Laser cutting for the first time

M&L Industries finally made the investment, but only after sizing up its metal cutting needs

The FABRICATOR December 2008
December 15, 2008
By: Dan Davis

M&L Industries found a laser cutting machine for the right price and at the right size. After a year of laser cutting and bringing in new business, it looks like the right choice.

For many shops in the metal fabricating world, laser cutting capability was never a prerequisite to success. M&L Industries, Rogers, Minn., knew that firsthand; it had been doing just fine without lasers for the last 30 years.

The company had relied on its two turret machines for its metal cutting needs. A 20-year-old Strippit and an 8-year-old Nisshinbo nibbled out the sheet metal parts, and a Timesaver grinding device smoothed out the edges. It was not state-of-the-art, but it worked well for a majority of the parts.

Well, that was true until a couple of years ago.

It seemed that the company was receiving more requests for laser cutting, especially for parts approaching 7-gauge. Dave Larson, a manufacturing engineer and a 22-year company veteran, had been farming out those parts to nearby shops, but the time was coming for M&L Industries to rethink that strategy.

That wasn't out of the ordinary for the shop, which has annual revenues between $3 million and $5 million. The company had created a niche for itself and its handful of customers by being able to provide just about any manufacturing service needed. It has two horizontal and vertical milling machines, a turning machine with a 3-in. maximum chuck capacity, two press brakes, two robotic welding cells, three GTAW stations, two GMAW stations, and the punching machines. The company's 35 employees also are a seasoned lot, averaging nearly 40 years of age.

"It's kind of worked out well for us because sometimes when you are working with weldments, you have a machined part and a fabbed part and you have to put them together," Larson said. "That way you don't have to farm everything out."

Toward the end of 2007, M&L Industries decided it wasn't going to farm out laser cutting jobs either.

Right Timing, Right Price, Right Size

Over the past decade, M&L Industries had seen plenty of its high-volume business dry up. Larson said most of it went to China. Whatever the case, it left the company accepting 100- to 200-piece jobs—not the volume that makes investing in new punch tooling attractive. Also, the 7-gauge material simply didn't play well with the punching machines.

"The 7 gauge simply beats the hell out of our turrets. It wasn't worth it anymore," Larson said.

So the desire to purchase a laser cutting machine was solid, but what kind of machine would it be? Larson said the company didn't want to spend $500,000 on a new piece of equipment and that the device had to fit into a 400-square-foot hole, where the older turret punch press once sat.

"I didn't want used equipment. I'm not a big fan," Larson said. "Usually you are buying someone else's problem that they want to get rid of. That's usually the reason they are upgrading."

That criteria led M&L Industries to the ByVention 3015. Larson said the 2.2-kW laser cutting machine from Bystronic Inc. was priced lower than many larger machines on the market, and the 20-foot by 20-foot machine footprint ,with its accompanying chiller, dust collector, and material handling table, was the perfect size for the shop floor.

"It's not a huge laser, but for us it worked out great," Larson said. "It seemed like a good fit for us because we don't do a lot of [high-volume] production."

Trying to Shorten the Learning Curve

Larson said he and his team didn't know much about lasers, and he wasn't kidding. He wanted Bystronic officials to include a list of everything they needed to prepare for operating the lasers. Even with the request, the laser novices had some work to do.

First M&L Industries had to worry about how the equipment would fit into its shop floor. The laser cutting machine didn't have the same layout configuration as the punch press it replaced. When the installers arrived with the laser cutting machine, plans called for the chiller to be placed on the side of the machine where parts would be loaded. The cutting area was located near raw material inventory, so it was important to keep the material flow free of obstacles, Larson said.

What could have been a major problem didn't become one. M&L Industries worked with Bystronic, and the installers were able to move the chiller to the other side of the laser cutting area.

Second the metal fabricator had to learn the nuances of running a laser cutting machine. For example, the chiller required extra-dry air to ensure proper performance, according to Larson, so arrangements had to be made to ensure the air-cleaning technology was capable of meeting OEM specs. In another example, when the company worked with nitrogen for the first time, supply lines froze up, which led to closer inspection of flow gauges for consumables.

Ironically, a not-so-technically-savvy operator didn't need weeks of instruction to work with the equipment's software. A couple of days' training was enough.

"I don't have a computer at home, but I'm running this thing now," Rusty Grimley said.

Grimley receives the programs on a memory stick and a work order from Larson. Grimley then loads the cutting commands at the ByVention.

Grimley said that after a year of operating the laser cutting machine, he's become fairly self-reliant in keeping the machine up and running. The self-diagnostics provided on the controller screen are helpful in guiding him through any problems, he added.

"Most of the stuff we can solve it over the phone. We don't need some other guys coming out, so it works out pretty good," Larson said.

Keeping out of Trouble

Todd Norgren is Grimley's backup for the laser cutting station. He spends most of his time operating the turret punch presses. He, too, has noticed an immediate benefit since the laser cutter was installed: The company is saving money on tooling costs.

Tooling maintenance and purchase costs are reduced because many applications can now be done on the laser. When you are looking at approximately $400 for a punching tool, that can add up, Norgren said.

Larson sees the savings elsewhere as well. The company doesn't have to invest as much in secondary-finishing products, which commonly are used for sheet cut on the turret punch press. Also, M&L Industries is able to quote a much lower rate for laser cutting than the previously farmed-out rate because it's not including the third-party mark-up and it has the luxury of having the laser cutting operator split time with other equipment.

The BySoft part programming software is saving Larson time in the front office as well. He can receive a customer's DXF file, plug it into the programming software, program it for laser cutting, walk it back to the operator, and watch the parts being cut only 30 minutes after receiving the request.

"I'm not redrawing their stuff or anything. Whatever they send me is what they get," he said.

So the times have changed. It turns out that M&L Industries made the right call more than a year ago. Laser cutting, however, was not a prerequisite to success, but perhaps to survival.

"Without the thing, we probably would be dead. Most of the stuff I get to quote now is for that machine," Larson said. "I still have a lot of turret work, but it's old stuff."

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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