Six-axis tube laser adds new dimension to job shop
Since its founding in 1988 as a stamping job shop, the Kooima Co.'s equipment and services have evolved to meet the changing demands of its customers—always with the goal of providing them with one-stop shopping for all their primary metal fabricating needs.
Nine years ago co-owners Phil Kooima and his father, John, got out of the stamping business and into lasers. They now have seven flatbed laser cutting machines from 1,000 to 6,000 watts, along with press brakes, robotic welders, and other support equipment in their 90,000-square-foot facility in Rock Valley, Iowa.
Although the conversion to lasers meant the company could satisfy its customers' 2-D cutting needs—everything from 22-gauge to 1-inch-thick stainless steel, plastics, composites, and wood—the company had to pass on tube, pipe, and structural jobs.
"Our target customers—agricultural and construction original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) —use a large amount of structural tubing in their processes. This is especially true for attachments to major pieces of equipment, such as the bucket on a skid loader or the wagons, disks, and tanks pulled behind farm tractors," Phil Kooima said. "We were servicing those customers with laser flat blanks and bent blanks, but we were not equipped to do the tubing work they needed."
Furthermore, Kooima could envision how he could do it better with automation and new processing capabilities. "When we spent time in these OEM production facilities and studied what they were doing, we saw that the way they process tube today is the same as the way they were doing it 20 years ago. It is still being done with saws, drills, nibblers, milling machines, and hand-held plasma torches. Some pieces of tube are being handled six or seven times in individual operations," Kooima explained. "We looked at that and said, 'there has to be a better way to do this.'"
So the Kooimas set out to find a better way to process tubing and make it part of the business. Going into their search, they had several requirements:
- Because they had made lasers the company's core competency, they would only consider a laser solution.
- They would favor an automated system that required minimal attendance.
- The solution had to fulfill current customers' needs, so they would not have to find new customers initially.
The Kooimas researched three leading brands of tube laser cutters, visiting with the manufacturers and seeing demonstrations. They reviewed the specs and capabilities of the three brands before making a decision. "There were no power choices at the time. The companies made it in one power, take it or leave it, so that was not a determining factor," he explained.
Kooima Co. installed a six-axis 3-D laser system to offer laser-quality structural component and tube fabrication to its 2-D customers. The system with automated load, feed, center, and unload functions handles materials up to 26-feet long.
In the end, the company selected a 2,000-W Mazak FabriGear 300, an automated laser cutting system with load/unload that can process pipe and structural up to 26 ft. long and 12-in. in diameter, with 38-in. wall (see Figure 1). A 64-bit, 25-axis numeric control (NC) simultaneously controls the six-axis laser cutting head, rotary chuck, and auto feed, so it can production-cut contours and bevels (see Figure 2) such as those required for fit-ups on saddle joints and intersecting pipes.
Although Kooima did not have any job commitments for the tube laser, he was confident about his decision. He knew automation would give his company a competitive advantage compared to the labor-intensive, manual methods of processing tube and pipe that his customers were using. "It's a better way to process tubing—more accurate, consistent quality, reduced lead times, greater throughput," he said. "All of this means higher profits for us and our customers."
The tube laser's 6-axis cutting head and simultaneously controlled chuck allow it to cut complex contours with weld-prep bevels in just one operation with one setup.
Kooima also expected his company's ability to offer one more method of fabricating metal would help him cross-sell other services. "If we have a good relationship with customer X and we do its laser cutting, then we try to sell the customer bending. And once we sell bending, we'll try to sell machining. Now we're going to try to sell tube laser cutting," he said.
The 75-ft. laser system was delivered in November 2001. It took approximately a month for the Mazak technical team to assemble it, and start-up and training took about another month. This meant the company was up and running the laser in early 2002.
"One of our first tubing customers was someone we had been calling on for several years to do 2-D laser cutting. We always got the brush-off," Kooima recalled. "But once we were doing their tubing, they turned around and said, 'If you're doing the tubing, which is the most difficult work, we'd just as well source all the 2-D with you, too."
Net Shapes Reduce Lead Time, Costs
The company also sells work on the tube laser on the basis of the labor and time saved when its customers' downstream operations can be eliminated or reduced. "We're selling reduced lead time. We deliver net shapes—tubing that has been cut to length, all the holes put in it, all the miter cuts, all the slots and all the tabs," Kooima said. "A 24-ft. length of tubing goes into our tube laser and comes out as finished parts. Because it's only been handled one time, we've reduced costs. And because it's ready to go to assembly or welding, our customers save time."
According to Kooima, if a part requires any secondary operations or multiple processes, it probably can be produced more cost efficiently on the tube laser. He isn't, however, always able to convince customers and potential customers that this is true if they do not break out costs for performing those manual operations.
"When we quote for shops that keep track of all costs associated with producing a part, the tube laser is very competitive. Shops that aren't very sophisticated in their costing methods and just keep track of the sawing and not the grinding are kidding themselves because they don't realize how much the grinding costs them."
"Plus, there are other hidden costs in multiple processes. Each operation, especially if it's a manual one, creates more possibility for processing inconsistency. Inconsistency in operations affects downstream operations. If you set up for one size part and the next one is a slightly different size, you need to take time to adjust for the difference."
"Our customers, who may be performing some of the downstream operations themselves, understand the advantages of consistency to their bottom lines. So laser-cut parts make them happy too."
Kooima has found that because automated laser processing of tube and pipe is so new, the best way to promote the tube laser is through on-site demonstrations. He invites his customers to send their engineers to the facility to watch the machine in action and then brainstorm with Kooima engineers about how they can take advantage of the machine's capabilities in producing their parts.
"Engineering a part for the tube laser is a partnership. We generally get more involved in the design process with this machine than we have ever before," Kooima said. "We suggest and show what features work well, and our customers incorporate them into the design of their parts."
Kooima said that customers usually can save more if they redesign parts to take advantage of the tube laser's capabilities. For example, a tab and slot design can eliminate the need for expensive fixtures, and a miter joint finished with a weld prep bevel can reduce welding time.
To illustrate, Kooima described a current job that consists of 12 rectangular tubing parts, a round central tube, and a hexagonal top. Before the job was awarded to Kooima, the assembly was produced as follows:
- Saw rectangular tubing to length, making 12 pieces.
- Saw miter cuts in 12 rectangular tubes.
- Hand-grind six rectangular tubes to be joined to the round center tube.
- Place all parts in a fixture to locate them in relationship to the center tube.
- Tack up all parts, including the 4-ft.-wide tabletop.
- Measure to ensure proper alignment.
- Remove the part from the fixture.
- Weld into completion.
Now Kooima fabricates all parts on the tube laser (except the flat parts, which are produced on the company's flatbed lasers). "A large part can be a difficult weldment, and it's hard to fixture. We designed and cut the pieces with slots and tabs so that they are all self-fixturing (see Figure 3)," Kooima explained. "The welder puts it together like a jigsaw puzzle. Assembling the part in the fixture used to take him an hour, but now it takes about five minutes. Welding is also faster, because everything is dimensionally correct. What used to take three hours to weld now takes an hour."
New Customers, New Facility
The company decided to approach marketing the 3-D tube laser in stages, starting with the tube and pipe work from the current customer base and then soliciting new customers and angle iron work.
After six months, there was enough work from current customers to keep the tube laser running 10 hours per day, five days a week. Three months later the machine was so busy the company purchased another one. Now, less than two years after taking delivery on its first six-axis rotary laser, Kooima is in the process of adding a new facility outside of Chicago.
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.