During the past few years the industry has seen some incredible productivity gains in the laser cutting arena. Solid-state fiber and disk lasers are starting to dominate the FABTECH® show, and companies are beginning to tout the technology not just for thin sheet cutting, but for plate cutting as well, sometimes up to 1 in. Linear drives move cutting heads between cuts at eye-popping accelerations—measured in Gs. Seeing some of these machines running at full speed (especially in thin material) can be a jaw-dropping experience.
Then there’s forming, and then welding. If you think about it, the fastest laser in the world looks great, but if overall manufacturing time doesn’t change, the operation doesn’t produce more parts in less time. Jobs that require just laser cutting can be offloaded and shipped in record time. But most parts at contract fabricators require forming and welding—two classic bottlenecks in metal fabrication.
So how does a shop free these constraints?
Yesterday, Alex Robertson, business development manager at Fisher-Barton South Carolina Inc., gave me a shop tour that opened my eyes to new possibilities. Fisher-Barton’s South Carolina plant began as a contract stamper, one with in-house tooling department. Then over the past five years the company has brought in more fabrication and welding: specifically, an automated laser cutting cell, press brakes, and robotic welding.
The automated system churns out blanks for the entire 100,000-square-foot facility. The laser feeds blanks to the press brake as well as all the hand-fed presses. When volumes are high enough, the company may develop a tool for a press. And volumes don’t necessarily need to be that high—especially if a tool can reduce forming time dramatically.
That was the case for one part that required nine bends. The laser cut the blanks in a flash, but the press brake operator struggled to keep up. So the tooling department stepped up and developed a die that formed the complex component in two hits. That same tooling department develops welding fixtures for the company’s robotic welding systems.
This arrangement isn’t unique. Companies like GH Metal Solutions in Fort Payne, Ala., develop tooling for its presses as well as workpiece fixtures for robotic welding. So does Tie Down Engineering and its job shop division, Industrial Laser Solutions, in Atlanta, where several solid-state laser systems effectively feed blanks and cut tube to a large, seven-plant campus totaling a half-million square feet.
Every plant has its own customer and technology mix, but there’s a noticeable trend: Laser cutting machines have become so capable that they’re feeding larger and larger facilities, and this includes both low-volume forming on press brakes, as well as mid-volume forming on stamping presses.
Coil-fed prog-dies still dominate much of stamping, of course. And mechanical blanking presses are probably here to stay for the large-workpiece, high-volume jobs in automotive and the like. But for the mid- to low-volume sheet metal jobs—small potatoes if taken individually, but which collectively make up most of the sheet metal manufacturing in this country—the laser is becoming an almost ubiquitous headwater of sheet metal manufacturing.
Manufacturing companies that once provided the stepping stone to a middle-class existence for so many in major U.S. cities simply don’t exist. If urban areas are to be revitalized, people will have to come together to make those areas livable for all, not just those in $700,000 flats in a refurbished factory building.
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