The future of the laser in metal fabrication

November 12, 2013
By: Tim Heston

This time next week I’ll be walking the floor at McCormick Place, seeing what’s new, what’s unusual, and perhaps a little about what the future holds in metal fabrication.

Even after years covering FABTECH®, I feel like a kid at a candy store. Sometimes I think about what the industry will look like for my kid, decades from now. There are all sorts of pie-in-the-sky concepts out there. Will additive manufacturing make component fabrication and (especially) machining obsolete? Will smart nano-technologies allow for parts to “grow” themselves?  Will I live out Star Trek, and tell a machine, “tea, Earl Grey, hot”--in a cool British accent, though I’ll have a French name--so it can conjure up a cup out of thin air? (Apologies to the non-Trekkies out there.)

Several technologies may not be so far-fetched, and a few of them will be on display at FABTECH. One I’m watching is laser blanking. The concept has been around for years. It has graced the pages of both The FABRICATOR and STAMPING Journal. Coil-fed laser blanking finally has hit the market in a significant way, and it’s probably here to stay—but will it remain a niche, or will it grow into something bigger?

A flat-bed laser cutting machine has evolved to become an incredibly fast technology. When I talk to shop owners who have purchased some of the latest and greatest systems—particularly those of the fiber and disk variety—they tell me they marvel at its potential throughput. They also tell me how much of a challenge it is to keep up with. They can’t seem to feed material fast enough.

These lasers thrive on thin stock, material that happens to come in coils. Conventionally, of course, coils arrive at a service center, which straightens, levels, and cuts the coil into blanks. Simple enough. Then it arrives at the fabrication shop and is put onto a shelf or material handling tower, from which it’s placed on the laser for cutting.

When compared to other processes in the fab shop, though, the laser stands out. Its cycle time has become extraordinarily short. One laser can feed umpteen press brakes. Most shops I talk to say their bottleneck isn’t in cutting. It’s usually in bending or welding, depending on the part. Sure, they invest in a new laser because the throughput advances help increase cutting capacity. And if the shop sells flat parts, increased cutting capacity means it can ship more of those parts in less time.

Perhaps most important, the greater excess capacity you have in cutting, the better it can handle unexpected demand--and in the contract fabrication and job shop world, handling unexpected demand is what the business is all about.

But with so much excess capacity comes a danger. I’ve visited many shops that had to deal with excess work-in-process (WIP). That automated cutting machine was expensive, so managers wanted to keep the thing running, 24/7, even if it meant flooding downstream bottlenecks.

Shops have overcome this by switching from batch to kit-based flow (all parts of a subassembly flowing downstream in a group), and reducing lot sizes (so complete kits arrive at downstream welding and joining sooner).

But in the coming decades, could laser blanking change the landscape? Today coil-fed laser blanking machines are appearing in a few very high-end operations that are low volume compared to some automotive operations. But the volumes are much greater than seen in your typical fabrication shop.  The technology is being sold as an alternative to the traditional blanking press. But in the future, could it be an alternative to the traditional 2-D flat cutting laser, too?

Admittedly, there may need to be structural changes to the supply chain, but the potential is intriguing. Could metal service centers transform into “laser cutting” service centers? (Some companies, like Robinson Laser, already serve this niche with traditional flat-bed cutting lasers.)  They’re basically a much larger cousin of the laser cutting job shop common in the 1980s and 1990s. And instead of blanks, these service centers would laser-cut parts from a coil.

Conversely, a fabrication operation could bring laser blanking in-house, with one or two machines cutting common metal grades directly from coil stock. Remaining flat-bed laser and plasma machines would cut certain plate and lower-volume specialty stock. Along with this would be a punch press with forming tools, for jobs that require them.

Such an operation would eliminate a lot of handling and save material. Of course, the market would have to force this change, and as it stands now, the market is working pretty well. Many service centers deliver cut blanks to fabricators multiple times every week, if not every day. From an inventory standpoint, that puts a fabricator in a good position.

I agree that a lot of this is pie-in-the-sky stuff. But in the coming years, who knows?
Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314