Fabricating: Boosting Efficiencies at Laser Speed
- Published: February 11, 2018
Innovation drives growth, but having the right tools on the shop floor keeps that momentum rolling and production flowing
The PROBLEM Increasing demand stifled by production bottlenecks
THE SOLUTION Implementing an oversize format fiber laser
In the small town of Innisfail, AB, just 30 clicks south of Red Deer, Ellis Fabrications Inc. (EFI) started out in a modest 111 sq m (1,200 sq ft) job shop, building attachments for construction equipment in 2001. Today, EFI and its sister company GroundWorks Safety Systems (GWSS) have a 7,000 sq m (74,000 sq ft) facility where they manufacture a large portfolio of attachments, such as grapples, thumbs, buckets, and rippers, custom designs for any heavy equipment industry, and trench boxes for the shoring industry.
Such growth over the past 16 years has been propelled by innovative industry solutions and racing to keep up with demand. However, it has been a rugged road of navigating through production stumbling blocks along the way.
Growing with the flow
When it first started, EFI was importing machines and building the attachments on them. “The Caterpillar dealer in Western Canada asked for our help and sent us more orders than we could do,” says Jim Foley, CEO of EFI and GWSS. “They sent 700 orders in three weeks, and we were expecting maybe 50.”
Buried in orders in their little shop, Foley’s team moved to a 836 sq m (9,000 sq ft) facility in 2005. “Caterpillar financed our first machining centre, cranes, plasma table, press brake, etc. And we started building for them,” says Foley.
But they quickly outgrew that one too, and moved to a 1,486 sq m (16,000 sq ft) facility in 2008. “Those three years were hard. We felt the [economic] downturn pretty heavy out here because the amount of equipment being built was six months ahead. Inventory levels were over 1,000 per cent.”
By 2011, business ramped up again. Foley and his team reinvented a grapple that was safer and easier to use, changes that have since become an industry standard. The traditional grapples on the market were built with mild steel tubing and hydraulic lines that were fully exposed to hazards while in use. EFI’s design was built entirely out of high tensile steel plate and the hydraulic hoses were protected by incorporating custom built cylinders and manifolds.
In 2012 EFI moved to its current facility and bought its first laser – a used 7 kw 10 x 40 dual pallet C02 laser. “We thought it would change our lives, then we thought it would ruin our lives,” laughs Foley.
The facility now makes a large variety of attachments, such as grapples, thumbs, buckets and rippers, as well as custom designs for the heavy equipment industry and trench boxes for the shoring industry.
With next to no support, Ryan MacLean, cutting manager for EFI and GWSS, put a lot of sweat and perseverance into getting it running. “We started from a zero point in terms of all of our cutting parameters. It was basically just throwing numbers against the wall and seeing what sticks and trying to teach ourselves [how to use] this thing,” says MacLean. “We really struggled, especially with thicker stock sizes. In some areas we would do alright, but a lot of our parts require very high precision with relatively low tolerance for deviations compared to other cutting processes. So historically we’ve been doing all our thick plates on our waterjet tables. We’d get our precision and our quality but they were brutally slow compared to any other cutting.”
In the trenches
GWSS came into fruition in 2015 when Foley was on a work site watching a trench box being assembled. The set up and takedown of a single 10x12 foot traditional trench box takes about four hours and requires five to seven workers, and up to two machines and operators. “It was so dangerous,” says Foley. “While I was standing there, I got a picture in my head of our new trench box and how it went together. We already had about a year of engineering into one. I showed Devon Graham, our production manager, my idea and within a week we had a prototype.”
Foley’s team produced a new trench box system using high tensile steel and a new four-sided universal connection system. It’s up to 40 per cent lighter than traditional trench boxes, but it can be assembled in 15 minutes by one worker and one machine operator.
With the trench boxes added to its roster, the production floor was struggling to keep pace. “We picked up a TRUMPF 3050 5 x 10 laser to help us keep up with the trench boxes, but we couldn’t build quick enough,” says MacLean. “We had two waterjets, two 400 ton press brakes, a Koike plasma 10 x 50, three CNC lathes, three CNC mills, a CNC boring mill and a couple of manual machining centres on our steel processing side. But still, our production couldn’t keep up.”
In 2017, EFI add a TRUMPF TruLaser 3060 fiber 2D laser cutting machine to its arsenal, a technology Foley calls a production game changer. “TRUMPF helped ease the transition, setting up the financing and getting it delivered in a matter of weeks, rather than months,” says Foley. “Within the first week, it shifted our production.”
MacLean explains, “the fiber laser basically took that entire workload off of our waterjet tables and would do the cuts that we had been spending 30 to 40 hours on in three or four hours. Our waterjet cutting area is also smaller, so we’d have to preprocess our plate, cutting it down to size just to get it onto the waterjet. Now, we just have to handle the plate once, get it on the TruLaser and let it run.”
Before the introduction of the fiber laser, the cutting department was required to operate 24 hours; four days a week, with additional 12 hour shifts on the other three days to stay ahead of production requirements of the manual weld bays, according to Graham. “If there was an issue with any of the equipment in the cutting department, the weld bays would catch up and production would stumble. Within two weeks from the introduction of the fiber laser we had two weeks worth of parts cut and kitted ahead of the weld process.”
In fact, within the first week of running the TRUMPF laser, MacLean buried the weld bays and parts crews. “It almost shut our cutting down to the point that we had to find work for the guys because we caught up so fast,” says Foley. “We recently put new IGM robotic cells in our welding areas to try to get our economies to scale.”
The more Foley’s team learns about the TruLaser, they’re able to produce faster and more efficiently. For example, a large portion of the parts required for GWSS’s shoring products use ⅝, ¾ and one-inch thick high tensile plates ranging in thickness from 0.1 in. up to 1 in. The CO2 lasers were cutting at 160 ipm, but the fiber laser is cutting at 1,200 ipm for the same plate thickness.
“Our waterjets were required to produce around the clock, at a running cost that is almost double the cost of running the fiber laser,” says Graham.
And MacLean points out that while the heat produced from the fiber laser is intense, and they did have some intermediate cut quality issues on thicker plates when they started, implementing TRUMPF’s CoolLine feature–a built-in water system that cools the material as it cuts–was a big turning point.
Poised for growth, EFI and GWSS are expanding into the US and Europe and have patents pending in several countries. Now, with the fiber laser and the new robotic welding cells online, Foley says they’re going to more than triple the company’s income. He adds, “I can see needing to buy another fiber laser in the near future. We hope TRUMPF builds a bigger one.”