Laser Cutting: Lemonade from lemons
- July 28, 2015
Photos by Rolland Gombert
Investing in new equipment in economic downturn pays off for Alberta fabrication company
The Problem: Falling sales and a poor economy
The Solution: Invest in turret punch technology
When faced with a recession, most shop owners hunker down and hope for the best. Not so Craig Fehr and his wife Nancy, owners of Calgary Aluminum Custom Fabrication Ltd., a custom fab shop in the southeast corner of Calgary, AB. In 2008, the Fehrs decided it was time to invest in a CNC turret punch, despite slow sales and budget cutbacks by key customers. “Everything was going downhill when Giles Young, the sales rep at All Fabricating Machinery, called to tell me Strippit was offering deep incentives on their turret punches. They were also throwing in a $10,000 tooling package from Wilson Tools, enough to fill the machine up and get it going. We decided to take a look.”
Young and Fehr flew to the Strippit facility in Akron, NY, for a plant tour and meeting with management there. At the time, Calgary Aluminum was subcontracting its punching work to another Calgary shop, so in spite of the poor economy, Fehr was still able to justify the investment. Better yet, his shear operator had previous experience with Strippit equipment, promising an easy transition to the new technology. Fehr looked at the financing, crunched some numbers, and decided it made sense to buy his own machine, a Strippit CNC P1212, 21-station turret punch.
Fehr began working for the original owner of Calgary Aluminum more than 25 years ago, serving his apprenticeship there after graduating from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT Polytechnic). “It was just the two of us back then, working together in a very small shop. When he retired, my wife and I bought it from him,” he explains. Since that time, the company has expanded, adding new equipment and increasing floor space to its current 1,100 sq m (12,000 sq ft). Today, the Fehrs employ nine people, and have built a reputation as the go-to place for custom truck accessories, toolboxes, fuel tanks, and welding decks. Much of their work is TIG and MIG welding, and the shop floor has an eclectic mix of manual and CNC equipment seen in many job shops, including six welding stations, a 10 ft shear and a 220-ton press brake from Masteel.
Fehr admits he’s an old-school sheet metal worker. “The new machine took some getting used to. I was used to doing layouts by hand, notching things out with a jigsaw or drilling holes on the drill press. But the software is very easy to learn, and our operator–Traian Truta–already had experience with similar equipment. He was able to pick up on it right away.”
Truta is pleased with the Strippit. He says it’s much quieter than other brands he’s worked with, and the Wilson tooling that came with the turret press is every bit as dependable as the machine itself.
“I’m quite happy. Both are doing the job they were designed for.”
Prior to purchasing the turret punch, Fehr says the company’s work was all custom. But the ability to quickly and accurately punch whatever shape is needed has allowed Fehr and his team to develop their own line of hinges, which are not only used on the toolboxes Calgary Aluminum markets, but also sold to other manufacturers. Another opportunity that would have gone unrealized was the relocation of a nearby supplier of automotive interiors—when the company pulled up stakes and moved east, Calgary Aluminum filled the gap. “They were making all sorts of shelving and storage hardware, like you see in the back of a van used by a plumber or electrician. Now we’re building a ton of the stuff. The P1212 is just awesome for punching all the slots, holes and notches.”
The P1212 has also opened the door to new materials. Where Calgary Aluminum had previously worked almost exclusively with…you guessed it, aluminum, the ability to quickly change tools for a wide range of materials and shapes means the shop can accommodate a greater variety of work. For example, the hinges Fehr mentioned are punched from 14-gauge stainless, and the van shelving is constructed of 18-gauge galvanized steel. Punch and die sets can be swapped out in under 30 seconds, and since Fehr keeps spares on hand for the most common tools, sharpening can wait until there’s a handful of dull sets, which are then sent to a local company for touch up.
When asked why he selected a turret punch over a laser or waterjet, Fehr says not only is the punch much faster than the other two technologies, but it’s able to cut most anything that comes their way—the occasional curved lines, letters, or odd-shapes can be farmed out for laser cutting.
Giles Young, sales manager at All Fabrication Machinery J.V. in Calgary agrees. “It comes down to dollars and cents. Compared to lasers, turret punches are affordable machines. They’re reliable and inexpensive to operate. And when you’re making large quantities of something, such as Calgary Aluminum’s hinges, you can order special tooling that allows parts to be made much more quickly than on a laser. When people ask which cutting technology is best for them—laser, punch, or water—I tell them a good rule of thumb is to base their purchase on whatever equipment can best handle 80 per cent of the production requirements, material types and profiles for their shop.”
As it turns out, this was good advice. “Before the Strippit, making parts was really labour-intensive,” says Fehr. “Now we can fly through this stuff, and there’s no chance of human error like you have with manual layout and cutting. Turrets don’t take up much floor space but can still process a 4 by 8 sheet, which is an important factor for a small shop.
"And even after six years of daily operation, we’ve had zero maintenance issues. In fact, there hasn’t been a tech onsite since the installation. It’s just a well-built, solid machine.” SMT