Laser cutters – an edge for global competitiveness

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Laser cutting is gradually gaining its place in Australia and New Zealand. If adoption of this technology overseas is an indicator, as our fabricators grow their markets we can expect more laser cutting technology to come into play.

In the USA, laser cutting is gaining popularity predominantly due to its ability to provide a high-quality edge.

Considering that our fabrication swings tend to mirror those of North America and Europe, we could expect to see more laser cutting equipment used by fabricators — particularly as integration with other high technologies such as automation and robotics.

An overseas example which is likely to be a similar (if scaled-down) occurrence here is that of Great Lakes Manufacturing, Inc..

This USA company began operations in 1998 as a precision sheet metal fabrication shop when its original function was to be a supplier to sister company Great Lakes Case & Cabinet.

However, this modest objective was met and dramatically exceeded thanks to an exceptional performance by the company's management and 102 employees.

Using the latest technology combined with a commitment to lean manufacturing the company has differentiated itself. Automation, robotics, information technology, and a high level of employee skill allows it to be competitive in a global economy – something which has been of intense interest to a growing number of fabricators in Australia and New Zealand.

But the telling factor has been that Great Lakes Manufacturing in the past two years has invested more than US$3-million in its facility.

Part of that investment was earmarked for the procurement of a new laser. A representative from the company visited several companies and thoroughly investigated the best lasers on the market. The same study was sent to each of these companies. The representative also came across the L6 Laser Work Center.

When the time studies of the same nesting run came back, this machine's time was 60% faster than the best time.

It was a massive production improvement. Great Lakes also received some parts back so it was able to check the edge quality and everything worked out very well. The company selected the L6 with load/unload and a 10-shelf storing tower which was installed in December, 2004.

The L6 Laser Work Center utilises a flying optics/moving beam system driven by a linear drive motor system to achieve maximum speeds, even while cutting small notches or narrow contours.

It L6 features a 4 kW fast axial flow CO2 laser. Cutting speeds up to 60mm/min are reached using nitrogen as cutting assist gas. The L6 can process sheet sizes up to 18.2m x 36.4m and up to 20mm in thickness.

Performance values include a positioning speed of 300m/ min., acceleration of 2g, and cutting speeds up to 60m/min. Unlike conventional repositioning, where straight line movements of the cutting head waste time, this machine optimises the cutting head movement with "Ping Pong" repositioning.

This smooth and efficient transition translates to added production speeds – up to 1,000 holes/min are now possible. A patented L6 rigid frame design withstands all the forces of high-speed positioning and provides a solid base for stable beam delivery optics.

Automation was another key reason for the choice. With other lasers, automation involved taking down an entire shelf of material and working with that. With the L6, the company only takes down one sheet at a time, so it can nest and kit parts.

Management can run a 13 gauge sheet and then a sheet of 16 gauge and then a sheet of aluminum: and build up kits that way. Over the last 1? years, Great Lakes has had a heavy flow of lean manufacturing – it is not batch manufacturing anymore. It is producing a lean flow with this automation.

Thinking Thin

On the L6, Great Lakes runs anything from 24 gauge cold rolled steel to 6.35mm hot rolled steel; 1.5mm – 4.7mm aluminum; and 20 gauge – 13 gauge stainless. The high productivity of the L6 in thinner sheets is very important. Other laser builders make 5 kW resonators and different laser beam shapes and styles that will do beautiful jobs on big thick sheets – but great Lakes is not a thick sheet producer and it doesn't do plate work.. It fabricates thin sheets so high speed and high quality in thin sheets is very important.

About 60% of the material Great Lakes puts on the L6 is between 16-14 gauge cold rolled steel. Currently, the L6 is running 20 hours per day, five days per week. The L6 replaced two older technology turret punch presses and has enabled Great Lakes to add 30-40% to its output.

The biggest impact has not been the mass of parts it has been making but the flexibility. Now it can make one part without a setup and do a certain amount of business in what is called 'design changes'.

It sells a standard product – 482mm (19-inch) rack mounts for the IT industry. If a customer wants a fan in a certain spot on the door or they want a different networking coil, and they only want one or two of these parts, a traditional punching sheet metal shop would have a hard time making these few parts at a competitive price.

For further information contact: Automated Sheetmetal Technologies Ltd

Tel: 03 341 1080

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