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Laser Technology
Wednesday | 28 January, 2015 | 11:18 am

Faster with fiber

By Nick Wright

Above: Grace Manufacturing’s FiberCAB laser cuts sheet metal parts quickly for its more than 80 customers.

Grace Manufacturing increases speed and cut definition with compact fiber laser machine

January 2015 - When one thinks of fiber laser cutting machines, typically the massive 3-plus kilowatt cutting cabinets come to mind. Smaller manufacturers, those that might be new to laser cutting, don’t necessarily have the space or need for a 5-foot by 10-foot table. Vytek Laser Systems has a niche solution for job shops looking to cut sheet metal without making a fiber laser the main attraction. 

Take Grace Manufacturing Inc., founded in 1969 and located in Warsaw, Indiana, about halfway between Fort Wayne and South Bend. The company attended Fabtech 2013 to explore the capabilities of laser cutting for its production of metal brackets, connectors and other miscellaneous industrial hardware. The shop had typically cut parts using conventional, dedicated hard tooling.

Grace Manufacturing came up with a budget for pricing, then purchased a Vytek FiberCAB FC44, a 4-foot by 4-foot fiber laser that cuts with 1,500 watts. 

“We strongly considered a CO2 laser because of its ability to cut and mark organics” like wood and plastics, says Dan Hoeppner, owner of Grace Manufacturing. A CO2 would have cost less but after on-site visits to prospective laser machine suppliers, the company chose fiber for three primary reasons. First, it offers greater efficiency that would result in lower input power requirements and costs. Second, there is no need for separate liquid cooling, and fewer maintenance requirements. But ultimately, the speed and cut definition were the big draws. 

Changing requirements

Grace Manufacturing’s customer requirements are changing in that batch runs are getting smaller, lead times shorter and part designs altered more frequently, says Hoeppner. Adjusting to such changes makes hard tooling less cost-effective, while the laser’s speed and flexibility offer an ideal alternative for such challenges. The company is best known for its progressive roll forming, stamping and plastic injection molding, as well as CNC milling, turning, wire and sinking EDM.

As a contract manufacturer, Grace cuts a wide range of materials including 16-gauge cold-rolled sheet steel, 1⁄8-inch-thick grade 6061 aluminum and both full-hard and annealed grade 304 stainless in several thicknesses and finishes. 

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“In all, we service over 80 customers producing more than 200 different parts annually,” Hoeppner says. The FiberCAB makes short work of production support pieces, too. Grace Manufacturing has cut material stops and nests, including blank nesting for use on the laser table, as well as prototype tooling for wire forms. One of the more unique parts was an ejector plate and retainer for a prototyping plastic injection mold from stacked 1⁄4-inch-thick plates. 

“We estimate this saved six hours over conventional machining,” Hoeppner says. “We’ve found the laser’s accuracy allows us to cut holes for tapping without resizing, and dowel holes positioned for reaming to fit.”

Part designs are generated in CAD and imported to the Laserworx vector software, which is used to convert the vector lines of a drawing to a cut path. Some parts are cut entirely from sheet, however many are nested on the table as precut blanks. Using the FiberCAB to cut parts into precut strips is particularly helpful for preparing blanks for roll forming, Hoeppner explains. 

“These parts are typically very long and narrow, so by starting with slit-to-width strip we save considerable time and expense and reduce waste. A longer term goal is to integrate a servo coil feed to input material into the laser.”

Vytek offers attachments for cutting tube and pipe, as well as multi-table pallet changers.

Midsize machine

Based in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Vytek considers the FiberCAB its mid-priced laser, designed for small to midsize manufacturers that might be investing in fiber laser cutting for the first time.

It meets more demanding requirements than what could be considered an entry-level laser, says Vytek President Dirk Burrowes. While Vytek initially targeted midsize companies—those under $10 million in annual revenue—the machinery builder found 30 percent of the inquiring companies are more in the $100 million range. The interest depends on how the FiberCAB applies to their manufacturing or fabricating process, not so much for which type of client the machine is marketed.

“We see a generous mix of company sizes,” Burrowes says. “Companies don’t want a machine that’s just cheaper. They want one that has good features, cuts light gauge metal well and has a small footprint.”

The 4-foot by 4-foot FiberCAB, for which Grace Manufacturing easily found space in its 17,500-square-foot facility when it bought the laser in August 2014, has been successful for Vytek. During first-quarter 2015, Vytek will debut a 4-foot by 8-foot version as well as a tube cutting attachment.

However, Grace Manufacturing’s wide variety of jobs has demonstrated the FiberCAB’s capabilities. In addition to slides, braces and wire forms for residential furniture, it produces connectors, couplings and support pieces used with flexible ducting for HVAC. It alternates between oxygen and nitrogen as an assist gas, however the crew finds they use oxygen far more than anticipated.

“The oxygen provides higher cutting speeds and we’ve not had a problem with cut-edge discoloration, even on our stainless steel parts,” Hoeppner says. He attributes this to the high-energy density of the beam and the rapid cut speed, which is attributed to Vytek’s hybrid direct drive motion-control program.

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Faster output

Grace Manufacturing tackles just about any project that comes its way, Hoeppner says. The type of jobs are often the same work performed before the FiberCAB, but all of it gets done much faster.

One customer recently asked the company to produce 40 units of a cam-action clamp consisting of an assembly of five different parts. With the FiberCAB laser, Grace Manufacturing cut the parts on time and on budget. Its traditional methods would have resulted in unacceptable lead time and prohibitive costs for such a small batch of parts, says Hoeppner.

“Our goal in purchasing the Vytek laser is to move away from hard-tooled setups and their associated costs.  This makes short runs and custom parts economically feasible.” 

Hoeppner has no specific plans to add a second laser, but “we’ll gladly add capacity as workload dictates.”

While there are larger cutting tables that Vytek offers, Burrowes says there is an entire market for even smaller fiber lasers for light to medium cutting applications, specifically material that is 6 millimeters thick and thinner. Smaller, mobile or even desktop machines could be suitable for clean manufacturing environments or prototyping.

“We apply our technology to different platforms, and the FiberCAB is good example of this,” Burrowes says. 

There are lots of cutting applications out there, but they all need the same core capabilities. Some companies don’t need a bigger platform, or can’t fit it. “It allows us, as a medium size manufacturer, to leverage our technology across lots of marketplaces that have common needs,” says Burrowes.

On the other hand, Grace Manufacturing is unique in that it has no sales force and conducts no active marketing. As word spreads that the company can cut the same jobs as before, just much faster, it should have no problem sustaining that model. 

“We like to say, ‘By God’s grace, Grace Manufacturing keeps manufacturing.’  That motto has held true for over 45 years,” Hoeppner says. “So, when new parts and new markets come our way we’re now able to apply fiber laser cutting to the process for efficient production.” MM

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