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Laser Technology
Tuesday | 11 January, 2011 | 6:19 am

The next step

By Lauren Duensing

December 2010 - Earlier this summer, the company previously known as Robinson Steel relaunched with a new name and new value proposition. Robinson Laser LLC, East Chicago, Ind., has transformed into what Paul Labriola, CEO, says is essentially "a service center for laser parts." "We are taking Robinson Laser in a whole new direction, onto a whole new platform," Labriola says. "Every part of the transaction is in real-time." The company still provides customers with RPS-quality steel through Cargill Inc., Minneapolis, a global trader, processor and distributor of iron and steel. In 2007, Robinson Steel entered a joint venture with Cargill, which culminated in Cargill’s 2010 purchase of Robinson Steel’s assets.

"The management risk for steel got too big," Labriola says. "It was overwhelming. We saw prices drop $800 per ton. Our customers were saying, ‘I can’t pay you,’ and we sustained those losses. Steel is a full-blown commodity now, and Cargill is synonymous with commodity. They also have a global footprint, and that’s important. It was an easy decision."

Streamlining production
Robinson Laser’s goal is to create transparency throughout the production process. To do this, the company has opened its databases to customers. In 1997, Robinson Steel introduced RPS 24Hour Nesting, a proprietary program that aggregates the part demands of different customers for cutting at one time. Subsequently, it developed the proprietary RPS Realtime Production Sequencing, which distributes part production across the company’s laser machines, and RPS QuickLink, a secure customer part catalog database.

robinsonlaser140x140In July 2010, Robinson Laser put all three of these processes online for customers to access in real-time. Customers can log on to Robinson Laser’s RPS PriceCheck 24 hours a day, seven days a week and receive a real-time, market-based price for a single part, a small-quantity package part or a nested production part.

"Customers go to the site, take a CAD drawing, convert it to the standard DXF and upload it to our site. In less than a second, we will give them a market-relevant price, as well as a picture of the drawing," Labriola says. "We will even indicate on the drawing where we see deficiencies in the geometry. If a circle is not completely closed or two lines are drawn and they don’t meet, we’ll use our algorithms to finish the shape and show the changes to the customer in red."

He says this drawing-to-price progression is the first level of utility for customers, allowing them to determine the dollar impact of design and material changes. Challenger Lifts, Louisville, Ky., a designer, manufacturer and distributor of automotive lifts, jacks and auto lift accessories, has been a customer of Robinson Steel and now Robinson Laser since 2002.

"We currently purchase around 40,000 pounds of laser-cut parts per week," says Steve Thompson, purchasing manager for Challenger Lifts. "RPS PriceCheck allows our engineers to design a part or product efficiently," he continues. "Engineers can make a design change and instantly find out the new price for the part. Our engineers can take that information and figure out the most cost-effective design for that part. The RPS PriceCheck is a huge improvement [from] submitting a print and waiting a day for a quote."

In addition, customers have the option to stay anonymous during the initial stage. "A customer can choose to save the part, but if they’re working on something like a top-secret part, as soon as they come off the site, they end the session, which erases it," Labriola says. "But if they want to come back to it later, they have the option to sign up as a user and create a catalog."

Creating a catalog in RPS RealTime allows customers to upload hundreds of parts, receive a market-relevant price, and, as a result, determine their cost structure. "We’ll show you how many parts your company needs to buy to get to your desired price point," Labriola says

Once the customer makes a decision on price, he submits the quote. "It’s all done electronically," Labriola says. "We’ll tell you in real-time if the quote has been approved or rejected. If we reject your quote, it’s generally because of delivery. The customer says, ‘We have to have these 400 parts on Tuesday,’ and we say, ‘Nope, you have to have them on Thursday.’"

The quoted price is good for seven days, and once a customer accepts the quote, Robinson Laser takes one last look to "make sure we can meet delivery, check credit and check drawings so they are full production. Within two hours, we’ll confirm the order. Customers can take their design and go into production in four hours. Typically in this business it could take you six days to two weeks to just get your quote back," Labriola says.

Optimized material use
"Once customers put in the order, they move into the last stage, which is RPS QuickLink," Labriola continues. "QuickLink is where we manage the entire catalog, order book, historical and prospective information for each customer. Customers can come and see the real-time production sequencing."

Robinson Laser nests entire orders for the lasers, aggregating more than one customer’s order on the same sheet. "We are always nesting at the highest saturation. The only time we’ll take a less-than-ideal nest is to meet delivery," Labriola says.

He points out real-time production sequencing also selects the best nest for the best machine so all the parts can meet up at the end of processing. "We have to make sure that all the parts are delivered as required, and real-time production sequencing does that for us automatically. It’s manipulating time," Labriola says. "If a job takes eight hours, it takes eight hours, but if you have eight lasers, it takes one linear hour."

Dividing that time among Robinson’s 40 lasers from Trumpf Inc., Farmington, Conn., allows the company to fine-tune each order to give customers flexibility, ranging from a one-off part to an entire kit. Because they can access the system 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anyone can place or change an order at any time.

And, beginning in December, Robinson Laser plans to "accept credit cards online for part payment including shipping," Labriola says. "Utilizing the UPS distribution network, Robinson Laser will seamlessly integrate from design to shipment in real-time."

"Robinson’s QuickLink aids Challenger Lifts in three areas: scheduling, inventory control and real-time laser status," Thompson says. "QuickLink allows Challenger Lifts to change orders due to schedule changes. The auto lift industry is unpredictable, and Robinson’s QuickLink allows us to match raw materials with current demand. We can also add or drop parts due to an increase or decrease in demand for our various product lines." The ability to make quick decisions and quick changes "allows us to maintain a low inventory and maintain the ability to fill customer orders," Thompson points out. "Rarely do you find a tool that allows a company to decrease inventory while increasing customer satisfaction." In addition, he says, "QuickLink allows Challenger Lifts to track specific parts through the manufacturing process. Real-time laser status takes the guessing out of the status of orders. We can check to see if parts are scheduled, waiting for material in production, in packaging or ready to ship. If there’s a problem with producing an order, Challenger Lifts is aware of the issues before the ship date. MM

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