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Laser Technology
Monday | 25 January, 2016 | 1:58 pm

Shine bright

By Gretchen Salois

Tailor-made aesthetic designs require delicate touch but high yields

January 2016 - At Copper Sculptures and Legendary Lighting, both in Flowood, Mississippi, customers want bespoke copper lanterns and light fixtures to add a touch of classic beauty to their homes, complete with modern accessibility. Homeowners can remotely send a wireless signal to their gas lanterns, setting off the electric ignition and each custom-crafted fixture ablaze.

Jeremy Shook, who owns both companies, isn’t churning out thousands of uniform parts to be used on an assembly line. Each part cut from copper sheet is tailor-made for a particular designed light fixture or lantern. Cutting copper that averages 1⁄8-inch-thick, Shook knew he didn’t need a million-dollar machine with the ability to cut through extremely thick material. “I needed something to cut thin metal efficiently that was reflective, wouldn’t damage the copper and would fit my budget.” And it had to be faster and more accurate than what he had been using for such projects.

“We either had to have a million dollar machine or we had to piece together some sort of solution between a bunch of different vendors,” he continues. “We wanted something easier and someone to help us sort that all out.” Shook came across Vytek Laser Systems in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, while flipping through a magazine. “We were dinosaurs as far as technology,” he says, citing the application of vintage stamps and dies. “We were using WWI-era machines that stamped parts my employees would then cut out with shears and drill holes using pneumatic drills and drill bits.”

Piecework

Numerous small and mid-sized fabricators like Copper Sculptures and Legendary Lighting simply cannot afford fiber laser systems. “It’s very difficult for small companies to borrow. It’s almost impossible, in many cases, if you don’t have the cash flow to meet loan obligations,” says Vytek President Dirk Burrowes.

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At Copper Sculptures and Legendary Lighting, each part cut from copper sheet is tailor-made for a particular designed light fixture or lantern.

In addition, potential machinery buyers are often unsure what cutting technology best fits their situation. “They know how to build their products but they might not know about the challenges they could face both in machine decision or development of programs to work with that machine,” Burrowes explains. For Legendary Lighting and Copper Sculptures, other laser cutting system builders offered only partial solutions, leaving Shook’s team to figure out how to piece it all together. 

“It could be a $500,000 to $700,000 investment and the company didn’t feel comfortable approaching it that way,” Burrowes says. “We discussed their overall goals and came back with some innovative ways they might nest their parts as well as a layout methodology using common line cutting, which is one cut to produce two parts.” 

Vytek showed Shook and his team how to yield 40 percent more product from the same material while increasing throughput fivefold. Vytek also developed a training program so the twin clients could apply the concepts across product lines.

Vytek installed an FC 48 package, which is a 4- by 8-foot platform using a mid-power QCW 450/4500 watt air-cooled fiber laser. “They didn’t need to cut materials beyond 1⁄4-inch and couldn’t afford a high-powered CW laser source, so the 450/4500 was just right,” says Burrowes. “They were able to get an efficient, high performance system for under $300,000,” and preserve the option to upgrade the laser source in the future.

Mid-sized fabricators don’t intentionally seek out a laser cutting system if they’ve used equipment vastly different from that technology in the past, Burrowes notes. Yet, “people who are not even necessarily interested in lasers come to us because they like the solution approach. They cannot be expected to piece together different parts from different manufacturers or vendors themselves, and they don’t want to buy features or capabilities they don’t need or understand.” 

Checking boxes

The copper lantern manufacturer liked fiber laser technology because “we didn’t want to deal with the maintenance that comes with a waterjet cutter,” Shook says. “We didn’t want to clean out tanks or discard dirty water or spend time wiping down parts.” Waterjet also wouldn’t work for Shook’s operations because moisture causes copper to change color.

Fiber laser technology uses a fiber optic cable, minimal energy, pressure nozzles and is cut using oxygen. “Once I figured out the tolerances on the machine it was really a no brainer,” Shook says. “Now all my employees need to do is bend parts and weld pieces together. It handles shapes and patterns a lot more efficiently and precisely.”

The Vytek laser is inexpensive to operate, continues Shook. “I didn’t have to install more than my existing 220 amp circuit board and I was able to use a couple of blowers I already owned,” he says. “Now I don’t have to shear down material. It comes from the mill and it goes directly on the table.”

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Waste was also a concern. “We were losing a lot of material because to get to the stamped parts, my guys had to cut into the sheet, much like cutting shapes out of construction paper,” Shook says. “I can feed copper all the way to the brim with parts and have zero waste—a good thing when working with an expensive material.”

Safety concerns are met, too, because workers no longer have to place their hands in where the cutting occurs. “They used to handle the material all the time—you should see the forearms on these guys,” Shook says, adding workers had to carry dies up to 200 pounds to place them in line for cutting and punching. 

The laser’s ability to cleanly cut parts allowed the fabricator to improve its manufacturing process. “We’re no longer limited on what we can work on,” Shook says. “A worker can move from roof lights and door lights quickly and, when there are 100 different lights with 300 different styles, that’s a huge difference.”

Instead of outsourcing jobs to different shops when his plasma cutter died, Shook can cut his own steel components as well, saving the added expense as well as speeding up production. 

“I can cut a lot more complicated parts,” Shook adds. “In fact, we’re so busy right now the problem isn’t how quickly the fiber laser cuts, it’s more about how we’re unable to work with the pieces fast enough and they end up sitting on the table until my guys can work on it.”

Once the parts are cut, Shook’s team still bends and welds each light fixture. The skills and talent needed to bend and weld copper aren’t easy to come by so when Shook does hire someone, it entails “extreme training,” he says. “The fiber laser has helped me get parts off the table a lot faster to the shop but I’m going to have to hire more people to turn the parts into something.”

Shook no longer needs the large stamps and dies that took up so much floor space because every part required a separate stamp. “I was able to replace all those old dinosaur-era machines with work benches,” he adds.

The Vytek unit opened up a bottleneck in Shook’s operation, “but putting it in didn’t lose anyone their jobs,” he says, adding that he’s hired two assembly workers. 

“The parts come off the laser faster but they still need to be handled,” according to Shook. “Now we can speed up the bending and assembly process as well as the steps where glass and antique finishing are added.” MM

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