toro Company's component manufacturing facility division, located just down the street, as a major customer helps to support his fabricating theory. But he believes new customers will come because this approach to manufacturing makes sense. His past experience tells him so.

Developing a New View on Fabricating

Hollenback grew up in the metal fabricating business. His grandfather started a metal fabricating business in 1942. Upon his death in 1971, the business was taken over by Hollenback's mom and aunt. They ran the shop from that point until 1996, when they sold the family business to J & E/Earll. Ironically, one of J&E/Earll's locations is in the same industrial park as IMS.

"Working in the family business you get to experience a wide range of things that went on," he said."I was involved in financial decisions, banking relationships, insurance decisions, and things where you really wouldn't be afforded that experience if you were working for someone. It was a great place to build a base of knowledge."

With the sale of the family business, Hollenback embarked on a career path that would shape his current views on fabricating:

  • Needing a job, he went to work for a machine tool distributor covering the upper Midwest. That's where he heard a presentation by Paul Blizel, now the manufacturing automation representative for Ncell Systems Inc. Hollenback got his first taste of software's potential to help coordinate information and streamline fabricating processes."It made sense to me, so I put it in my memory bank," he said.
  • After 18 months working for the distributor, Hollenback jumped into the fabricating ranks working for a Minneapolis-area company. His six months there convinced him he didn't want to be part of an operation dominated by old mindsets.
  • He went back to selling machine tools again, but this time for a European manufacturer of turret punches and shears, which could be connected together with automated material handling. Hollenback recalled a visit to a European metal fabricating facility where one of the machine tool builder's clients accidentally crossed a light curtain, shutting down the automated fabricating cell and causing the lone operator some grief."The guy slams his paper down, walks over to the control, hits some buttons, and gives us a shake of the head. He goes back to his seat and goes back to reading his paper," Hollenback said. While the operator read his paper, the cell produced about 50 dissimilar parts and 2,000 pieces in one shift."Then you start to think about the old model and you think,"Wow, what a difference," he said.
  • Working for the European machine tool builder, Hollenback had to put together system studies that compared automated equipment with the labor-intensive fabricating practices taking place on the customer's shop floor. He asked the customer for a day's or a week's schedule of parts, and he would put together a hypothetical schedule for a proposed automated fabricating cell that indicated massive amounts of savings were possible because direct labor was eliminated."Of course, you had to pay for the equipment, and they would say,"Well, I can pay for three stand-alone machines for what I would end up paying for this automated equipment," Hollenback said."But if you buy three stand-alones, you are going to add nine direct laborers to run it around the clock."

In 2003 the machine tool builder let him go as the U.S. manufacturing economy worked to get back on its feet. Hollenback took his newly found free time and committed to preparing a business plan.

He knew what he wanted to do, but he had to convince prospective partners. He found two, Kopka and another acquaintance who departed just before IMS opened its doors for business.

Setting up Your Own Shop

From the very beginning, Hollenback wanted a fabricating operaton that had a solid information technology spine. He selected Global Shop Solutions for the ERP software, which takes in all of the job orders, creates bills of material, and coordinates job schedules, and iManufacturing from Ncell Systems, which uses information from the orders and CAD files to create nests and optimized laser cutting sequences.

"We wanted the process to be correct from the start and then be scalable as we grew. We needed to put good practices in place right out of the chute, to set up our culture, and to take advantage of the technology," Hollenback said.

Chris hollenback

Chris Hollenback, IMS's president, believes in a paperless office environment, so that's why all documents, such as quality information, inspection data sheets, and certifications of conformance, can be found online, accessible from front-office and shop floor computers.

The goal is to deliver the customers' parts how they want them and when they wanted them. The software helps to ensure that happens.

"The paperwork going from person to person and the shuffling of orders that take place, it all has to do with the philosophy of sequential processing," said Ncell's Blizel."The bigger you get, the longer your chain gets. The longer your chain gets, the more shuffling and the more drops occur and the more errors occur."

Less physical handling of paperwork and actual metal fabrications means less chance of quality problems.

The laser cutting equipment, of course, contributes to consistent quality. Hollenback said the Mitsubishi equipment appeared to be reliable and capable of delivering good cut quality on a regular basis.

"This equipment was chosen because you don't need an operator," Hollenback said. If an error code appears and the system stops production, the equipment will notify either Hollenback or Kopka via text message.

Hollenback wanted the process for setting up the laser cutting jobs to be simple and repeatable. The software guaranteed that, and the laser cutting machines were depended on to deliver the quality cuts.

As an example of IMS's commitment to keeping operations simple on the shop floor, Hollenback instituted a policy that prevents design changes from being made at the laser cutting machine. If something goes wrong on the shop floor, a new DXF file is created, and the job is retooled and renested. All design issues are resolved by the front office staff—Hollenback and Kopka.

The laser cutting equipment has proven flexible enough to handle a steady diet of jobs that call for thin-gauge sheet metal and plate as thick as 1 inch, with the majority of parts ranging from 12-gauge mild steel to 3⁄8-in. mild steel plate.

Hollenback said it helps to have some basic mechanical knowledge about the laser cutting machine. Practices such as centering the nozzle and cleaning the lens are quickly learned, however, and easily repeatable when the laser system calls for it.

Shop Shaped for the Future

IMS routing slips

The only time paper is generated on the IMS shop floor is when a routing slip is placed in a box of completed parts.

Hollenback is pleased with where IMS is. The company had a positive cash flow after its first 12 months of operation, and word-of-mouth from his customers indicates that the early summer was going to be busy as well.

Meanwhile IMS still is looking to improve. By the end of 2007, IMS employees will have real-time views into their internal operations, giving them access to the shop floor even if they aren't near it. Customers and vendors will have a similar view, checking IMS's job data that pertains to their companies and parts.

Hollenback said that sales per employee by IMS's third year should reach $330,000 compared to an industry average of $123,000. The net profit for IMS at that time should be 15 percent compared to 7.7 percent for the rest of the industry.

Time will tell if the company reaches that goal. Hollenback will tell you the company's streamlined approach to fabricating puts it in a good position to achieve it.

Reference Links:

Integrated Manufacturing Solutions, 4571 Valley Industrial Blvd. S., Suite 100, Shakopee, MN 55379, 952-233-5775.
Cincinnati Incorporated, P.O. Box 11111, Cincinnati, OH 45211, 513-367-7100, www.e-ci.com.
Global Shop Solutions, 975 Evergreen Circle, The Woodlands, TX 77380, 281-681-1959, www.globalshopsolutions.com.
Mitsubishi Laser/MC Machinery Systems Inc., 1500 Michael Drive, Wood Dale, IL 60191, 630-860-7824, www.mitsubishi-laser.com.
Ncell Systems Inc., 110 Cheshire Lane, Suite 365, Minnetonka, MN 55305, 962-746-5125, www.ncell.com.
Laser cutting image

IMS believes the laser cutting machines, shop floor software, and automated material handling give it the flexibility that many other nearby shops can't offer. As an example, IMS produced 507 dissimilar parts, made from material ranging in size from 18-gauge sheet to 1-inch plate, in February 2007.



FMA Communications Inc.

Dan Davis

Editor in Chief
FMA Communications Inc.
833 Featherstone Road
Rockford, IL 61107
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR® is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971. Print subscriptions are free to qualified persons in North America involved in metal forming and fabricating.

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