Laser Technology
Tuesday | 14 July, 2015 | 10:44 am

An end to guesswork

By Gretchen Salois

Above: The cutting head can hold one of three sizes of cutting lenses, allowing precise cuts through a large range of materials and thicknesses.

Real-world scenarios put technology to the test

July 2015 - Bringing the ability to laser cut parts in-house saves time and resources. “When you look a customer in the eye and say the job will be completed by a certain time and then it turns out it’s late, it’s not good for business,” says Josh Lee, who performs drafting, design, CNC programming, equipment purchasing, job quoting and production planning at Hampton Machine Shop Inc.

“We used to farm out a decent amount of laser work and it was money we were paying other companies’ employees instead of our own,” says Lee. “Not only that, but if their schedule didn’t meet ours, we couldn’t control it.”

Laser technology was necessary to help the Newport News, Virginia-based company place every step of production under its own roof. Hampton Machine researched laser cutting machines. In stepped Stefan Colle, laser product sales manager at Akron, New York-based Strippit Inc., who demonstrated how large one could specify and build such a line. He brought Hampton’s people to a customer that cut 1-inch-thick material on a daily basis. By showing them how a different company used Strippit’s laser to cut parts for large utility vehicles, Colle was able to convince Hampton Machine the laser could work with challenging thicknesses.

Strippit is a unit of Belgium-based LVD Group N.V., which makes metalworking equipment across the globe.

Hampton Machine cuts nickel, copper, Chromalloy, HSLA and exotic metals with the LVD Strippit laser. “The Impuls 8030 is our first LVD machine—purchasing it was pivotal,” Lee says. After one year of use, business is on the rise. “One of our major customers was just awarded another large contract and we provide sheet metal work to heavy foundation assemblies for them—the LVD has helped us keep up.” 

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LVD Strippit’s technology impressed with its ability to hold tight tolerances using less manpower. Hampton Machine works with plate ranging up to 96 inches wide by 240 inches long and from 0.035 inch to 6 inches thick. The company’s two plasma cutters handle a significant amount of plate cutting “but the laser allowed us to diversify so we can serve more industries, bringing in new customers.” Lee says. 

With the LVD line Hampton Machine makes fixtures for assemblies that aids the fitters and welders when assembling components. The LVD automatically measures out material. Machine operators no longer need to lay out material and measure with tape in order to determine at what degree to cut, drawing it out by hand. “I can cut a thin sheet of metal or thick plate on a laser while maintaining a tolerance of 0.003 inch, which is really handy with a lot of the jobs we’re doing now,” including inclined ladders, which are constructed out of C-channels, says Lee. “Now we can rough-cut channel and lay it across the table bed,” he continues, adding, “The operator can run the entire pattern, etch the cut-off line and mark the part number so every part is uniform. The laser takes the guesswork out of it.” 

Adjusting on the fly

Designed in Europe, the Impuls 8030-6 kW is 26 feet long by 10 feet wide and cuts plate up to 1.25 inches thick. “You can fit four 5-foot by 10-foot blanks,” says Colle. “The machine can run on its own and corrects itself when necessary.”

The laser is equipped with Adaptive Laser Cutting technology (ALC), where sensors receive data from the cutting process and optimization is applied based on the collected data from those sensors. The ALC avoids common burning defects that occur when cutting thick mild steel with a CO2 laser, such as drag or striations, variations of kerf width and dross formation.

Hampton Machine cuts a lot of parts from heavy-gauge steel for a shipyard. “Cutting thick mild steel with a CO2 laser can sometimes be a challenge and often requires an experienced operator—we’ve taken that part out of the equation,” Colle says.

Adjustments are made “on the fly,” adds Colle, so if the machine detects the cutting speed is too slow, it will increase the speed and if there is too much cutting power for an area of the plate, it knows to lower it.

“Just because you have the settings programmed into the machine, that doesn’t mean there isn’t variation while cutting through carbon or mild steel,” Colle continues. “It is important that the material doesn’t get overheated since it will have an effect on the edge quality of a part,” resulting in a bad cut. 

LVD Strippit worked with Hampton Machine to meet the shop’s specialized needs and made changes to the machine’s operating system and basic programming, accommodating some of Hampton Machine’s customer needs, Lee says. 

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Hampton Machine receives plate straight from the foundry with mill scale and stores the material outside where it’s exposed to the elements. “Just about anyone that operates a laser won’t cut material that has any rust or mill scale on it,” Lee says, “but we have to store our material outside. So we treat our steel like we’re cutting No. 4 stainless steel with a plastic cover, for example. The laser can cut off the cover and start cutting the stainless steel. We use that approach on the rust and mill scale and film burn it away before cutting the steel.” 

Colle doesn’t recommend cutting rusty plate on the Impuls 8030 but understands that recommendation isn’t necessarily practical for real-life applications. “We pre-burn the whole contour path we’re going to cut, eliminating that layer on top,” Colle says.  

Hampton Machine has a dedicated air compressor providing clean air that runs through three dryer units and a filter, also supplied by LVD Strippit. The result is medical-grade, nitrogen-enriched air, says Lee. “We’re not worried about impurities bouncing up against the lens because it has been blasted clean by the film burn. We are also able to do this rust blasting/film burn with the clean compressed air versus using consumable gases like nitrogen or oxygen, cutting down on operation costs.”

Lee says it was also important to have material traceability. With some pieces of plate in the yard aged 10 to 15 years, keeping everything in-house allows Hampton Machine to verify material easily. “We can tell you what date they ran out of the mill and their specs,” Lee says. 

High yields

The accuracy of the laser allows Hampton Machine to use up to 96 percent of an 8-by 20-foot plate. Lee says the software was easy to maneuver when determining how precise it could be. “I’ve worked with about half a dozen different software suites over the years and this one is very flexible and programmer friendly. You can auto nest and auto machine or physically choose where you want to start and stop a cut—the machine records every movement at the speed the programmer wants to do it in.”

The operator will apply different speeds depending on the part. “If we have a 4-foot circle that has a dozen 1⁄2-inch holes in it and another dozen at 3⁄16 inches, the operator can dial in the kerf for each speed allowing compensation for the entire part,” Lee says.

Hampton Machine’s Impuls laser-cutting head holds a 10-inch lens, which is very forgiving on thick plate. It also produces a faster cutting speed compared with the 7.5-inch lens. The 8030 model has LVD’s latest Touch-L touch screen control featuring RFID, which will recognize each operator. “If someone doesn’t have the RFID device, they can’t have access to the control,” Colle says.

Table size was an important detail for Hampton Machine. “Cutting steel 96 inches by 240 inches long, our options were pretty narrow until we found the LVD,” Lee says. “We can now offer capabilities other companies can’t. If you want to cut something 26 feet long and need to hold a tight tolerance we can do it in a fraction of the time it would take with traditional machining. It makes sense to cut this way—having this large machine sets us apart.” MM

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