Machine shop sees the (laser) light
MG Products Inc. learns laser cutting tube complements its CNC machining business
MG Products Inc., Elkhart, Ind., successfully made the transition from a machine shop to a full-scale tube fabricator thanks to the investment in a laser tube cutter.
Mark George, president of Elkhart, Ind.-based MG Products Inc., chuckled when asked whether his company is more of a machine shop or a tube fabricating shop.
The company started in the family garage, but five months later, in December 1994, moved into 2,500 square feet of rented space to accommodate two screw machines. Since those humble beginnings, the company has added three conventional, two-axis, CNC turning centers; four four-axis, CNC turning/milling centers; one Swiss-style, sliding-headstock machining center; two automatic band saws; one three-axis, CNC vertical mill; four four-axis vertical machining centers; and a variety of manual machining tools. MG Products now employs 25 over two shifts and occupies a 25,000-sq.-ft. shop with plans to add an additional 18,000 sq. ft.
The additional space will be used for material handling needs of the company's BLM-Adige LT712D laser tube cutting machine, purchased in 2004. The laser tube cutter eased the operators' pain and suffering as they no longer had to push a tube part through several machining steps to get an acceptable hole or other shape. The laser's CAD/CAM package helped to reduce setup times and increase productivity.
So machine shop or tube fabrication shop? Tough call? George ended up deciding that MG Products is a machine shop with laser tube cutting capability. It's a nice compromise—as well as a nice combination. He said he expected the company to grow by about 20 percent in 2007 and thought the same might be possible in 2008.
Laser cutting tube no doubt has contributed to that growth, and most growth linked to the laser has little or nothing to do with the company's machining business. Proper due diligence before the laser purchase and a talented crew are making MG Products' $1 million purchase of the laser tube cutting machine look like a very sound investment that will continue to pay off in the future.
Looking for a Laser
Like so many other companies have experienced, a customer pushed MG Products toward buying a laser tube cutting machine. The customer didn't specifically ask for that type of cutting technology, but working with the company finally forced MG Products to wonder if it could approach manufacturing differently.
MG Products was running 2- by 3-inch, 7-gauge tube in a variety of lengths for this recreational vehicle manufacturer. The part was a slide-out component used in the construction of the slide-out rooms on large RVs.
The customer purchased blanks directly from the mill, which was not too consistent with its material delivery. The RV manufacturer had to stock several different tube lengths to accommodate the multiple components that were made from this same-shaped tube. It also had to outsource some secondary cutting, which the mill didn't have the capacity for, to area shops. The jobs were running behind constantly, and MG Products often was caught in a waiting game.
"It was a constant battle," George said.
A laser tube cutting machine was just the trick. The equipment could cut stock length to size for particular parts, eliminating the need for a lot of inventory, and perform some of the secondary cutting processes that were being outsourced.
George got his banker and accountant on the line and scheduled a field trip to the International Manufacturing Technology Show in nearby Chicago. He wanted his financial advisers to see firsthand what his company needed to make a radical change in the way it was manufacturing.
George considered three manufacturers for the laser tube cutting machine. He eliminated one machine because he didn't think it matched up in terms of productivity with the other two, and he discounted the other because it didn't accommodate 24-ft. tube stock, a common U.S. length. He elected to go with the BLM-Adige LT712D.
Several weeks later, the financing was lined up, and the machine shop took on some fabrication duties in late 2004.
The impact was immediate. George said instead of machining 70 parts per shift, the company was producing 70 parts per hour on the new laser equipment. Instead of a multiweek lead-time, MG Products could deliver product the next day when a rush order came through.
"We got more and more business as a result," George said. "But the other thing, too, is even though the billing rate on the laser is higher, production increased and inventory decreased. So the cost of that part became one-third of what they were paying before."
The machine shop became a tube fabricator in the span of a few months. George felt confident that enough business existed to keep the laser busy, but the company still had to go through a learning curve.
"You know, you crawl out on a limb," he said.
Was maintenance going to be an issue? No. Like for any machining center, maintenance was done on a regular schedule. Stay on top of that and the 2,500-watt laser power source and other mechanicals and electronics would be just fine.
Would operators be able to work with the controls? Yes. The equipment came with a Siemens control package, similar to controls on the machining centers.
The equipment came with CAD software, so was design going to be a drag on productivity? No. Jeremy George, Mark's son and laser expert, didn't find it to be a problem and knocked out 340 new designs in the first 400 days of ownership.
What was the most important lesson learned and, arguably, still being learned?
"The same thing that impacts a flat-bed laser impacts us: material, material, material," George said.
The difference between the 2-D and 3-D world, however, is great. In flat-sheet cutting, a laser operator is concerned about thickness and flatness of the material. In the 3-D world, an operator has to be aware of size, straightness, twist, and corner radii.
The laser tube cutting machine can help with some aspects of quality control when it comes to the material. For example, when a length of tube is loaded for cutting, the machine will probe a section of the tube for any signs of twist, extrapolate that section over the entire tube length, and make adjustments during the cutting. However, if the tube has so much twist that when it is placed into the machine that it can't even sit correctly in the holders, the machine will crash even before the probing takes place.
"With sheet [metal] lasers, I hear this buzz word 'laser-quality sheet.' OK, it doesn't exist [in tube]. So far I haven't heard anybody use that term when it comes to tubing," George said.
"So the biggest battle, the biggest unknown at the time was we've got this highly capable machine, do you really have a source of material to make it shine?" he added.
In the meantime, George has visited with tube mills to inspect how they make the tube and shared with those suppliers his concerns. He's also invited tube mill representatives to his shop to see why tube quality is so important to the laser cutting process. He's even thinking about a trip to Europe to see if material quality is as big an issue over there.
Experts in Customer Service
George doesn't consider MG Products an expert in either lasers or tube, but he does see the shop as being an expert in helping people solve their problems.
"We tell our customers there's no request that's unreasonable," he said. "It may be impossible, but it's not unreasonable."
He recounted the story of a customer in the Detroit area. The potential customer needed some precise cuts on 100-mm square tubes. The customer would supply the material and needed strict quality control assurance during the fabricating process. It liked MG Products' price to do the job, but decided to award the job to a local machine shop because of concerns about transportation.
George said some of the features of the job were not conducive to machining, but he shrugged off the lost opportunity and turned his attention to something else. A week later he found a new opportunity with the same Detroit-area company.
The company wanted to know if they dropped some material off on Friday if they could pick up the cut parts on Monday. George said someone would meet their driver on Saturday and cut the parts while he waited, so he could drive back with the complete shipment.
"We really think of ourselves as being a part of somebody else's business," George said. "I mean, if they are a customer, we are about as transparent as we can be."
MG Products applies that philosophy as it serves customers in the agricultural, automotive, office furniture, RV, seating, and store fixture industries and seeks out new opportunities in architectural and marine projects.
"We like making people look good. If we do that, it's good for us," George said.
That way those customers then can go and spread the word about the machine shop with its laser tube cutting machine.
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.