Applying lasers to appliances

Food service equipment makers share their experiences with automated cutting

THE FABRICATOR® JULY 2005

July 12, 2005

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Three food service equipment makers spoke with The FABRICATOR about their investments in more automated fabrication equipment, especially lasers, and how these investments have paid off for them, even as the economy takes its time to recover.

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Wisco Industries, Oregon, Wis., uses its 3,500-W CO2 laser to cut up to 1-in.-thick mild steel and up to 12-in.-thick stainless steel as part of its manufacturing operations.

During a slow economic recovery, many manufacturers ask themselves if it's worth it to invest in new technology.

A handful of representatives in the food services equipment industry say it is—both in their words and with their pocketbooks.

Wisco Industries Inc., based in Oregon, Wis., is a prime example. The metal stamping and fabrication company, which devotes 150,000 square feet of space to manufacturing fast-food-service equipment and contract jobs, has invested in laser cutting technology to boost its productivity.

The company employs two automatic self-loading and -unloading Amada CNC punching machines and two manual-loading Amada CNC punching machines. While the self-loading and -unloading machines are definitely a sign of increased automation in the facility, so is its Mitsubishi 3,500-watt CO2 laser cutting machine, equipped with nitrogen cooling and capable of cutting 1/2-inch-thick stainless steel and 1-in.-thick mild steel. Software programming nests parts in a single sheet, and the laser can run unattended 24/7, fed automatically from a storage and retrieval tower that can hold up to 10 different types of material.

Don Forkner, vice president of sales and marketing at Wisco, said the investments the company has made in technology, particularly in laser cutting, have helped increase productivity. As new machines came in, he said, two older pieces of equipment left the building.

"The laser head used to stay fixed and you moved the table under it. Now they figured out how to have only one tool, and that's the cutting tool, and you can do anything," Forkner said. "By doing more work in the same square footage, that's more productive. Productivity is the name of the game. We have to be more productive and able to compete."

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The company has been using lasers for 10 years and the self-loading and -unloading systems for five years.

Older Machines Still Have a Home

Although Forkner is proud of the productivity enhancements new technologies have brought to Wisco, he also has no problem showing off older machines and more traditional fabrication processes that he feels still serve customers well.

First and foremost, Wisco Industries is a metal stamper. The company's presses have a range of medium- to long-run-range stamping capabilities and progressive and standard tooling in both straight-side and open-back inclinable models up to 300 tons in capacity. In addition, the company has 110-ton, six-axis press brakes with movable backstops and Haeger stud and nut insertion presses. Spot welding, continuous-wire and gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), deburring, and tapping are additional capabilities the company offers.

Often the company manufactures parts completely, including packaging. Serving such customers as Mercury Marine, Greenlee Textron, Wolf Appliance, Sunbeam, and Sub-Zero Freezer, the company produces assemblies and plated components such as hinges, motor mounts, and brackets. The company also manufactures its own line of food service equipment, including pizza ovens, warmers, and display units; food warmers; food merchandise display units; grills; and accessories.

Whatever the product, the company needs a mix of equipment to meet a variety of contract manufacturing needs.

On one hand, Forkner said, lasers are becoming increasingly popular. They help the company keep up with its customers' changes in equipment design. More and more equipmentmakers change their product designs every year, he said, and the laser can quickly adapt to a new cutting program.

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"Lasers can cut anything based on the shape of the part. The only thing you can't do with a laser is bend," he said. "Now, with the speed of the fabrication equipment, you can look at higher quantities, like 10,000. You never would have thought of fabricating that many parts 10 years ago. It has made it more economical to do larger quantities than ever before, and small quantities that would have cost an arm and a leg can be prototyped in a day."

On the other hand, laser technology certainly hasn't kicked all of the company's older equipment out the door. It still stamps parts it's made for 15 years for some of its customers—parts with designs that haven't changed over the years. For example, the company still makes 2 million motor brackets a year for a Sunbeam blender. A three-piece assembly that takes 16 different stamping progressions and incorporates embossed studs for rivets, it's been made the same way for more than a decade.

Getting With the Laser Program

Wisco isn't the only food service equipment manufacturer that has invested in or started using laser technology.

Henny Penny Corp., Eaton, Ohio, bought its first Mitsubishi CO2 laser in 1997 and its second in 1998.

The manufacturer of such food service tools as pressure fryers, open fryers, heated merchandisers, bun warmers, and breading systems uses lasers mostly for stainless steel.

"The major deciding factor was that we were outsourcing our laser cutting," said Henny Penny Manufacturing Systems Manager Jeff Stevens. "With tooling costs, to punch stainless steel is difficult with punch presses. The lasers lowered the cost of tooling; they don't care what type of material they cut, they just cut at a slower rate or faster rate."

Stevens added that lasers helped speed up the manufacturing of all the company's products, although it still uses punch presses and shears on what Stevens described as the more "difficult-to-laser" products.

The company still needs punching equipment for products that need secondary operations after the parts are laser-cut. Stainless Foodservice Equipment (SFE) Manufacturing Inc., Caribou, Maine, also is seeing the potential in laser cutting. The company specializes in custom stainless steel worktables and other supermarket-related products, including fish candling stations, produce scale hangers, dollies, stainless steel worktables, enclosed cabinets, corner guards, and product display tables; galvanized dunnage racks; and stock carts.

The company uses hundreds of thousands of pounds of stainless steel sheet and barstock a year and currently outsources its laser cutting.

Although co-owner Bill Busse said that steel prices may have put his customers—mainly supermarkets—back on their heels a bit, they have not affected them drastically. New stores and supermarket remodeling are still keeping SFE busy.

So in the last year, the company has gotten into laser cutting, currently through outsourcing.

"Our customer had some specific needs, and plasma wasn't as nice as the laser," Busse said. "It's mostly for smaller parts, so it makes it a lot easier on us."

Busse forecasts that the day may be coming when the company invests in laser cutting equipment like Wisco and Henny Penny have.

"It's worth looking into," Busse said. "If the business is there, we would certainly try to do it the most economical way for us and with the quality for the customer."

Henny Penny Corp., 1219 U.S. 35 West, P.O. Box 60, Eaton, OH 45320, 937-456-8400, fax 937-456-8402, www.henny penny.com

SFE Manufacturing Inc., 33 Aldrich Drive, Caribou, ME 04736, 207-496-2950, fax 207-498-6122, www.stainlessfoodservice.com

Wisco Industries Inc., P.O. Box 10, Oregon, WI 53575, 608-835-3106, fax 608-835-7399, www.wiscoind.com



Stephanie Vaughan

Contributing Writer

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