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Laser Technology
Wednesday | 13 April, 2016 | 12:25 pm

Locomotion

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Material remains stationary while the cutting head moves on all three axes to increase accuracy and repeatability.

Fiber laser technology drives production for rail industry fabricator

April 2016 - Like a lot of teenagers, Don Peek graduated from high school and went to college with no particular career path in mind. When the freshman took summer employment at a steel fabrication shop; what began as a job soon became a vocation. “I took the job to make money,” recalls the owner of Progressive Sheet Metal. “I loved it so much I never went back to college. That was in 1982.” 

Schooled by experience, Peek built Progressive Sheet Metal, Seward, Nebraska, in 2005 on a foundation of comprehensive fabrication services mortared together with honesty and the kind of relationships that breed loyalty. 

When increasing workload began to outpace the company’s existing lasers, drawing out lead times, Peek says fiber laser technology was attractive but “we also took a hard look at CO2 machines.” Previous experience with Amada North America Inc. led him to visit the equipment manufacturer’s Solution Center in Schaumburg, Illinois, to watch both machines run. 

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Progressive Sheet Metal can process different types of materials at high speeds with Amada’s low maintenance LCG 3015 AJ 2 kW fiber laser.

“Over the last five years we have observed a couple of trends,” says Peek. “Customers wanted quicker response times and they began to ask us to carry more inventory.” Progressive Sheet Metal added warehouse space but Peek says a culture shift has also played a role in escalating customer demands. “We’re living in a generation of instant gratification,” he observes. “You’ve got services like Amazon Prime that allow you to order an item today and get it tomorrow. That mentality has bled over into the manufacturing sector for our customers who are being driven to provide end products faster.”

Weighing the facts

Market research gave Peek the facts he needed to weigh CO2 machines against fiber lasers but it was the strength of relationship that fueled his trip to Amada. “The fabrication shop I worked for had Amada equipment,” says Peek. “I grew up with the technology. I had the opportunity to run other suppliers’ machines but I always favored Amada because of the way the equipment was engineered; the logic behind it.” 

The type of personnel Amada nurtures also attracted Peek. “Their product experts and support are excellent,” he says. “I’ve known some of these people for 30 years. Some worked with me on machines at the steel fabrication shop back in the day but have since moved up and still work for Amada.”

Following the CO2 and fiber laser demonstrations Peek—already familiar with Amada controls—says he was able to speak with both operators at length, which helped him make his decision. Fiber’s low maintenance, speed and ability to process different materials won out. 

Progressive Sheet Metal installed an Amada LCG 3015 AJ 2 kW fiber laser in April 2015. The company primarily produces parts such as housings and cabinets for Positive Train Control (PTC), a government mandated safety program. The technology is designed to alert locomotive engineers to hazards, terrain changes and rail traffic. Railroads are required by Congress to finance, develop, install and test the technology across 60,000 miles of the nation’s rail network by 2018, according to the Association of American Railroads. 

Progressive Sheet Metal got in on the ground floor of this new technology requirement by prototyping antenna housings and mounts for the top of the locomotive. Strong relationships again played a role in helping the fabricator land the job. 

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Cutting stainless steel exhaust balancers for a custom generator.

“I worked with major rail companies for 15 years before I started Progressive Sheet Metal,” says Peek. “When I started my business they followed. Earned trust always makes relationships a powerful component.”

The LCG AJ is primarily being used to cut blanks out of stainless steel, galvanized, carbon steel and aluminum for downstream parts assembly. Part sizes range from 3/4 inches by 1 ½ inches to  single flat blanks as large as 52 inches by 80 inches.

The turnkey system’s Process Range Expansion (PRE) gives Progressive Sheet Metal the ability to cut a variety of materials that can be difficult or impossible—like copper—to process with a CO2 laser. Because the LCG AJ is a true flying optic laser, material remains stationary while the cutting head moves on all three axes to increase throughput and part accuracy at higher speeds.

“In just two weeks the fiber laser reduced our eight- to 10-week lead time to three to four weeks,” says Peek. “That was huge for us. And we can turn parts even faster if we have to.”

The fiber laser’s speed has also allowed Progressive Sheet Metal to move its lighter gauge parts to the machine. “Some of our light-gauge parts are very detailed, but the fiber laser can handle that without sacrificing speed.”

Wavelength

“Cutting speed is a product of beam quality or ‘high brightness’ generated by the fiber technology,” explains Jason Hillenbrand, laser product manager for Amada. “The wavelength of the fiber is also more easily absorbed by the material, which translates to cutting speeds that are three to four times faster than a comparable CO2. In many cases fiber has demonstrated its ability to double productivity over that of a CO2. Fine beam quality allows for intricate, high-precision processing. Cutting speed advantages of a fiber laser over a CO2 do tend to equalize around 1⁄4-inch or so depending on machine wattage and material type, however.”

Peek finds blank quality from his newest machine higher than that processed through a CO2. “You can get quality blanks off a CO2 but I think the consistency is better on a fiber,” he notes.

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Top: With the fiber laser, Progressive Sheet Metal is able to process high-quality blanks that are more consistent from job to job than those from a CO2.
Bottom: Complex parts, like these 0.04-inch-thick aluminum vented circuit board covers for a center pivot control housing, can be easily processed on a fiber laser.

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Several factors can impact part quality on a CO2 during the course of a day. Although delivery paths are pressurized to reduce effects on the beam as it bounces off multiple mirrors to the cutting head, the beam can grow and shrink in diameter and diverge over time, creating variances in cut quality.

“Since a fiber laser is solid state and monolithic with no mirrors or open space, there are very few factors that can affect the beam quality,” says Hillenbrand. “Once generated, the beam travels to the cutting head via process fiber, eliminating the potential for beam divergence or the fluctuating influences of a shop’s atmosphere.”

Progressive Sheet Metal runs its fiber laser lights out. “When it first came online we were running it six days a week to dig out [of backlog],” Peek says. “Then I noticed the number of pallets of blank parts waiting to be formed. The laser’s high throughput pushed us into purchasing a larger press brake because our existing machine was too slow to keep up.”

Committed to keeping pace with its customers, Progressive Sheet Metal has added personnel, equipment and buildings but it’s also the intangibles that keep the shop ticking like a well-regulated clock. “Our employees have a good work ethic and we’re able to adapt quickly to changing conditions,” Peek says. “We’re always open to new ideas.”  MM

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