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Laser Technology
Tuesday | 01 September, 2009 | 5:24 am

On the high road

By Abbe Miller

August 2009 - There’s more than one way to get from point A to point B. For travelers with time to kill, there’s always the scenic route. For those that have to put the pedal to the metal, the interstate is a no-brainer. Regardless of the time allotted to get there, it’s rare that getting lost is part of the plan. Navigational devices come in handy for the leisurely motorist as well as the driver who doesn’t have a moment to spare.

According to SigmaTek, Cincinnati, its SigmaNest Version 9 is meant to "enhance the user interface and provide key functionality to get to production faster with fewer steps." In other words, the company’s nesting software will allow customers to quickly get from one project to the next while enjoying themselves along the way.

Navigating through a computer program can sometimes leave a user feeling lost, while for some successful software companies, the experience can be a walk in the park. With its soon-to-be-released SigmaNest 9, SigmaTek aimed to give its users a smooth ride through the laser nesting landscape.

"Version 9 was inspired by customer input and their production requirements," says Glenn Binder, vice president of sales and marketing at SigmaTek. "That’s what drives our products. We believe that we have a stake in the product, just as the customers are stakeholders in that product. We try and align our development with those needs. The philosophy behind the new version was the launch of operating systems that are new for Windows: the Vista operating system and Windows 7, which is also about to be released."

To date, SigmaTek has relied on a dozen of its customers to play the role of beta user for Version 9, which will be released this summer. Dennis Berg, programmer at Genie Industries, Redmond, Wash., is one of these customers. His company designs, builds and sells material handling equipment and just like any other cost-conscious company, needs to achieve the highest productivity possible. For him, the verdict is out: The road ahead looks promising.

"The look is a lot different," says Berg. "With its ribbon-type icons and menus, it’s more geared to a Vista format. The menu items are a lot different from the previous version, but now that I’m used to it, I like it. It runs a lot faster and a lot better."

Merge ahead
Every successful trip starts with a good set of directions. For any production floor, a job is initiated with work orders. With Version 9, the efficient delivery of those work orders was a feature the company’s programmers wanted to address. Today, the software can be integrated with just about any ERP or MRP system on the market.

"In more and more shops these days, companies are using enterprise systems," says Binder. "Therefore, we’ve enhanced the interface with those systems, automatically. There are so many non-value-adding tasks between systems, such as paperwork lying on people’s desks in old-fashioned in- and out-baskets. Version 9 eliminates all of that by allowing programmers to see work orders faster. So we’re cutting out all of that waste."

In addition, Version 9 has been integrated with a variety of CAD packages. SolidWorks, SolidEdge and AutoDesk Inventor, as well as many other popular CAD/CAM programs, all work seamlessly with the new SigmaNest version.

"The integration between the enterprise system and the solid modeling package combines to easily place work orders into SigmaNest," he says. "The programmer now has the ability to produce parts on time and with information on cutting times and material usage."

Men at work
For laser cutting, the purpose of nesting software is to get the most bang for one’s buck out of each sheet of material.

"We believed that we owed our customers improved nesting," says Binder. "Version 9 features what we call cluster nesting. Typically, the old-type nesting put the largest part down and then the second largest and so forth, filling up a sheet progressively from largest to smallest. Our new system, however, intelligently groups parts in an economical fashion to improve the utilization of the sheet, regardless of size."

But value can also be found beyond the number of cut pieces a laser machine operator gets out of his metal. To find true cost savings, not only should the entire sheet of material be utilized but it should also be done in the most effective way. The same is true for all major CNC cutting and punching machines, which are also addressed with the software.

"We’ve reduced the number of clicks it takes to do different tasks," says Binder. "For example, if we know that the programmer is going to click in a certain area, we’ll automatically eliminate that click but still bring up his desired window. We’ve also shifted a lot of the part parameters into a single window so the user doesn’t have to page through multiple windows."

Binder considers Version 9 as a breakthrough in nesting software and is quite pleased with its different design. The new system has a 3-D feel to it, which creates a current, contemporary look and usability. "Increased functionality on the mouse is another enhancement," says Binder. "By right clicking, a menu comes up so that the user doesn’t have to go up to the menu or to the tool bars. It can almost be considered a menu on-the-fly."

Another significant change has been SigmaNest’s mode of display for drawings. Past editions delivered drawings in a wire format, but now drawings are seen in a solid-type format.

"It gives you a more realistic look," says Berg. "With the wire format, sometimes you don’t see everything. I worked with it that way for years, and when they changed, I thought I wouldn’t like it because I couldn’t tell what was an internal cut as opposed to an external cut. But now I find that I like it better."

Recommended maximum speed
The laser head takes a substantial trip every time the laser equipment is fired up. It can travel across the surface of material at more than 1,000 inches per minute. Where that laser head starts and how it gets from one cut to the next is essential manufacturing productivity and material utilization.

"We’ve improved the motion aspect of the product," says Binder. "Once we have the nest and we’re going to start cutting the part, we’ve been able to improve the minimization of machine movement by managing the lead-in. Ninety-five percent of the time, you burn through the material on the part. You move a little bit away, burn through the material and then lead-in through the part. And then the laser head picks up and moves to the next part. Therefore, the position of the lead-in is important. Whether the lead-in is on the near side or the far side of the material, it will affect the length of travel."

So optimizing the point of entry was something that SigmaNest identified as a significant enhancement that the company could incorporate in its Version 9. The proper position of the lead-in can minimize the overall rapid travel for the machine, which reduces the cutting time allocated for the task. Beyond saving actual travel time, it reduces the wear and tear potentially incurred by the machine.

With all this talk of travel, SigmaNest announced that it, too, would hit the streets. Its Power of 9 Road Show offers interested parties the chance to interact with SigmaTek representatives to determine whether Version 9 is right for their operations. The tour will start in September at SigmaTek’s home base in Cincinnati and will continue through October, ending in Seattle. And if it’s anything like the new Version 9, it’s safe to say that there won’t be any bumps in the road along the way. MM

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