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Laser Technology
Wednesday | 09 April, 2014 | 10:48 am

Necessary impulse purchases

By Tom Klemens

Above: The material for about 85 percent of what the company bends is now cut with its lasers.

Service center brings on much-needed lasers, Spurring an overhaul of its bending capacity

March 2014 - Longevity is certainly one good measure of success. Such is the case for Metalen Verhoestraete, the 103-year-old metal service center located in Roeselare, Belgium, 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of Brussels. Today, the company stocks more than 10,000 tons of ferrous and nonferrous metals and partners with its customers to provide sheet and profile processing as well. In recent years, that has meant adding new technology, for which it has turned to its neighbor LVD, conveniently located just 25 kilometers (16 miles) to the south.

Although dealing primarily in steel, Verhoestraete also stocks large quantities of aluminium sheet and plate. That’s no surprise as the company has become well known for its expertise in cutting and bending this difficult material.

MM-0314-laser-image1Verhoestraete’s approach has always been to add value to its product. From its 1911 roots as a hardware store in the center of town, it evolved into a steel supply center after World War II when it purchased machinery for processing steel and trucks to deliver it. 

In 1976, the company relocated to a new 118,400-square-foot office and warehouse facility. That’s also the year Verhoestraete’s technical director, Dirk Debruyne, joined the company, and technology’s role has been on the rise there ever since.

“We are first merchants trying to create extra value,” Debruyne says, and doing that frequently has meant helping with jobs beyond the ability of its customers. “The whole flow the last 35 years has been to keep adding new technology,” he says. Looking to its customers, the company noted what equipment they were using and what its limitations were, then stepped in to help with the large or more difficult operations. 

This is one way Verhoestraete is careful to maintain a balance between making money and helping customers. For example, the company offered traditional cutting services—sawing, oxyacetylene and plasma—and added large-scale laser cutting only after many of its customers had adopted the technology. Verhoestraete purchased its first laser from LVD in 2002. “I waited to buy a laser until there were lasers that were bigger than the first 50 or 100 lasers here,” Debruyne says. He didn’t want to be perceived as competing with his customers, so when he did purchase the new Impuls 6020, it was clear that the company’s intention was to handle larger material. Debruyne also wanted to be sure he could put the machine right into production. “I waited some two months until the product was stable,” he says.

Offered in both 4 kilowatt and 6 kilowatt versions, the 6020 features flying optics and a beam length compensation system, which eliminates beam divergence, as well as the ability to work with LVD’s CADMAN-L 3D offline programming software. Verhoestraete ordered the machine with its largest capacity table, which handles materials up to 246 inches by 80 inches.

Initially he had to find work for the laser cutter, Debruyne says. He approached existing customers for whom they were cutting with the idea of cutting holes they would later be punching anyway. “Speaking for my customers,” Debruyne says, “they don’t want to buy parts cut by someone, then collect them and go to another place to bend them or punch them. No, they want finished parts.” Soon the machine was working 20 hours a day.

By raising the bar on Verhoestraete’s cutting expertise, however, Debruyne also had put pressure on its bending capabilities. As the company sought out the more difficult projects, especially those requiring higher quality and consistency, its older press brakes became the weak link. “When you can cut laser perfectly, with tolerance at a difficulty level very high, and you can’t bend them the right way, then why would you buy the lasers?” Debruyne asks.

The immediate solution was a new LVD press brake. But the company’s success was slowly snowballing, and Verhoestraete ended up buying two more Impuls 6020s and an Impuls 12530. The 12530 has a 3-meter by 4-meter (10-foot by 13-foot) cutting area and handles materials up to 120 inches wide and 492 inches long. Additionally, it provides fully programmable Z-axis motion of up to 11 inches.

As the company added to its laser cutting capacity, customers continued to ask for tighter tolerance bending, so more high-performance press brakes were added as well. Debruyne says, “It was like a ping-pong game. Buy a laser, then buy a press brake. Buy another laser and buy another press brake.”

Today Verhoestraete’s four lasers are complemented by five large press brakes, including a 1,000-ton 8-meter PPEB-H, three 640-ton 7-meter PPEB-Hs, and as of December 2013, an 800-ton 9-meter PPEB-H. This fleet of high-capacity press brakes is rounded out by two smaller press brakes in the 220-ton, 4-meter range. “We have to have those kinds of machines also because we deliver the whole package,” Debruyne says, noting that some customers’ orders include smaller parts. “I can’t bend parts like that on a 9-meter—that’s crazy,” he says.

MM-0314-laser-image2

A snapshot of growth

Verhoestraete has grown in the years since Debruyne arrived, not only in size but also in productivity. The original 11,000 square meter facility, from 1976, has grown through additions and expansions to more than 30,000 square meters of enclosed space. Late in 2013 the company also undertook new building projects to add another 4,000 square meters of space.

The facility is today served by 28 overhead cranes, up from the five in the original structure. The number of departments has grown to 14, and the staff has grown from 50 to 70, although there are no bosses, Debruyne says. Instead, each person is responsible for seeing the job through from beginning to end.

“When you have time enough to give the training, then you have people that you can say, ‘they know how to bend, they know how to cut laser, they know flame cutting,’” Debruyne says. “They are not working here for 10 years and only pressing a start button. No—they are responsible for the whole process.” Although it’s not the easiest way to go, he says, it’s best in the long term. As proof, he points to the fact that Verhoestraete is cutting with four lasers and running all its press brakes and other machines, too. 

A few examples

One striking part of the Verhoestraete operation is the diversity of the materials in stock—Debruyne says there are more than 1,800 different profiles on hand—but also the diversity of parts being made. He says Verhoestraete has as many as 1,000 active customers who order every year. On any given day, there might be 250 jobs at various stages throughout the shop. Of those, many are relatively small—the company prides itself on selling to anyone, with no minimum order. “Everyone is welcome here,” Debruyne says.

But then there are the large and challenging jobs, like a recent special tank cover. The project consisted of 69 tapered aluminium panels for an inner circle and 192 aluminium panels for an outer circle, with an overall diameter of 26 meters. “These pieces, they all have to be right,” Debruyne says. “And they have to be well aligned and fit perfectly.”

Through its years of experience, Verhoestraete has come to specialize in working with aluminium. “We have all the special tooling to bend aluminium,” Debruyne says. “It is the hardest thing to bend because the quality is so MM-0314-laser-image3different, even with the same thickness and same normal qualities.” The keys to success, he says, are good quality equipment and “good guys on the machine. With that combination, we are ready to bend very difficult parts. And the invoice can be a little bit different.”

Not surprisingly the larger aluminium panels were bent on the 1,000-ton brake. “It’s 180 hours of laser cutting and 150 hours of bending, and I got two weeks to finish,” he says.

That’s another thing the company prides itself on—its quick turnaround capabilities. “Someone said, ‘I want special bent parts fast,’ and I asked, ‘In half an hour?’” Debruyne says. “We can do it, because I’m a steel merchant. I have the plates. I don’t have to first buy them and two days later they come in. It’s cut and go.” Although joking about the half-hour turnaround, three hours later, the customer’s 1,000 parts were ready. 

The material for about 85 percent of what the company bends is now cut with its lasers, Debruyne says. Another recent project consisted of 650,000 precisely bent parts cut from a special stainless steel. “The metal itself is 13 euros per kilo. It’s very difficult to bend,” Debruyne says. In addition to selling its expertise in bending as added value, instead of just supplying the material, Verhoestraete can increase revenue while at the same time relieving the customer of the liability for bending mistakes.

The Verhoestraete team often provides solutions to complicated projects as well. One customer needed progressive bending of long slightly tapered rollers to be used in carpet weaving looms. In addition to the cutting and forming, end treatments had to be fabricated and attached.

“But I don’t weld anything,” Debruyne says, “because at that point I become competition with my clients. So when I need a weld, I hire someone that’s going to weld for a price.” And, of course, it becomes part of Verhoestraete’s added value package. MM

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