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Laser Technology
Friday | 08 May, 2020 | 11:28 am

Green light

Written by By Lauren Duensing

Higher-wattage lasers are fast, but manufacturers might get better results from a lower-power laser combined with automation

May 2020 - A new laser cutting machine is a huge investment. When making the leap, it’s easy to be  attracted to the highest wattage laser, thinking its cutting capabilities assuredly increase productivity and reduce operating costs. But when laser-cut parts are piling up because the bending or welding department isn’t set up to match cutting volume, how efficiently is that faster-cutting laser fitting into the overall process?

Dustin Diehl, laser division product manager at Amada America Inc., says that it’s human nature to want the most powerful machine—the bigger-is-better mindset. But, “the whole picture is the overall investment. Can you get by with less wattage? There is a lot more to your actual cost per part.”

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The HG AR is a fully integrated robotic bending system with a 6-axis robot, Automatic Gripper Changer (AGC), and Automatic Tool Changer (ATC) with patented Amada tooling.

“First, evaluate what your goals are,” adds Jason Hillenbrand, Amada’s general manager for blanking and automation. “Often, customers think they want the most power, but it’s really about throughput—how many parts you can get through the entire process within a given period of time.”

A closer look at actual needs, wants and part mix may reveal that the higher-wattage laser is not the best choice. “We might steer a customer into a little different approach,” Diehl says, “getting them away from a something like a standalone 9,000 kW and moving toward an automated, smaller wattage machine that can actually produce a lot more parts in the same 24-hour period.”

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The EG 6013 AR is designed specifically for unmanned production of any volume size or part mix.

Adding automation

Automation plays a critical role in achieving efficiency, comments Phillip Picardat, Amada’s automation product manager, “especially when you are dealing with large sheets and thicker material. It is time consuming to physically load the material onto a table and into the laser. Having automation do that makes it so your people on the floor have an easier time and can keep the system running without as much labor-intensive work.”

Because laser technology has advanced so much over the last decade, material can be processed a lot quicker, he continues. “Now, you are getting into bottlenecks on the bending side or even assembly and painting. It is becoming necessary to create a solution with automation to make your entire facility run smoother.”

To evaluate just how efficiently they are running parts, Amada encourages customers to look at green-light-on (GLO) time. “This is when the machine is working,” Diehl says, emphasizing that GLO goes beyond cutting to “sheet transfers, edge detection, nozzle changes”—the steps that a laser takes to create a part.

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Amada’s ENSIS fiber laser technology ensures precise, high-speed results.

“We know that a standalone machine with an operator that’s hand loading and unloading —using a very good process, which means material is delivered to them and programs are ready to go—you might see a 60 percent green-light-on time. That’s a good environment. Quite often, an operator is his own forklift driver, so he goes and gets the material and brings it back, then maybe has to make a few edits to the program. All of a sudden, that standalone machine is down in the 40 to 50 percent green-light-on time range.”

Adding automation to that same machine, though, can boost its GLO time dramatically, often above 85 percent. This occurs because “there are so many things you can do while the machine is running to help you be more efficient. You can schedule the upcoming programs, coordinate material deliveries and load material up for the next shift,” Diehl says. “That can add up to a 30 to 40 percent increase in making parts.”

Material in, parts out

The up-front cost for an automated system will be greater than for a standalone, but “when you’re making more parts in the same amount of time, it’s paying for itself a lot quicker,” Diehl says.

He cites a customer he worked with that had been in business for some time and was working with an assortment of older equipment. “It was getting hard for them to bid on work because a lot of the other job shops in the area had already moved into high-speed lasers. Although their processes were comfortable and reliable, they understood it was time to step up their game and be more competitive,” Diehl says.

Knowing that their competition was using higher-power lasers, naturally, this customer  wanted a similar machine. “But we looked at their process and discovered that a lower-wattage machine would provide great improvements on the bulk of their work, and that also opened up some capital to improve their press brake technology. Almost a two-for-one.”

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Amada offers a diverse assortment of modular automation options that let customers configure their system according to specific operational requirements.

The benefits of automation don’t stop at the lasers, Picardat adds, but can include bending and fiber welding automation. “We have a customer that already had bending automation and laser automation and justified purchasing a fiber welder just by the savings in abrasives they were using to grind [off] the poor welds.”

Another customer, a small OEM that makes products from stainless steel, needed an automated system to remove the parts from the laser and stack them without scratching, Picardat continues.

“They were at the point where they needed more operators who could form the parts but, as a small shop, they were concerned about hiring more employees. So they started looking at bending automation.” After the upgrades, the customer cuts parts on the laser, automatically removes those from the skeleton and stacks them for transfer to the bending robots.

“Their existing operators can keep these two bending robots and the laser running while also being able to work on a press brake for any custom parts that needed to be run,” Picardat explains. The increased productivity allowed the customer to grow into a larger supplier in its area.

Unlike humans, automation easily completes tasks the same way every time, which can provide hidden benefits. According to Hillenbrand, an Amada customer in California saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in scrap because of how the parts were stacked. “It kept the parts stacked in the same direction, eliminating the operator from accidentally inserting the part into the brake incorrectly. In a manual operations, many times the parts are stacked haphazardly or simply thrown into a box, allowing the parts to be rotated, adding to potential bending errors.”

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For larger lasers, Amada offers the Part Sorting Robot, which removes parts directly from the shuttle table or a buffer pallet while the laser continues to process.

A big step

When evaluating a system, a long-term view is important because an entire automated setup often has a higher price tag than a standalone laser. Hillenbrand says sometimes customers choose to purchase the high-wattage laser because it’s less expensive than the automated cell, thinking they will add to it later; however, those retrofits rarely happen once a machine is up and running. “They can’t really afford to take it down to upgrade it,” says Picardat.

“Customers who haven’t dealt with automation before have never experienced coming in to a stack of parts waiting for them to go down to bending, go over to welding,” Diehl says. “Once they start getting used to the automation, they want more of it. And that’s a big step.” MM

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