Laser Technology
Tuesday | 15 August, 2017 | 12:23 pm

The fine print

By Corinna Petry

The Vytek FiberCab laser cutting machine (above) helped make production work faster, more accurate on tolerances, and more profitable.

High-speed graphic printing, piercing and shaping of aluminum sheet made simpler with fiber laser

August 2017 - If you’ve ever bought a machine, a motor or a tractor-trailer, you’ve maybe noticed the nameplate with the maker’s name, city and country where it was manufactured, serial number and perhaps more information, such as its weight, temperature range of operation, voltage, horsepower, capacity, line speed, etc.

You likely never wondered where that nameplate came from, but it’s mighty useful to have, as are warning labels, panels with operator instructions, and panels identifying, for example, that this button is for up and that button is for down. Simple directions we take for granted. Imagine having to accurately print tens of thousands of different nameplates and labels, with annual volumes in the millions.

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Metalphoto of Cincinnati has roughly 3,500 customers, many of them with repeat orders and some with annual volumes in the millions of pieces.

This is the challenge facing Metalphoto of Cincinnati (MPC), founded in 1958. A division of Horizons Incorporated in Cleveland, MPC converts the photosensitive anodized aluminum sheets produced by its parent company into custom nameplates, panels, labels, tags and overlays that are used throughout the world.

Like many people, Jonathan Lane, MPC’s operations manager, “never put a thought into equipment signage” until he came to the company from a Tier I automotive supplier four years ago. At his old job, it was normal to have a dozen part numbers with annual volumes in the millions of units. The volumes per order at MPC “are vastly different but “I believe we have 3,500 customers [so] it’s a huge industry. We have a lot of different kinds of printing, such as warning labels and vehicle identification number (VIN) tags for tractor-trailers.”

The company supplies tractor-trailer builder Great Dane with hundreds of thousands of parts a year.

A spectrum of work

Likewise, MPC images and cuts parts for the aerospace industry, including Boeing and Northrup Grumman; heavy machinery builder Caterpillar Inc.; and a variety of military customers.

“Military and aerospace clients have their own engineering departments and send in fully engineered drawings,” says Lane.

MPC will also produce 10 different labels for a restaurant chain that doesn’t have a graphics department. In that case, MPC steps in as a designer, too.

“On one end of the spectrum, we have many interesting, small one-off sample part orders with very low quantities, Lane says. He cites customers such as “mom- and-pop shops that need a few signs created and have no ability to give us anything except dimensions, how many mounting holes, and some language they would like on the part.

“Some of our customers send files at exact format so we convert them to our imaging machine. Others want 4-inch by 6-inch plate and rivet holes. Our graphic department is used to working with both ends of the spectrum,” Lane says.

Since its launch almost 60 years ago, MPC has 84,000 part numbers, not counting parts that have been retired. Much of the business is repeat, dating back to the 1970s: “There are many re-orders.”

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MPC often serves as a designer of nameplates, tags and labels, particularly for smaller customers that don’t have their own designers.

Tight dimensions

Imaging equipment provided by the parent, Horizons, is an important feature of the MPC capability. It also uses Amada punch presses with hard tool and die in a variety of shapes, sizes and diameters to punch holes and any other features that an order requires, Lane says.

“Large panels have holes for LEDs and switches. We have two Amadas and two Datron high-speed CNC milling machines. We image the plates and have a couple standard sheet sizes—21-inch by 26-inch is most common—in a variety of thicknesses, 0.005 inch to 0.125 inch,” he says.

The difference between MPC and many other part fabricators “is we have an image. So we cannot just program the machine, but we have to match and work around the image, which we call the registration. The process was fine-tuned over many years.”

Depending on the customer, parts are produced to tight tolerances. “As we’ve gotten into certain consumer markets, with companies making audio panels and synthesizers, for example, they need the graphics to tightly align to fabricated holes. They are putting a dial through there and the outside has multiple openings. Our holes must be dead center to match the image on the sheet.”

After imaging and piercing holes, MPC trims corners, “but more often they want a recess, or beveling, or holes, so it will go to a punch press and be sheared into individual pieces. We still do a lot of that today.”

Laser cutting

MPC purchased a CO2 laser nearly eight years ago but operators found it did not work as well with aluminum (its predominant material) as it had with steel alloys (which it rarely uses).

“We conducted research and saw demonstrations at shows. Just because the first laser didn’t work, maybe we had the wrong tool for the job, so we sent samples to potential suppliers to see what they could do with it. This is where we first discovered the fiber technology. The best samples came back from Vytek,” Lane recalls. “We could tell they did more testing with our samples. They put time and effort into figuring out what worked.”

MPC installed Vytek’s FiberCab FC44 quasi-continuous wave (QCW), 450- to 4,500-watt pulsed fiber laser in November 2016.

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One of the newer customer segments is sound equipment manufacturing, such as audio panels and synthesizers. The openings and the graphics need to match up with levers and dials.

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“The capacity and the quality are very important to us,” Lane says. “We slowly transitioned certain jobs over to the FiberCab and watched for any pitfalls we might encounter.” Although still today many jobs are fabricated on the punch presses and milling machines, to Lane’s surprise, the company found FiberCab to be extremely versatile.

“If I wanted to, I could bury the FiberCab machine in work,” he says. “We siphoned off work that plays to this machine’s strengths, and are testing everything we might be able to do with it. The laser can do most everything that punch press and milling does. However, the order volume and quantity of hole sizes are where the deciding factors lie. For some jobs, it makes sense to continue using the punch press and milling machine.”

As of July, MPC ran the Vytek about 50 hours a week, “which is more than we thought. It gives us advantages on certain jobs. We have jobs that previously traveled to six or seven work stations that now travel to two and they are complete.”

These are pieces that went through multiple shears, hole punching, applications of protective coating. “Now they just go to the fiber laser, which cuts the part and it’s done. When there are jobs with four round corners and the metal is relatively thin, it cuts them so darn fast, it is leaps and bounds above where we were at,” Lane explains.

Using the Vytek fiber laser system, Lane says MPC has been able to cut processing time by half in many cases, compared with high-speed milling. The fiber laser takes up less space than a punch press. The nesting capabilities increase material yield and reduce scrap rates. Installation and training together consumed only a week.

Customer feedback

Some clients that have experienced the quality and tight tolerances that are met by the FiberCab—including the manufacturers of audio equipment—have now requested that most all their jobs be performed with the new unit. The first reason is that “a shear operator cannot always get the exact cut desired. Inherently, human error is eliminated.”

Second, depending on materials used, taking the work from the Datron CNC mill to the laser produces “similar shapes at faster speeds,” so that some cost savings can be passed along to customers for certain parts. “In one case, we even lowered our price when switching over to the fiber laser. That makes people very happy.”

Lane credits the team at Vytek with helping MPC to respond to customer questions and “handle any adversity. We want to continue to make sure it meets most of our requirements successfully.” If after a year, the fiber laser proves its worth, “we definitely would investigate the opportunity to get a second one,” Lane says. MM

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