by Nestor Gula
Handling downstream operations with today’s faster lasers
Everybody knows that to grow a successful business you must invest into it. This usually entails investing in people, machinery or systems. Integrating the new investment, be it a new procedure, a new hire or a modern piece of equipment, can occasionally be tricky.
A modern fast cutting laser system will speed up your cutting work, but integrating it into your present workflow can pose some challenges. “You bring a laser in to solve a particular problem and that would be because of a bottleneck in making flat blanks,” says Bill Bossard, president of Salvagnini America Inc.
“As soon as you bring the laser in, you don’t have a bottleneck making flat blanks anymore, but now you’re making so many flat blanks that you’re pushing it downstream to the forming operation. Now you have a bottleneck in forming and you’ve got blanks all over the place, but you don’t have enough people, enough machines or enough grip process to push them through the forming. So now it’s time to invest in some new technology in the forming. And you keep doing that all the way through your shop until you finally push it out the door in assembly. That’s the whole process of capital investment and process improvement; you start with your biggest bottleneck and you keep pushing downstream until you get the entire path cleared.”
Due to the speed of machines, you may need to tweak workflow design and management. “There could be more traffic around the laser system. As lasers tend to cut faster, you’ll often see employees delivering more material, and then removing an increased number of cut parts and skeletons, depending on how fast the system is cutting,” says Jon Blom, senior laser product specialist for Hypertherm.
Material handling must be well coordinated, whether the machine has an automated loader or not. “Material handling is the most important aspect on the shop floor,” adds Frank Arteaga, head of product marketing, Market Region NAFTA at Bystronic. “If the laser is not presented with the materials it needs to process in a timely manner, then the machine will be idle. If the cut materials are not unloaded off of the shuttle table before the next sheet is required for cutting, then the machine is again idle.”
Overwhelming the existing older equipment and processes is a real concern when adding fast lasers. “When you’re talking about five, six, seven times the amount of throughput, you’re going to bury the processes on the back end and that’s typically why we look at two press breaks per laser,” says Brett Thompson, TruLaser product manager for TRUMPF. “What we want is to analyze and what we always help our customers analyze is the ROI calculation on the laser. We see that by going from a plasma table to a high productivity fiber laser we’re moving so much quicker on a very inexpensive machine to operate, that the actual cost per part goes down even though I have a machine that’s substantially more expensive than the plasma table.”
Often, upgrading equipment will expose other weaknesses in a company’s manufacturing process. If your problem point was cutting and you introduce a new fast laser cutting system into your shop, this might then expose other problem areas.
“It’s going to point out your weak spots. Find out what your company goals are and identify where potential problems can be upstream and downstream in this large investment in technology,” says Dustin Diehl, laser division product manager for Amada America.
A full analysis of your company’s procedures must be done to highlight and weed out potential problem areas.
“The legacy equipment, software and processes must be able to keep pace with the high speed laser. From front-end office tasks in preparing orders, to downstream processes such as bending, welding, painting and shipping,” adds Arteaga. “In most cases, there will need to be adjustments and enhancements to accommodate the new high speed laser.”
Making sure parts are handled properly and efficiently after exiting a laser cutting system will eliminate bottlenecks and confusion in the shop.
“When a fiber laser becomes part of a fabrication cell, it’s important that secondary/downstream steps can be handled with the same accuracy and efficiency that the laser provides, says Stefan Colle, laser product sales manager at LVD Strippit. “Otherwise, the user won’t reap the full advantages of the laser. If a part needs a bending operation after cutting, the user needs to consider whether the current press brake can be optimized to reduce setup times and generate accurate bends. This may mean using more advanced tooling or programming software, or it could entail a machine upgrade or replacement.”
Utilizing the full capability of the laser system, welding, punching, bending, if the system has the capability, will decrease bottlenecks downstream as well.
The addition of a laser system will not just effect the shop floor, the front office staff will also need to adjust to the reality of working with a fast and powerful machine. “I would say it “encourages” change in the front office from a perspective of possibly how products are engineered for assembly,” explains Al Bohlen, president of Mazak Optonics North America. “Knowing that the laser will produce a kit of parts faster, then you have to consider how these parts come together to be welded, painted, etc. It could change even the way parts are shipped to the customer. For example, we see many locations now making multiple shipments in a single day to the same customer. The idea of producing parts or product all day long and then making one large shipment at the end is a thing of the past, and most shipment companies provide for multiple pick ups in a single day. This ultimately provides better inventory management and overall profitability.”
Sales staff will also be briefed on the new capabilities of the machine and the potential to drive more sales to the company due to the speed and precision of the laser machine
“Sales and engineering should have general knowledge about the capabilities and realistic expectations about what is possible to cut with the machine. Programmers should have a basic understanding of the machine, so they can work with the operator and run the machine more efficiently without interruption,” says Blom. “As with any new piece of equipment, there is a learning period to find out how to make the laser run more productively. Effective communication within the shop is key, because what actually needs to be done will vary with each customer.” SMT