Tube and pipe cutting is becoming more prevalent among job shops aiming to generate new streams of revenue. IMAGE: LVD StrippitClick image to enlargeby Noelle Stapinsky

Shops looking to provide more turnkey solutions are sizing up today’s advanced tube cutting technology


In the past four years, tube cutting technology has evolved with the introduction of more sophisticated lasers and automation features. Loading and offloading, programming complex cutting geometries, and working in a 3D environment has become as simple as a few clicks, and it’s all designed around operators of various skill levels. 

Today’s clients want a single vendor for projects, which is driving job shops to diversify and add capabilities beyond just sheet metal fabrication. “Tubing has become an integral part of the industry now as its capabilities are expanding more and more into how things are built. Adding tubing into the fabrication world has become a very big part of what’s being fabricated today,” says Rick Jackson, US based tube laser product sales manager for LVD Strippit. “Look anywhere and you’ll find that tube has become more prevalent in all applications. What’s driving it? There’s a saturation of fab shops out there and they need to look at other ways to generate revenue, and tubing is one of those.”

It all comes down to the design and having the ability to make a complete part from start to finish. And while 2D has been around for some time, 3D technology is enhancing tube cutting from a design perspective. “Engineers have the capability to do much more in the solid modelling software and they’re starting to look at designs and how to utilize tubing,” says Jackson. “It makes more sense to take a piece of tubing that requires holes cut in it versus a piece of flat sheet stock that would require cutting and bending to make it into a representation of a tube. And people are demanding more designs that have a much more artistic look. Making frames, for instance, out of tubing is much quicker than it is in the sheet metal arena.”

Andrew Dodd, national sales director for BLM, says that the sophistication of today’s tube cutting machines is impressive. “With three or four clicks you can go from a drawing of a part to a program on how to cut it. The speed of programming makes things like contract manufacturing very quick and efficient.”

Automation is becoming more prevalent in tube cutting machines: TRUMPF’s new TruLaser Tube 7000 fiber, which made its debut at Tube Düsseldorf 2018, features fully automated operation.  IMAGE: TRUMPFClick image to enlargeHe says designing something as simple as a picture frame could be drawn as four separate pieces of steel that would have to be welded or bolted together in the corners. “We have a feature in our software that will take a straight piece of tube and with notching and folding features—whatever we program—we can take those four pieces and convert [that design] into a single piece.

“For us, what drives this technology is the customer. It’s about saving the user of the equipment money and making it easier, quicker and more flexible.

Digital details
The software developed for these advanced tube cutting systems no longer require an engineer. BLM’s ArTube 3D CAD/CAM designing program allows users to generate a simulation. “So without going anywhere near the machine, the user can actually know exactly how the part will be processed and how long it will take without actually doing a test piece,” explains Dodd.

ArTube allows users to edit and add or remove features from the imported drawing, and they can change the shape or tube size, and adjust material thickness. On the fiber laser processing side, all of the parameters for thicknesses are preprogrammed. “You basically just import a CAD drawing into the machine and it’s going to make the cutting program.   

“The user doesn’t really have to do any programming; the machine will define the task and how it is put through the machine,” says Dodd. 

LVD Strippit’s software features multiple part nesting and project nesting. And it’s as simple as bringing a file into the program and applying the desired cut paths. “You can do multiple part nesting in a matter of a few clicks,” says Jackson. “Then we have the next tier of software that’s embedded in SolidWorks that gives us the capability of taking a drawing that might be four parts and making it one part, adding notching in between. This is a huge advantage because in order for you to be able to add notching or tabbing, you need to know where the slot falls and what sort of tab you’re going to use. We have the capabilities of doing both by simply clicking and choosing what kind of tabbing or notching you want. This is a significant advantage,” says Jackson.

A BLM tube laser cutting machine. IMAGE: BLMClick image to enlargePreprogrammed cutting parameters are also an essential development that controls the laser precision and compensates for material variations. In the tubing world there isn’t a tight standard when it comes to straightness or twists. “We’re seeing the need to compensate for tubes that are, as we say in the industry, bowed or twisted,” continues Jackson. “Most machines on the market account for these things and we have the capability to do that as well.”

Another major challenge—that’s addressed by preset parameters—is controlling backstroke from the fiber laser on the opposite wall of the tube. Jackson explains, “as far as cutting with a fiber laser you can gain a lot of speed that you couldn’t before with a C02. But you have to be conscientious of the back wall or opposite side. When you’re doing 3D cutting, if you’re hitting that opposite wall you’re going to be preheating it, unlike in the sheet metal world where there’s nothing below it. That’s something we deal with all the time. But if you get your parameters set correctly it becomes less of an issue. 

“You need to match the amount of cutting power that’s required to cut at, and at the speed you want to go at. We set the parameters that will work with different material thicknesses for you. We base these parameters on three defining criteria: tube size, wall thickness and material type.”

Locked and loaded
Another advancement in tube cutting automation is more sophisticated loading and offloading capabilities, which significantly decrease material handing processes. 

TRUMPF’s new TruLaser Tube 7000 fiber, which made its debut at Tube Düsseldorf 2018 in April, features fully automated operation. Equipped with the company’s LoadMaster Tube, the loading unit’s tube magazine holds up to four metric tons of raw material. LoadMaster Tube performs all the necessary settings automatically, which reduces setup times. Before loading, software compares the geometry of the tubes and profiles with the data stored in the control system, thereby ensuring that the right material has been loaded. 

BLM also launched its newest laser tube generation, the LT7 at Tube Düsseldorf in Germany this year. This cutting system is fully automated with 3D fiber laser cutting and loading and offloading features. “This new product is very detail driven and more user friendly,” says Dodd. “We’ve taken a number of ideas that have been in other products and brought them all together. We looked for flexibility in loading the machine and at sophistication in unloading and the parameters used to do that.”

On all of its machines, BLM offers what is called a full bundle loader. “The bundle goes straight into the back of the machine, cuts the strapping and delivers the tube straight into the machine with no other contact. We also have the ability to load a single stick or single tube. That gives the machine great flexibility,” says Dodd. 

For offloading, this process is also automated and can load parts out in four different areas and positions on the machine. “Say you’re making a table, for example, and you have six different parts. You can actually deliver each of those to different places on the machine.”

LVD’s magazine style loader is designed to answer the industry need for shorter runs and decreased material handling processes. Jackson explains that in the past it was cumbersome to utilize a bundle loader, especially if the process only required ten sticks. 

“From that perspective, an operator can bring his cart of material to the machine, place his ten sticks in the magazine loader and run those out. That, from a loading standpoint, has become very easy and there’s no special skill required.”

And once the material is loaded into the magazine, the software and hardware detect the material size, shape and length. If the operator loaded the wrong sticks, for example, it would be caught before any damage is done to the machine.  

A connected future
A key advancement in tube laser cutting machines is their ability to interface with the entire production system. Equipped with Industry 4.0 tools, machines like TRUMPF’s TruLaser Tube 7000 fiber feature items such as the Central Link interface, which can be used to gather and evaluate machine data. To increase utilization of lasers in the initial phase, users can operate equipment in a laser network, which gives them a more cost effective way to adopt new technology. In a laser network, the tube cutting system uses the beam source of a machine that is already there. Since companies don't have to invest in a laser in the first instance, it reduces the initial investment. 

Smarter technology combined with the precision and flexibility that today’s tube cutting technology is bringing to the table is gaining more attention from fabrication shops as they strive to diversify and become that one stop shop. 

And if you’re jobbing out one aspect of a project, it may be going to a competitor that’s already bidding against you. SMT

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