December 2, 2010
Fiber laser and bending automation developments seen at EuroBLECH 2010, Oct. 26-30, Hanover, Germany, may one day be found in North American shops.
Dr. Norbert Wellmann, managing director, European Research Association for Sheet Metal Working, was present for the unveiling of a new software tool for production of unconventional roll formed parts on a late October day at EuroBLECH, the world’s largest tradeshow for sheet metal technology. He wasn’t there to snack on fine European chocolate or enjoy an afternoon coffee. He was talking to the industrial press about the need to commercialize these “robust processes” so that manufacturing companies can become more competitive.
“You need to get everyone behind new products and processes in today’s marketplace,” he said. “With tighter life cycles, you need these efficient manufacturing processes to meet customer demands.”
That’s a statement that not only European metal fabricators can recognize as truth, but also their North American counterparts. Everyone needs an edge on the competitor, whether he is down the cobblestone road or in a new facility near the East China Sea.
Sure, some differences exist between European and North American fabricators. European companies, faced with high labor rates and aggressive safety regulations, have been much more open to automation. These same companies are used to exporting their products because of the close proximity of other countries to their shops. European shops also have to contend with the higher costs of manufacturing in highly regulated locales.
However, as the years have passed, North American metal fabricators can sympathize with their European brethren. They, too, have seen manufacturing costs increase with the need to attract and retain the right manufacturing talent, the increase in new regulatory requirements, and the always constant jump in energy rates.
Look more closely and you’ll see similarities in the markets. As Wellmann said, the tighter life cycles mean that OEMs are rolling out new products on a more frequent basis and, as a result, need the supply chain to react more quickly to squeeze days out of new-product launches. What metal fabricator today is not familiar with the call for quicker lead-times?
Wellmann actually was attending a press conference for data M Sheet Metal Solutions GmbH, which was presenting advancements in its roll forming simulation software. Stefan Freitag, data M’s managing director, talked about the possible inclusion of flexible roll forming parts—meaning one cross section of a part can be a different width than the rest—in future product designs. In some instances, because of this variation that can be introduced into a roll formed section, a weight savings of up to 20 percent can be achieved, which can be proved out in a simulated environment with a CAD system.
That’s but one example of the sort of technological developments that can help hasten the product development cycle. More than 61,000 visitors to the Hanover, Germany, exhibition grounds had the chance to see more offerings in the booths of 1,455 exhibitors from 43 countries.
North American fabricators are well aware of fiber lasers, especially if they attended the most recent FABTECH in Atlanta, Nov. 2-4. (For a recap of the show at the Georgia World Congress Center, see “FABTECH ushers in growth,” p. 65.) Those visitors to EuroBLECH got a chance to see what happens in a few short years after the technology’s introduction. Estimates show that about 20 companies showed fiber laser cutting equipment.
For those not familiar with the technology, a fiber laser is a solid-state laser that relies on semiconductor diodes and active fiber to create the laser beam. Unlike the laser cutting machines that dominate the metal fabricating market today, the fiber laser doesn’t require a lasing gas, external mirrors, and turbines to generate the laser. Fabricators should be aware that fiber-optic cable can be used to transmit laser beams from other types of solid-state laser resonators, but usually the use of active fiber to help generate the laser beam is what makes a fiber laser.
Industrial Laser Solutions for Manufacturing, a publication that covers the laser market, estimated that the total number of fiber laser cutting machines installed in the world through 2009 is slightly more than 170 units. While that number is expected to grow aggressively in the coming years, it does pale in comparison to the 3,500-4,000 units sold annually worldwide.
The technology, however, continues to evolve and has drawn the interest of metal fabricators. Mike Guerin, CEO, Amada America Inc., said the prospect of spending as much as one-third of what might normally be spent on maintenance of a CO2 laser is a big reason for the newfound interest. Also,because the solid-state laser beam is much more focused, half the size of a CO2 beam, fiber lasers can cut reflective materials, such as copper and brass.
“You can cut things that you couldn’t normally cut before,” Guerin said. “It increases the potential product that you throw onto the machine.”
Amada introduced its FOL-F fiber laser with 4-kW laser power at the EuroBLECH show. The machine tool is able to reach that level of power because of the use of diode and fiber laser technology supplied by Amada’s partner, JDSU.
Guerin said the fiber technology lends itself to a compact cutting head. When the small head is combined with advanced control technology and proven motion systems, laser cutting of thin-gauge sheet is reaching speeds of 2,300 inches per minute.
CO2 lasers still make the most sense for cutting thicker materials, but even fiber lasers have made strides in this area in recent years. The Amada fiber laser can cut mild steel up to 0.625 in., according to Guerin.
“People have said that it may last 50,000 to 100,000 hours [before the resonator needs replacement], but people really don’t know,” Guerin said. The life of the resonator is definitely something fabricators are interested in.
Meanwhile, machine tool builders are jumping on the development bandwagon. Salvagnini, which introduced its L1Xe fiber laser at EuroBLECH 2008, debuted a 3-kW power sourcecapable of cutting up to 2,400 IPM on thin-gauge stainless steel with nitrogen.
Salvagnini also was operating a fiber laser on its SL4 punch/laser combination machine (see Figure 1). The equipment was operating in conjunction with an automated sheet loader on the EuroBLECH show floor.
“A lot of the job shops have had to answer the question of what laser will work best for them,” said Bill Bossard, president, Salvagnini America. “That’s why they want something so broad—for the many different jobs they process in a day.”
Some of the machines introduced at EuroBLECH won’t make their North American debut until late 2011. Some machines, however, such as Messer Cutting & Welding GmbH‘s gantry machine with two plasma torches and two laser cutting heads, already made their debut at FABTECH 2010.
It was hard to walk the floors of EuroBLECH without noticing some sort of bending automation being exhibited. A visitor was more likely to see a robot in front of a press brake than a human operator.
Here, too, speed and efficiency are of the utmost importance. TRUMPF introduced its TruBend Cell 7000 (see Figure 2), which is designed to deliver part flow rates that are twice as fast as conventional bending cells. An average cycle time of only four seconds per bend helps.
The bending cell at the show comprised a bending robot, a loading unit, a pallet system, and tracks. All of that fit into an enclosure that measured about 226 square feet.
Offline software programming not only determines bending sequences, gripping position, and tooling selection, but also the shortest traverse paths, reducing the time per bend. Also, the process of changing bending tools can be automated. Because the tooling, developed in conjunction with Wila, has ID chips that contain information such as the tool type and its proper position, it is able to communicate with the controller via data channels in the tool clamp and in the support tracks of the automated tool changer. That enables the bending robot always to select the right tool for the job and eliminates the downtime related to incorrect tooling selection.
That’s a very small sampling of the technology offerings at Euro-BLECH 2010. Although past shows may have exhibited more equipment that wouldn’t be available in North America for years, that wasn’t the case this year. The metal fabricators of the world increasingly face the same challenges and are interested in similar tools to get the job done.
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