Fiber laser lights the way for new business direction
The search for new customers forces a job shop to update its laser cutting technology
To bring in more high-volume work, Deltec Inc., Batavia, Ohio, needed to expand its laser cutting capacity. New fiber laser cutting technology proved to be the right fit.
A laser light coaxed a young man to forgo his college career and enter the metal fabricating field almost 20 years ago, and today a fiber laser is lighting the way for a new era for that slightly older man’s company.
In 1994 Jason Dugle was back home after the first semester of his second year at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He was enjoying the life of a college student and maintaining respectable grades, but he wasn’t completely content. Perhaps his father Chris, the second-generation owner of Deltec Inc., Batavia, Ohio, sensed that and asked him a simple question: “Want to come to work full-time?”
Jason had worked summers and holidays in the metal fabrication shop that his grandfather Tom had founded in 1973 to supply specialty metal parts to nearby manufacturers, but was he ready to jump into the family business full-time? His father sweetened the proposal.
Around this same time, Deltec became one of the first operators of a 2-D laser cutting machine in the Cincinnati region. The equipment had an NC that ran the machine movement, and it required some computer programming skills. Chris gave his son the opportunity to run this cutting-edge machine.
Jason was very much interested, and he became a full-time metal fabricator.
Today the former laser machine operator has his eye on a new laser cutting technology. A fiber laser, which gets its name from the fiber-optic cable used to help create the laser and to deliver the light to a cutting head, is a key piece of equipment that is being counted on to help Deltec keep up with new fabricating opportunities (see Figure 1).
The Move to Diversify
Deltec isn’t unlike many job shops. It started as a “hobby shop,” as Jason explains it, for his grandfather to work on special projects for a few select clients and ultimately develop some patented mechanical designs. As the years passed, contract manufacturing was added to the mix, and the company grew.
Today the company employs almost 50 people. Its sweet spot is working with sheet metal in the 16- to 11-gauge range, but it has worked with plate as thick as 0.75 inch. Deltec, which has annual revenues of $5 million to $8 million, has made a name for itself fabricating complex sheet metal components, especially stainless steel parts, for specialty equipment and machine tool manufacturers. The company’s fabricating expertise has allowed it to develop very deep relationships with some customers to the point where Deltec engineers’ input about design for manufacturability or cost-saving ideas are welcomed.
A lot of metal fabricating operations might look upon Deltec’s business position with envy. Many are stuck playing a pricing war with customers, who just want responses to requests for quotes and may the lowest bidder win. It’s only with the close relationship with customers that a job shop can show their true talents, proving themselves worthy of higher-margin work and becoming an integral—and harder to replace—link in the supply chain.
Unfortunately, the “custom” work was mostly always small volume and inconsistent. Although the shop may have had more than 100 customers and 10,000 active part numbers, its business experienced plenty of ups and downs in the business in the 2000s. Jason, who became the company’s president during the last economic downturn, wanted to bring in more routine and high-volume work to help level out the peaks and valleys of a business cycle that come with custom fabrication work. These would not be jobs of 25,000 parts, but rather a job order for 500 items or a contract with regular release orders of parts over a 12- or 18-month period.
“I still wouldn’t call ourselves anything close to a production shop, but we are now running more jobs that have larger quantities,” Dugle said.
The diversification strategy appears to be working. Sales grew from 2010 to 2013. Deltec has been successful in adjusting its culture along the way, even if there have been some bumps in the road. Learning how to integrate higher-volume work orders into the more specialized product work flow was one such issue, but having a plant manager, Jim Gordley, with 30 years of experience and more than 10 years of using the same enterprise resource planning software helped to make the scheduling work.
The fiber laser helped as well.
Cutting at the Speed of Laser Light
As Deltec made this transition to take on these new large-scale jobs, it had to come to grips with its lack of laser cutting capacity. It had been a while since it had invested in new cutting technology.
Actually, it was more than 10 years.
The company had a 4-kW CO2 laser installed in 2001 that could accommodate 5- by 10-foot sheets, and an even older 3-kW CO2 laser with a 4- by 8-ft. pallet table from 1996. The laser cutting machines are hybrid designs and not a flying-optic design, which now dominates laser cutting technology; the tables move along the X axis, and the laser cutting heads move along the shorter Y axis. They simply couldn’t match the speed and accuracy of modern laser cutting equipment.
Also, because of the machines’ ages, more maintenance intervention was required. For a shop that was depending on squeezing as much capacity as possible out of those machines, any unscheduled downtime was too much downtime.
“Anytime the machines were down, it had a very drastic effect on the shop because they fuel the rest of the operations,” Dugle said. “The raw material goes on those machines, and we continue to add value to the parts. That’s the start. That’s where everything begins.
“When those machines were down, bad things were sure to follow,” he added.
Dugle and his team began looking casually for new laser technology as early as 2011, but the search didn’t intensify until 2013 when they had the opportunity to take two fact-finding missions sponsored by a couple of laser equipment manufacturers. By that time they knew fiber laser technology was the way to go. The technology’s cutting speed on thin sheet metal gauges was easy to understand after watching it slice its way through a blank, and the cut parts were proof of the consistency that was the result. The potential of consistent uptime, however, may have been the biggest selling point.
“Basically, the uptime and the beam being something that would be less temperamental than the CO2 machines … were big selling points,” he said.
By late 2013 Deltec had made its decision. It was impressed with the LVD Electra FL3015 3-kW fiber laser and placed its order. Dugle said that the machine’s software interface was very similar to the third-party software being used to run the shop’s existing punch and laser cutting machines, which also helped to sell them on the LVD laser cutting technology.
The fabricator spent the rest of last year preparing space for the new laser cutting machine and accompanying automated material handling system and storage tower (LVD’s Compact Tower, or CT). By reorganizing some material inventory and revising a portion of the plant layout, Deltec was able to carve out space for the new equipment installation in its original 21,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. (It has another 20,000-sq.-ft. building only a few feet away.)
The LVD FL3015 and 4-shelf CT were installed in January 2014, and were up and running by March. Laser cutting capacity was no longer an issue.
Pedal to the Metal
“The fiber, especially LVD’s speeds and the way it processes thin material, is just incredible,” Dugle said.
For a better idea of just how fast it cuts, Stefan Colle, LVD’s laser product sales manager, provided some context: The fiber laser making multiple cuts is three times faster than the CO2 at certain thicknesses. More specifically, he said a 4-kW CO2 laser will cut 20-ga. mild steel at 440 inches per minute (IPM) while the 3-kW fiber laser will cut the same materials at 1,300 IPM. The fiber laser’s smaller beam size, 1 micron to be exact, has about twice as much energy at its point of focus when compared to the CO2, and as a result, it can vaporize metal in thin sheet metal at a faster tempo, Colle added.
“It’s an impressive piece of machinery,” Dugle said. “For our operations, in a lot of ways it is a game changer.”
Deltec made its lead punching machine operator the lead operator on the fiber laser cutting machine. The nesting software was similar to the nesting being done on the punching machine, and being a mechanically inclined person, he didn’t take long to learn how to tweak the machine to achieve the desired cut quality and keep the automated load/unload capability operating consistently to keep the machine fed with fresh sheet metal.
Culturally, the machine has quietly made a huge impact. It’s working when most everyone else is not (see Figure 2).
“We have been able to put several jobs on the machine with the compact tower and run it at night,” Dugle said. “That’s something other production jobs shops are used to; we weren’t.
“So we come in in the morning and there are 10 complete sheets that are cut and ready to move on down through the process,” he continued. “We’re not used to that, but this machine is perfect for it.”
It has placed more burden on the company’s forming department, but that’s something that can be addressed, Dugle said. For the first time in a long time, Deltec doesn’t have to worry about laser cutting capacity. The company is using its two older laser cutting machines to process plate, letting the fiber laser do what it does best—even if it may sit idle from time to time. That’s been a big change.
“We basically have excess capacity in the sheet metal department, which is fine by me,” Dugle said. “It’s something that we should keep anyway because of the nature of our business and how we run with the very quick lead-times.”
Colle added that Deltec probably won’t have to worry about any type of major maintenance on the new fiber laser anytime soon. He said that life expectancy of the fiber laser’s diodes, the laser-generating mechanism, can vary according to the specific manufacturer, but the Rofin laser diodes used in Deltec’s model last about 120,000 hours.
The laser light, seen through the green-tinted glass of the fiber laser’s totally enclosed cutting environment (see Figure 3), is not quite the same as the light Dugle first saw 20 years ago, but it has sparked some excitement once again. Deltec is entering a new age of laser cutting.
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.