Life with a fiber laser

New cutting technology forces metal fabricator to adjust its shop floor practices

The FABRICATOR April 2014
April 7, 2014
By: Dan Davis

Accrotool Inc., New Kensington, Pa., had a 1,500-W laser cutting machine from 2001 that needed to be replaced. A fiber laser was deemed the perfect choice for the shop’s cutting chores. However, to be successful, the company’s management discovered that a new mindset was needed to accompany the new technology.

Figure 1
Accrotool’s new NX-F fiber laser cutting machine is producing higher-quality parts than the old 1,500-W machine it replaced. The new laser has a cutting tolerance of ±0.002 in., while the old equipment was ±0.012 in.

Before a metal fabricator can take the next big step, it needs to ensure that it has a firm foundation to walk on.

Accrotool Inc., New Kensington, Pa., was in such a position heading into 2012. The shop, founded in 1972, had built up a solid business of providing parts, such as brackets, bus bars, enclosures, panels, stampings, and subassemblies, to leading companies in the defense, industrial, instrumentation, medical, and transportation industries. It also had added key capabilities, like assembly services, paint and powder coating, and machining, over the years. (It actually acquired an 11,000-square-foot building near its 80,000-sq.-ft. headquarters to house its expanded machining activities in early 2013.)

The one key capability that it was lacking, however, was laser cutting. Its 1,500-W laser cutting machine could produce parts, but not with nearly enough precision. The company had to employ secondary grinding operations just to achieve an edge quality that would be acceptable to the customer. Also, the machine couldn’t produce parts anywhere nearly as fast as more modern laser cutting technology—when it was running. The machine seemed to be routinely out of commission because of mechanical failures, and the maintenance requirements to keep it running were growing larger by the day.

Matt Guzzo, a young mechanical engineer who started working at the company in the summer of 2011, was charged with seeking out new laser cutting technology. He had learned about laser usage in the manufacturing arena and gained some knowledge about running CNC equipment while attending the University of Dayton in Ohio, but he had never really had a chance to take an in-depth look at laser cutting machines. That changed when he attended FABTECH®in 2012.

He discovered that modern cutting equipment could indeed produce high-quality parts at a rapid rate. He learned what he had seen in school was actually true. The old laser cutting machine on the Accrotool shop floor was the exception, not the rule.

Guzzo said he went back to his company management to let them know that an upgrade was needed. Accrotool was going to make the jump from being behind the times in laser cutting to being a leader with leading-edge cutting technology.

Jumping Into Fiber Lasers

“I had knowledge of the CO2s,” Guzzo said. “Fiber technology, I didn’t know about until I went to FABTECH in 2012. After I went there and saw that, I knew that fiber would be a good tool for Accrotool because of the thin material it ran. Our niche here is between 0.030 and 0.125 in. thick. I knew if we were going to stay within that range, using the fiber laser would be the route we would want to take.”

More specifically, Guzzo and the Accrotool team saw the NX-F fiber laser cutting machine at the MC Machinery Systems/Mitsubishi booth. The fiber laser actually was cutting parts, and it definitely did not perform like a traditional CO2 laser.

CO2 laser cutting machines, the workhorse of the metal fabricating industry for the past two decades, rely on CO2 and other gases to create laser light in a resonator with highly polished mirrors to deliver the laser to the cutting head. Fiber lasers do not need laser gases; the laser beam is generated using solid-state laser diodes and a rare-earth element within a specialty fiber-optic cable. The laser beam is then delivered to the cutting head with more fiber-optic cable; mirrors aren’t required for beam delivery.

Since the fiber laser cutting machine technology made a grand debut in the industry back in 2010, fabricators have marveled at the speed at which the machines cut, particularly thin metal. Guzzo said he was no different.

Figure 2
An automated material storage and retrieval tower was a necessary accessory to the new fiber laser cutting machine. The speed at which the new technology can produce parts calls for automated material flow to keep the machine moving over the company’s three manufacturing shifts.

“As soon as I saw that fiber laser, I knew it was the machine we needed,” he said (see Figure 1).

The Accrotool staff had the MC Machinery team confirm just what the NX-F fiber could do by having the machine cut sample parts. Again the cutting speed caught everyone’s attention, but the cut quality was just as impressive.

But Accrotool knew that if it brought such a machine onto its shop floor that it would need something else to make it work: material handling storage and automation. The machine was simply too fast for manual loading and unloading to take place.

“If we did not have the tower [see Figure 2], we would not be able to keep up with the speed,” Guzzo said.

In fact, he told company management that if the material storage and retrieval system weren’t a part of the new fiber laser cutting system, machine operators would be loading up sheets about every 2.5 minutes. That clearly made sense to the key decision-makers, so the material handling system became part of the deal.

MC Machinery installed the system in early 2013. Accrotool sent its laser cutting machine operators to the distributor’s headquarters in Wood Dale, Ill., for training, and the equipment representatives visited the New Kensington facility three times for additional training. All seemed ready to go, but when a significant upgrade in metal fabricating technology is introduced to a shop floor, simply clearing a space for the new machine often is not enough.

Changing the Culture

“When you bring in a piece of technology like this, you need to change mindsets as well. If you don’t change the mindset and you are running the new technology with old ways, you are not going to maximize what you actually can do with the new machine,” Guzzo said.

In particular, he was referring to the laser machine operators’ tendency to treat the new technology as if it were the old 1,500-W laser. They literally sometimes tried to adjust some machine settings, just like they did on the older machine, to replicate a feature like an oversized hole.

That led to problems, because when these special adjustments were made, the desired cutting result often did not occur. Guzzo said that this type of unauthorized intervention actually was linked to the older manufacturing environment where the goal was to do what was necessary to get the desired cut features. As a result, many of the operators developed their own approach to achieving laser cutting success.

Now standard operating procedures have replaced individual approaches. Through training and more experience with the fiber laser, the operators realize that they only have to concern themselves with a few checks: focusing, centering, cutting conditions, and nozzles. Those areas should always be aligned with the cutting job loaded in the machine control, so if something is not right with those application parameters, it is likely the equipment’s fault; operator error is no longer to blame.

Figure 3
Bill Phillips Sr. (right) founded Accrotool in 1972 and still has an active role in company management. He and Matt Guzzo were involved in the decision-making to purchase the company’s new laser cutting technology and may have to revisit the need to add laser cutting capacity in the future if the company hits its sales goals over the next couple of years.

The operators are also having to come to grips with more jobs coming off one 5- by 10-foot sheet. With the new cutting technology also came new nesting capabilities.

In the past the operators had an easy time matching laser-cut parts with the accompanying traveler. Often the sheet contained only one or two jobs.

With the new nesting software, Accrotool is taking advantage of better sheet utilization. Guzzo said now three to five jobs are nested on one sheet, which takes a little more time to sort when the parts come off the fiber laser. That part sorting can get especially complicated if 20 or 30 small jobs wind up on one sheet.

“It just depends,” said Guzzo, echoing any shop manager with more than a handful of customers.

Accrotool also purchased a new 36-ton press brake at the same time it installed its new laser cutting machine. It replaced an older press brake that had broken safety features.

Guzzo said the shop has been able to keep up with the amount of laser-cut blanks being thrown at its five press brakes, but that may have more to do with the inconsistent use of the fiber laser. It could be running full-blown over three shifts for a week but then be down two or three days later for training or just to let the rest of the plant catch up.

“Planning is going to be a big key in this,” he said.

Fabricating New Opportunities

“What I keep letting people know here, especially in production and planning, is that if we have to shut down the machine for a day or two, it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Guzzo added. “The last thing that we want to do is keep putting out parts and have them stack up on the floor. If they can’t go anywhere, there is no point in running it. It’s cheaper for us to turn the machine off and have the guys doing other things, instead of putting out parts and having them sit.”

With that manufacturing mindset, Accrotool has avoided being overwhelmed with high-quality laser-cut parts simply sitting around waiting to be processed through downstream operations. In fact, the speed of the machine has actually provided a much more relaxed atmosphere for processing rush jobs.

Because the laser cutting operation is typically running ahead of schedule, a job can be introduced easily into the scheduled jobs for the day. Either a small blank can be placed directly on the bed from the front of the machine, or a full sheet can be placed in the tower—if it is not already in there—in just a few minutes.

So the fiber laser is helping Accrotool surpass customer expectations with quicker turnarounds on jobs, but that’s not where the customer relationship improvement ends. Guzzo said their laser-cut parts speak volumes about what the metal fabricator can do now, which has impressed current and prospective customers alike.

“They are really impressed with the new technology that we have purchased. They are pleased with the quality that we are trying to put out,” he said. “We actually have received a couple of new customers since we purchased it, and there are a few other prospective customers that we are looking to get in 2014.

“The laser was really good for Accrotool the way things are currently, but it is really going to help us out when we try to grow,” Guzzo added.

The company has big plans for growth this year and in 2015. If it hits projections, Guzzo said another fiber laser cutting machine is a possibility (see Figure 3).

In the meantime, the Accrotool shop floor will continue to focus on processes surrounding its state-of-the-art fabricating technology.

“The only way to maximize the machine is to maximize the mentalities in the ways you are doing things around the machine as well. Not only does the new laser improve, but the other areas of the shop need to improve,” Guzzo said. “We need to continue to make changes.”

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
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.

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