ASK THE EXPERT: Peter Visser of Mate Precision Technologies on the turret punch press vs laser decision

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Choosing between a turret punch press and a laser cutting machine is a critical decision that will significantly impact the efficiency, precision, and overall success of your metal fabrication operation. Both technologies have their pros and cons, but which is the best fit for your operation? To help you reach a more informed decision, Peter Visser, regional manager, Mate Precision Technologies, provides his expert advice.

SHOP: In making the decision between laser cutting and punch pressing what are the most important questions to take into consideration?

VISSER: The first question we ask customers is what’s your material type and thickness? That will determine a lot. Generally, if it’s 1/8 inch thick they tend to go laser. But if it’s under 1/8 inch thick I would put my money on a turret.

Second question is are you doing perforations and if they are doing round holes perforations it’s a no brainer, buy a turret. It can punch 10x the speed of a laser. If you have a square or rectangular perforated pattern because the laser can run a common line it can cut those pretty quick now, pretty close to how fast a turret can punch them. But if it’s a round hole the laser doesn’t have a common line and most perforations are round holes. I can possibly make a cluster tool that hits 60 holes in one hit. There is no way a laser can do 60 holes in a split second.

Next question is are you going to make any forms? If they are going to be making forms, which would be louvers, extrusions, etc, you wouldn’t even consider a laser. I have a metal sample sheet that shows all the different forms and discuss the possibilities with a turret. Forms can help reduce spot welding because you can snap parts together with clip type tools, you can have locators for stud welding, which you can’t do in a laser. A lot of times people who have just bought lasers, once I’ve shown them the sample sheets, they say they wish they had known this before buying the laser. Also forming small internal flanges that are difficult to form in a press brake can be formed in a turret.  Looking at a customer’s parts/drawings will help determine if a turret is a better fit.  

Another important question is how many parts are you going to make? If you’re going to buy a laser, with the cost to purchase and run it, if you’re not going to have enough parts business to run it at least eight hours a day you may not get your return of investment.

As far as quality, the laser has come a long way but with aluminum the burr is still pretty pronounced. As you get thicker and thicker that burr grows. There is a lot of secondary finishing that has to happen with a laser that people aren’t aware of and downstream they have to buy a second machine to finish off the parts to get all that slag and debris and burr off the sheet. So that’s an advantage of the turret. If you have a brand new turret and the right clearances, burrs are pretty minimal and with powder painting sometimes you don’t even have to do secondary operations to clean up the part. The fit and finish of holes and edges are better in a turret.

Budget is another question.  A punch is considerably less of an upfront cost to purchase than a laser. Not only can it do some things a laser can’t, but it certainly comes at a lower cost. And you can operate a turret for 25-30 years and that thing is going to keep running. I won’t say the technology has advanced as fast as laser has but it hasn’t needed to. You can only run a punch machine as fast as a tool can go in and out of the sheet and so the heat of the tool really dictates how fast a turret machine can run.

SHOP: Do you often see shops making the wrong equipment decision?

Yes, I still see in my travels a lot of companies buying the wrong equipment. I’ve seen lots of people buy lasers who should have bought a turret. From my experience over the past 20 years in this market, there are companies that don’t offer a punch press so when new fabricators are looking at equipment there are people quoting machinery without the option to quote for a punch. So a lot of times what happens with the guys selling laser only is they have to sell it as the machine that is the latest technology and that can solve everything and so it’s all you need.

By the same token I’ve seen people buy turrets who do a lot of stainless or get into a lot of stainless and they should have bought a laser instead. So we try to educate people on why to buy a turret over a laser and vice versa.

SHOP: One of the major advances in turret technology is electrification. How is that affecting performance?

VISSER: What it does is provide consistent programming of the machine. It will allow you to do continuous beads and bead forming, offset forming. It will allow you to turn the machine on the next day and if your form height was set at 200 thousandths it will hit the exact same spot again. With hydraulic machines it changed throughout the day as the oil heated up and the machine had wear and tear or there was excess humidity. There were just so many factors that made it difficult to have that consistency in forming. The greatest achievement in the electrical machine was pure consistency. And also lower energy costs, of course. You don’t have to do expensive oil changes and have expensive accumulators to replace over time so cost of operation is very low on an electric machine compared to the previous hydraulic machines.

SHOP: Speaking of cost of operation, in your experience when people do make the decision in favor of laser are they taking into account the cost of things such as consumables?

VISSER: You know they really don’t because it’s sort of an unknown. I’ve seen people buy a laser and think the consumable costs would be low and then they find out that depending on the material they cut that consumables are very costly. Nozzle prices have gone up, the nozzles are more complex to machine and so more expensive to purchase. I think a lot of people thought it would be less expensive because you no longer need helium gas to cut but the fiber lasers are high wattage and they suck a lot of power, especially if you are doing aluminum.

Painting the edge of sheet metal parts coming off the turret is a plus.  With a laser if you plan on painting, the paint won’t stick to oxygen cut edges which means you have to run nitrogen, which is expensive compared to oxygen or shop air for cutting.  Or you have to remove the cut edge with an edge removal machine (including holes inside the sheet metal part).  So needing secondary machines for such operations can be an overlooked expense.  

SHOP: Turrets have been around a long time. Lasers are newer technology and changing rapidly as you mentioned. Do you think that is causing a misplaced belief that the punch press is a technology of the past?

VISSER: I think for a lot of people, the answer is yes. That is the feeling for this technology and it’s unfortunate because where both the laser and the turret need to improve is automation. This is another consideration where the turret still wins. Lasers are running parts so fast now that they can’t always be sorted out the back end and taken care of because sometimes the automation can’t keep up. And if the shop doesn’t have automation, the machine can only run as fast as a human can take the parts off it. Turrets have really had a long time to refine how that process works and the parts that come off the back can be sorted and stacked at the pace that the machine runs with no buffering happening.

SHOP: So the need to add automation is a valid consideration in deciding whether to opt for laser?

VISSER: Correct. You might need to consider the cost of automation and that may also change your budget and your dynamics. Maybe you don’t need as high a wattage of a machine. For most shops cutting they only need 2,000-4,000 watts. I think there is a lot of over buying of power.

SHOP: When is laser the better option?

VISSER: The range of materials you can cut with laser now is endless. Stainless is good in a laser because laser it can cut it at great speeds. With a punch it gets really hot in stainless and you have to run it a little slower. And also because it’s hard and abrasive there is a lot of wear on turret tools. The laser doesn’t have a tooling issue so it’s a big advantage. You can just plug and play and cut.

Another big advantage of laser is nesting. You don’t need to have a border like you do with a turret so you can utilize every inch of that material essentially. So you get greater part yield in a laser compared to a turret per sheet and sheets are expensive.

Another plus of the laser is not having to order tools. If you have a special shape or specialty radius you can just throw it on the laser and cut. You don’t have to wait to load specialized tools. A laser is really good for rapid prototyping.

SHOP: There certainly seems to be a lot of things to consider. If a job shop is looking to make such a decision, what should it expect from Mate to make the decision more informed?

VISSER: We sell both laser and punch products. We have almost 30 years experience in laser and over 60 in turrets, so we’ve seen a lot and we can advise customers which machine would be best for their needs.

Peter Visser, is regional sales manager with Mate Precision Technologies.

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