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Laser Technology
Wednesday | 11 May, 2016 | 1:32 pm

Chasing glory

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Kern’s laser systems will cut at a rate of 10 inches per second, and engrave up to 150 inches per second. Table sizes range from 24 inches square up to 80 inches by 120 inches.

A finished race is made a steel keepsake

May 2016 - Combining swimming, cycling and running—those with a competitive spirit enjoy the challenge an Ironman Triathlon competition affords them. Both mental and physical thresholds are tested as competitors claw their way to the finish line after an arduous 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride followed by a full marathon—26.2 miles. Those who take on the challenge do it for more than the hardware awaiting them at the finish line—but it’s a nice reminder of a personal triumph. 

The Ironman age group awards are meticulously designed and crafted by Braden Todd and his team at Glassmith2 LLC in Boulder, Colorado. Glassmith2 designs and produces the awards for the top five finishers in each age group for Ironman. The company is prototyping award designs now for other racing events. “I just did a prototype out of 11 gauge steel for a customer to test out some designs,” he adds.

After realizing that creating high-end artistic pieces destined for galleries wouldn’t sell quickly enough to sustain a living, Todd segued into a job shop business, cutting and engraving everything from metal to glass. “I needed a way to increase throughput so I added my first laser, which opened new production avenues and led me to Kern Laser Systems a short time after,” Todd says. 

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Glassmith2 wanted to bring prototyping in house to cut significant costs per sample and affordably expand its product line.

Like many do when researching the unknown, Todd used the internet to identify laser manufacturers along with the word “issues” to see what kind of complaint forums would appear. “When I input Kern in the search, nothing negative came up,” Todd says. “With every other vendor and the word ‘problem,’ plenty of forums popped up with users complaining about machines breaking down or other concerns. Kern didn’t have one negative issue.”

The Wadena, Minnesota, manufacturer maintains that reliability by being at the ready for any customer calls, says Keith Hagen, sales representative at Kern Laser Systems. “It’s not like issues don’t ever arise with our systems—they do, just like most products. But when something goes wrong, I think the way we handle the issue is what makes Kern stand out: We are in contact and helping our customer until they are satisfied.”

High-speed details

Designing new symbols of success for each race-event client, Todd needed a machine that would minimize the cost of creating prototype awards. Todd’s wife, Alison, who works alongside him in the shop, was initially skeptical about bringing cutting in-house until Braden convinced her of the possibilities. “My wife wasn’t sure about purchasing a laser for the shop until she saw the unique pieces we are now able to produce and how much money it’s saving us in the long-run,” Todd says. “I love to do everything on my own instead of outsourcing everything.

“We needed to bring our metal prototyping capabilities in-house because each sample cost $600 per run with multiple runs needed,” he continues. “We found it would be difficult with those type of costs to easily expand our product line.”

The laser cutting machine opened up markets beyond award manufacturing for Glassmith2. According to Todd, “Once we gained metal-cutting capabilities, our entire business opened up. Now we can cut cold-rolled steel and 16 gauge metals. The Kern slices through it like butter. I can protect the details and not have fluctuations in the cut line.”

Before purchasing the Kern, Glassmith2’s largest machine was a 24- by 36-inch laser from a different manufacturer. The Kern is 52 inches by 100 inches, allowing Todd to cut and engrave much larger pieces. His machine has high-speed engraving (HSE) with a 400-watt laser system and metal cutting option added. Items as intricate as credit card bottle openers and more intricate metal shapes and designs are created using Corel Draw and then transferred over to the Kern. “So the synergy is great,” Todd says. “We draw it out and print it to KCAM,” Kern’s proprietary software.

The cutting speed on a Kern laser system is 10 inches per second, and engraving speed is up to 150 inches per second. Table sizes range from 24 inches square up to 80 inches by 120 inches. “We also can custom build tables upon request,” Hagen says, adding training is included with each laser purchase to ensure a smooth startup.

Using KCAM, Todd can adjust when the laser actually pierces through the metal before it starts cutting. “I can set the pierce and cut focus height separately, allowing the pierce of the laser beam itself to be set higher or lower than the actual cut—which works well when cutting thick cold-rolled steel in particular,” Todd says. “I can also adjust the air for the pierce so if I want a lighter air pressure, I can do that so it doesn’t blow molten metal around everywhere as it pierces.”

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Features like Kern's KCAM allows Todd’s team to adjust when the laser pierces through the metal before it starts actually cutting.

No back slag is produced, so it’s unnecessary for shops to employ secondary processes such as deburring and smoothing edges.

Customers choose wattage power based on the materials and projects they are processing. “We’ll have a customer tell us they want to be able to cut thicker steel, and also want etching and engraving capabilities,” Hagen says. “One of the reasons we believe a Kern laser system was a great fit for Braden was the ability to cut but also etch or engrave all on one system. It simply requires adjusting the settings and/or changing the size of the focal lens.”

Metamorphosis

What started out as an awards and engraving shop has morphed into a heavy-duty job shop using the Kern laser. “Right now we have three people on staff that run the Kern but we’re in the process of moving into a space that will double our square footage to fit our growing business,” says Todd.

The shop will soon be able to produce architectural doors. “We can laser-cut privacy screens on the machine and have those mounted for restaurants, as well as homes. We’re teaming up with a local brewery here to cut some privacy screens to go around their beer garden and back patio,” he adds. “These privacy screens will be complete with a design of hops and vines worked in to fit in with the brewery’s theme.”

As business grows so, too, has Todd’s experience with different processes related to metals such as anodizing and powder coating. “We’re becoming familiar with options we didn’t know anything about previously because we couldn’t provide that kind of work before the laser,” Todd says. 

Yet, Glassmith2 will also continue to cater to its original customer base. The company recently won a contract to cut 500 finisher medals for a bicycle race in California. “That’ll be an easy job to tackle because with the Kern, we can just push through it. It’s a solid workhorse and I don’t feel the need to stop and rest it because I’m running it too hard,” Todd says. 

Keeping the laser running through higher volume production is made easier because Kern gets its 100-watt, 150-watt and 200-watt laser tubes directly from sister company Kern Technologies, located across the street from its plant. “If a customer calls with a laser problem, we determine if it requires a laser testing, repair, or replacement. Kern Technologies develops and builds the laser tubes at their location, so there’s no outsourcing,” Hagen says. 

 “I’ve been in binds where I ended up running the Kern 27 hours straight,” Todd says. “I then went home, slept a couple hours and came back to run the laser for another 10 hours. It does whatever I can throw at it and our door is open to any custom orders that come our way.” MM

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