Laser Technology
Monday | 02 December, 2013 | 3:28 pm

Hands-on engineering

By Modern Metals' staff

Above: Adding laser equipment increased Hunter Engineering’s productivity, allowing the company to bring outsourced projects back in-house.

Adding lasers to its manufacturing operation allowed Hunter Engineering Co. to bring work back in-house

November 2013 - The innovations that would become the main products sold by Hunter Engineering Co., Bridgeton, Mo., began in 1936 when Lee Hunter Jr., a 23-year-old architecture student, found himself frequently confronted with a failed battery in his Packard convertible. 

MM-1113-laser-quote1At that time, it took several days to recharge a car battery, but Hunter was convinced it could be done faster. He worked with an electrical engineering professor to invent a quick-charge battery recharger based on a diverter pole generator. 

Today, the company still believes in Hunter’s hands-on approach to the engineering process and designs, manufactures and sells a wide range of auto service equipment, including PC- and Windows-based wheel alignment systems, suspension and brake testing systems, computerized wheel balancers, on- and off-car brake lathes, tire changers and vehicle lifts.

Controlling their own destiny

In recent years, the company’s manufacturing facility in Durant, Miss., has been working to bring back operations in-house that had once been outsourced, increasing speed and efficiency while reducing costs. 

“We really accommodate a wide range of users,” says Doug Foht, senior manufacturing engineer. “We can supply big tire OEMs like Firestone and Goodyear, a lot of large automotive manufacturers like GM, Ford, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen/Audi, Jaguar/Land Rover, and BMW, plus some in-factory audit installations. But we also sell to mom and pop shops.”

Adding more laser technology to its operation has allowed the company to serve its customers without depending on subcontractors. Foht turned to Mitsubishi Laser in 2008 to source equipment that would help maintain throughput and keep up with demand. Hunter Engineering had been using a 2,000-watt Mitsubishi LXP laser since 1998 and decided to invest in an LVPLUS II laser on a modular MSCIII cell with an eight-shelf tower and four over/under carts for finished goods. 

The equipment made an immediate impact, and in 2011, the company purchased a second LVPLUS II laser along with two more over/under carts and a rail extension for the MSCIII cell. 

The second laser doubled capacity, which was necessary to keep pace with demand. “It increased production dramatically,” Foht says. “It saved us about 8,000 hours of labor per year, compared to where we were before those two lasers. Going from a single 2,000-watt to dual 4,000-watt lasers also greatly increased our capacity for cutting plate. It allowed us to take a lot of projects off of our plasma cutter and onto the laser, freeing that machine up for parts that are big and don’t have tight tolerances, like the 20-foot-long runway sections of the lift racks.”


Bringing work back home

The increased power, productivity and capability with tight tolerances and smaller parts allowed for more capacity to bring outsourced projects in-house.

“For example, we had been purchasing the safety locks for RX Scissor Lift from a vendor,” Foht says. “We brought that in-house because we realized we could. We changed the design—1⁄4 inch is a sweet spot for the LVPLUSII—to get glass-like edge quality. Then we just layer and plug weld. It has been a huge success.”

The machines also allowed the company’s engineers to be more creative in their designs. Before, they had been limited to designs that could be sheared and punched or were forced to rely on designs with only right angles. The Mitsubishi lasers allow projects to be more free-form and consolidate operations since once-welded-together components comprised of three to four pieces are now completed in a single operation. Since adding the lasers, hardly any shearing or punching is done at the Durant shop.

Four years after the initial installation, Hunter Engineering is beginning to exceed capacity for the two lasers. The increased demand means Foht is on the lookout for another Mitsubishi machine. However, instead of adding a third laser to the existing cell, he’s betting on continued growth and increased productivity by leaning toward increased automation—a single-tower offload cart and a single laser on another MSCIII cell. These cells are modular, so down the road when the shop reaches capacity again, it could add a fourth laser for two separate, fully automated cells. 

“These machines are heavy. They’re not the easiest to move,” Foht says. “So as we grow, we have to grow smart. It’s a bet on ourselves.” MM

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