Laser Technology
Thursday | 07 August, 2008 | 5:11 am

Set it and forget it

By John Loos

August 2008 - Boyd Dittmer was frustrated. After nearly 20 years of co-owning job shop metals fabricator BR Metal Technology, Menomonee Falls, Wis., with his brother Rick, his shop floor was filled with the cacophony of unrealized potential. The company had eight noisy and problematic CNC turret machines and one headache-inducing, manually operated laser machine. As a result, material edges were too sharp, tooling problems were too frequent and setup times were too lengthy, all of which was cutting into valuable production time and inhibiting output.

Enter John Wettstein, sales manager for Northland Laser, Milwaukee, a distributor of Mitsubishi laser systems and components. Dittmer had a long-standing relationship with Wettstein, having purchased turrets from him in the past, so Dittmer trusted Northland Laser when it came to introducing an automated laser system to BR Metal's production environment.

BR Metal is a job shop metals fabricator with long- and short-run precision punching, stamping, bending, forming, shearing and welding capabilities. It also manufactures electronics storage equipment. With its breadth of capabilities, simplified, reliable and efficient cutting equipment was necessary.

"We'd seen other laser machines [besides Mitsubishi's], and we weren't comfortable with them in terms of their reliability or their maintenance expenses or upkeep," says Dittmer. "Mitsubishi had more run time per hour versus disposable parts that you'd have to fix. We liked how their whole system was coordinated, as well as the software that went with it, for our nesting programs."

Now, two years later, BR Metal has just two remaining turret presses, replacing the rest with two lasers running together in its efficient Mitsubishi Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS), complete with Ncell software. And that unrealized potential is beginning to materialize--the company's production is up more than 50 percent, while maintenance and labor costs are down significantly.

Plus eliminates the minuses
Mitsubishi laser manufacturer MC Machinery Systems Inc., Wood Dale, Ill., introduced its first laser cutting system in 1987 and since then has made its name through introducing unique and advanced technologies and providing its customers with personal service.

"Mitsubishi makes the entire machine," says Jeff Hahn, national product manager for Mitsubishi Laser. "We're not an integrator. We make the machine tool, we make the resonator, we make the servo amps--we make everything. You have a one-source service solution."

While BR Metal's FMS laser system uses Mitsubishi’s popular LVPlus 2-D laser series, earlier this year, MC Machinery announced its new LVPlusII laser, which comes with two new technologies: Brilliantcut and Jet Pierce.

Brilliantcut is for stainless steels in the 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch range and enhances edge quality through reduced taper and less discoloring in heat-affected areas. Jet Pierce is for mild steels and reduces heat on the plate. It also allows for smaller part geometry by piercing material faster during small-hole processing.

"We've had a great response with the LVPlus series," says Hahn. "We're expanding our range of how we can service people and are becoming more competitive in the higher-speed market. Mitsubishi has always been known as a workhorse, especially with our automation. More than50 percent of our new machine sales are with automation. We're good with productivity issues and giving our customers a total solution package."

At the heart of the LVPlus series of lasers is Mitsubishi's internally developed and manufactured cross-flow resonator. According to the company, the resonator's three-axis, cross-flow design contains no expensive quartz glass tubes or roots blower systems, and it uses up to 90 percent less gas, resulting in lower maintenance time and the industry's lowest cost of ownership.

"[A Mitsubishi laser] has a low cost of operation and low laser gas usage, and it doesn't have what's called a simmer current," says Wettstein. "When the head picks up and is moving from hole to hole, or you’re between jobs, the laser goes dark and consumes little power at idle. Most lasers keep going. That's a big issue in Japan, where energy costs are high, and increasingly [in the United States], as well."

Wettstein adds that the Mitsubishi cross-flow resonator pours less heat into the nest when cutting carbon steel with oxygen than a fast-axial flow resonator. "The fact that it cuts cooler makes it great on plate and enables some owners to nest parts closer together, increasing their yield."

Cross-flow resonators are available in 2 kilowatts, 3.5 kilowatts, 4 kilowatts or 6 kilowatts and are powered up and ready to cut after just 45 seconds. They also uphold tradition at Mitsubishi; out of the company’s more than 1,300 machines in North America, not a single one of the company's resonators has ever needed replacing. This includes the 750-watt lasers brought to market more than 20 years ago. "They’re married to the machine tool for life," says Hahn.

Serving solutions
Compounded with this level of reliability is MC Machinery's focus on service and maintenance. Mitsubishi lasers are serviced through a regionalized service program that offers more personal and immediate responses to queries and troubleshooting issues. The company also offers many benefits in conjunction with a machine’s warranty period.

"We try to help companies make money with our machines however we can," says Hahn. "For example, the customer can send an unlimited number of people to training classes for the warranty period of their machine. On our Web site, if you're a member--and you’re automatically a member for your warranty period--you get detailed part drawing and wiring diagrams, along with other technical information."

For BR Metal, MC Machinery’s service has been exceptional the few times it's been needed. "The machine is always up and running," says Dittmer. "The only time we ever have an issue is if we bump something or knock the head out of alignment, but I can’t imagine that happening more than once every few months. It barely happens, and it's more because of a material problem than a machine problem. That’s a really awesome thing because it runs all the time."

Automatic results
Integrating an automated laser system into a job shop isn't necessarily a no-brainer for companies that are wary or skeptical of automation.

"The mindset is that [automated laser systems] really aren't viable for the average job shop," says Wettstein. "You have to eventually do something with the parts anyway, the argument goes, so why let them stack up over the night or weekend? What they don’t see is how much higher the productivity and the green-light time is for an automated laser."

According to Wettstein, some customers have decreased their overall number of machines when they’ve gone with automation and still increased capacity. In the case of BR Metal, it was also able to reduce the number of manned shifts, increasing capacity, as well.

In 2005, BR Metal bought its first Mitsubishi FMS laser system and because of its extensive usage and minimal problems, a second laser was added a year later, a step made easier by the system's modular design.

Since then, BR Metal has never looked back.

Today, the lasers run seven days a week, around the clock, with two unmanned shifts. The company's scrap savings have notably improved, having gone from about 70 percent use of a sheet to upward of 95 percent use. Also, its workforce has been trimmed by eight employees, and it saves anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a month in CNC tooling costs alone.

Two years after purchasing the Mitsubishi lasers, the harsh sound of unrealized potential has faded, replaced by the sweeter tones of success.

Dittmer isn't frustrated anymore. If anything, he's downright excited.

"We thought [the laser system] was expensive at the beginning, but the payoff has just been fantastic," he says. "It's been two years, and we’ve pretty much had it paid for [in cost savings]. And it just keeps on running and running." MM

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