Laser Technology
Thursday | 06 March, 2014 | 12:01 pm

A niche poised for growth

By Nick Wright

Vytek makes the case for fiber lasers to replace costly legacy machines

February 2014 - In the job shop and service center world, the beauty of business is that shops don’t have to put their eggs in one basket. From making brackets and widgets to architectural metal and aftermarket SUV components, you don’t need to occupy a niche to keep the lights on. With a blueprint and a budget, most shops can get any odd job done.

In reality, some job shops exist to serve a major nearby industry, such as an aerospace plant or oil and gas equipment manufacturer. But not every job shop can hang its hat on one industry—especially when the demand to lower costs continues to increase and long lead times are a thing of the past. Thus, shops have adapted to fabricating smaller and more complex part runs. 

MM-0214-laser-image1Vytek Laser Systems is one company helping job shops adapt to the changing landscape of metal fabricating. The Fitchburg, Mass.-based maker of laser cutting, marking and engraving machines has found a niche by targeting small-to-midsize manufacturers with its FiberCab series of fiber lasers. By offering a lower price-point fiber solution compared to big, expensive legacy CO2 laser cutters, Vytek is confident that flexible fiber lasers will be at the heart of capital investments for high-mix, low-volume manufacturing.

Transitioning work

There’s a trend of smaller shops no longer wanting to stock high volumes of sheet materials. Instead they opt to buy precut blanks tailored to the job, minimizing inventory and scrap. This reduces reliance on equipment like shears and punches. For materials up to 1⁄4 inch thick, which Vytek’s FiberCab excels at cutting, there are very few operations a punch can perform that a laser cannot, says Dirk Burrowes, president of Vytek. That makes the transition from a punch to a laser relatively easy.

“We found that maybe half of all the fabricators we are talking to who are processing 1⁄4 inch and under don’t have a shear, or rarely use the one they have,” he says. Those same companies keep little sheet stock on hand. This surprised Vytek because it assumed the market would demand sheet size systems with either a shuttle table system or material loader as many of its competitors offer such systems as a primary solution.

“These companies told us that if they had to purchase a full sheet system, they weren’t interested,” Burrowes adds. With limited space for stocking sheet and reluctance to maintain a complex table system, shops told Vytek they wanted a machine they could place next to their punch and load precut blanks onto it.

“While we make full sheet systems, we did an about-face and configured the FiberCab to be exactly that: A small footprint laser station that was easy to load and unload just like a punch. It has been a hit.”

Tooling costs associated with punches are driving the trend toward modular fiber lasers, too. For example, in punching stainless steel, die clearances are drastically different than aluminum or steel, requiring manufacturers to either own all the tooling, or subcontract the job. That approach doesn’t lend itself well to quick turnaround or prototyping. Lasers, on the other hand, don’t care about die clearances, regardless of the material.VYTEK1

And, fiber lasers make more moves than a punch. Burrowes says most parts are designed in 3-D engineering programs and start out as vector-based formats anyway. Lasers follow tool paths, making it a more natural transition from design-to-part than punching.

The ongoing costs of punching can be fairly high. Some shop owners may opt for the incremental tooling purchases of a punch versus the bigger up-front cost of a laser. But with a value-retaining fiber laser, they don’t have to do any punching at all.

Rev up the ROI

In the past, laser systems have generally been sizable investments, usually requiring a loan with long payback periods. For large-scale manufacturers, infusing cash into a machine expected to last 10 years isn’t as much of a burden as it would be for a smaller shop. In this case, shops with an annual revenue less than $10 million are where Vytek sees ripe opportunity for them to realize quick returns on investment with the FiberCab. Its lasers are available up to 3 kilowatts.

The benefits of fiber laser technology from major OEMs are well documented in this publication and its sister magazine, FFJournal. However, breaking down fiber laser costs on a smaller machine reveals that the average hourly rate the system can be billed out for is considerably less in many cases. In other instances, fiber lasers can be billed out at a higher rate depending on the job and other production factors, says Burrowes. “Return on investment is faster because you have so much less to pay back, and the total cost of the money or interest on a loan is that much lower,” he says.

The FiberCab series is based on a modular design so the laser platform isn’t rendered obsolete so quickly. Users can choose the best laser configuration for short- and long-term needs. Vytek designed the FiberCab with a high-quality positioning system, an upgradable control and interchangeable cutting heads. Because of this flexibility, the payoff is realized even five years down the road, versus a bigger conventional CO2 laser.

While some of Vytek’s competitors’ machines can cost three to five times as much as its FiberCab series, Vytek predicts that soon after buying one of its machines, job shop customers will realize the FiberCab lasers are worth more down the road because the FiberCab can be upgraded with new technology later on. Compared to a conventional CO2 setup, fiber lasers use fewer consumables, need no flowing gases, eliminate chillers with air-cooled systems, and deliver consistent beam quality. And for service centers and shops looking to reduce their environmental impact, fiber lasers consume less electricity.


Tool within a tool

In multiple ways, the FiberCab series, as well as fiber lasers in general, represents owning a tool within a tool. On one hand, because Vytek designed a machine in which the lasers can be changed independently from the machine platform, the metal the machine is made from is going to last longer than the technology driving it. It’s a fortunate irony. Why not design a system in which the laser or main controller can be upgraded later?

It’s no secret fiber technology can be harnessed for welding or other processes on one platform. “For us, the approach is to use the same package for a lot of applications: laser marking, laser welding and laser cutting with the same fiber source,” Burrowes says. “With different programs and settings, in essence, you have a universal piece of equipment.”

The companies investing in these smaller, modular fiber lasers aren’t only small to midsize shops. Many of Vytek’s prospects are Fortune 500 companies looking to not only reduce capital costs, but operational costs as well. The key to building profitable work cells, for example, lies in adding processing with fiber lasers. “Even though some large companies could afford any machine, they’re looking at making a cost justification on a work cell,” Burrowes adds. In that regard, designing work cells is like operating a small business within a large one.

Across all sizes and scales of fiber laser technology, having one in a shop is an affirmation that the company is moving in a smart direction. Even though larger CO2 machines are the preferred method and cutting thicker material above 3⁄8 inch, fiber lasers are gradually moving in as a competitor. Vytek is making them easy to use, too. It has developed lesson plans and video tutorials so operators can be proficient with a FiberCab in one day.

“You can find $1 million CO2 lasers on eBay selling for $150,000 that are seven to 10 years old,” Burrowes says. Cost isn’t the only reason someone should make a purchase, “but people should be thinking in a forward way about the machine tools they’re buying.” MM


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