By Lou Smyrlis
Laser tube optimization software opens the doors to innovation and cost reduction in process and part design
There’s profit in being partial to process and part optimization. There’s likely hidden potential in every part your job shop pumps out as well as the process used to produce it. Unlocking that potential through clever design is how you can make your operation more profitable. This can be particularly true with laser tube cutting and the optimization software that drives it. To better understand how to squeeze the most profit out of your tube cutting through process and part optimization, we spoke with the experts from TRUMPF, Bystronic and BLM Group.
The investment in laser tube processing on its own lends itself to rethinking processes and parts.
“Our customers invest in lasers for a variety of reasons. Usually what they want to achieve from the tube laser processing is optimization of the flow of the material. That means reducing the amount of time and steps required to get to the finished part,” says Gabriele Rebessi, product manager, Bystronic.
With tube laser cutting, entire process steps can be removed. For example, as Adi Buerkler, TRUMPF Inc. TruLaser product manager, points out, instead of using a flatbed laser to cut a part and then a press brake to bend it, the part can be redesigned for a tube laser, eliminating both steps.
“A lot of our customers, whether job shops or OEMs, use traditional means such as saws, punches, machine centres, which limit the designers from creating or innovating. The saying if you can dream it then you can make it is a bit much, but the reality is the laser opens the doors to innovation and creativity,” says Robert Adelman, North America laser product manager, BLM Group. “What used to be simple cuts and miters are now compound miters with tabs for alignment and compound copes. The programming isn’t concerned about you making irregular shapes to make the part easier or cheaper to assemble and neither does the laser. In fact, a lot of our customers bring their design team members (who won’t be programming) to review the laser technology and how they can use it to innovate their product or manufacturing.”
It wasn’t easy getting to this point, however, for tube laser optimization software. While flat sheet laser software designers did an excellent job over the past decade in helping fabricators get parts out of their flat sheet material in the most efficient and profitable manner, there were distinct challenges in building such programming on the tube side.
“The challenge with designing tube software is that it’s a 3D environment. It can be a round tube and have 360 degrees, so 360 projections. Is it a single hole or a through hole? You don’t have those sorts of issues in the flat sheet world,” Adelman points out. “Not only do you have it in the software but even in the machine. When you get to nesting, you have to consider how to rotate parts to nest them, using what we call commonline cutting with flat sheet. We can do that with tube but it’s much more complex because it could be round, square, rectangular and it has miters and a lot more points to focus on. It is much more complex in the tube world but the customers don’t have to experience that anymore because it’s part of the software.”
Another issue holding back laser tube optimization software was that much of it was written by third-party developers who were placing more emphasis on the sheet side of the programming. That began to change when the major laser tube providers brought the optimization software programming inhouse, leveraging the inherent synergies of controlling the design of the machine and the software that drove its capabilities.
“We manufacture our own machines, we have our own software, and it is all combined. You can build and write the best software this way and we have done that with Programming Tube, which simplifies a lot of the process in the background for the customer,” says Buerkler. “For example, we can bring in single part step files, 3D files, and within three clicks we can generate a program. We can do the same thing for assemblies. We can pull in small assemblies or large assemblies with a couple of hundred parts and within minutes we can have the program and nesting ready and know exactly how much material will be needed to cut the whole assembly.”
Production optimization is about reducing steps in the process to cut down on the time required to weld and assemble parts. Rebessi points out that Bystronic software is capable of adding notches and connections between parts, and uniting different parts into one. Take for example the frame of a window, made of four different parts, two short parts on the top and bottom and two long parts on the side. Thanks to the software, you can unite the four parts and the welder can simply bend them over manually without using jigs to unite them on the table.
“Thanks to the software you improve the time required to assemble the part because the end part is already done, all you need to do is bend it over. It’s not four different parts, it’s a single part and even the time for the welding is less. You can imagine the amount of welding that is reduced,” Rebessi says.
Adelman provides the example of a new feature with the BLM optimization software that helps deal with end caps. The new feature allows you to create the end cap out of the tube, thus ensuring it’s the correct size and already locked in so there’s no need to create a fixture. All it requires is for it to be bent over and snapped into place before applying the weld, removing the need to cut the end cap on the flat and fixture it before welding.
Nesting optimization is also more challenging with tube compared to working with plate because there are more variables. But many strides have been made here as well.
“There are two ways to optimize nesting. With a flatbed laser you always know your sheet size, whether a 5×10 or 4×8 or 4×4. With tube, the length received from the tube mill can vary. A benefit of our machine is that each time a tube is loaded it’s automatically measured, so the machine knows exactly how long it is,” Buerkler says. “From there you can proceed in two ways: You can have the machine nest parts automatically to minimize remnants (the minimum remnant is 4 3/4 inches) and if you don’t have any holes, slots or contours in the last five or six inches we can actually apply blank processing, so you have zero scrap.” You can also do a fixed nest, assigning certain parts onto a tube, but Buerkler says he always advises customers that it’s best to allow the machine to handle it.
“Upload all your programs, input the quantities you want for each part, and the machine will automatically nest to minimize the remnant,” he says.
Adding to how optimization programming can be used to deal with the huge issue of irregular sizing received from tube mills, Adelman points to a feature with BLM software that enables the creation of jobs over the course of the week and as new orders come in with similar sections, the jobs can be automatically combined to create larger jobs and better nestings. From there the programmer can set up days of the week to run specific sections/jobs to limit the number of changeovers which accounts for a lot of the downtime in shops.
“The beauty of that is that it allows you to create the most optimized nesting and the least amount of job changeover,” Adelman says.
The potential to unlock hidden profit in both process and part optimization is powerful. Based on the part being produced, TRUMPF promotes cost savings ranging from 31% all the way up to 83% when manufacturing with a laser tube cutting machine and optimizing part design. However, there is a final hurdle job shops must overcome to unlock those savings.
“I honestly think that OEMs are using the software the best because they have control over the design of the end part. They can use the software to optimize the design of the part. Unfortunately, job shops are restricted to the requirements of their customers and customers don’t always want them to apply modifications to combat scrap,” Rebessi laments. So although job shops are using the software to its fullest potential for material optimization, which is in their control, they can’t always do the same with product design if they can’t get customer permission to modify the part to optimize it.
Sometimes though, Rebessi adds, job shops have more a consultative role with customers who are open to product design modifications that lead to optimization. And that’s the final hurdle to overcome: Educate customers on the capabilities of the optimization software which benefit both the job shop and the customer. SMT