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Lasers With Material Handling Systems Play a Key Role in Surviving the Economy

June/July 2012

Material handling equipment married to laser production machines can make a huge difference in the way a company processes customer parts. Speed is essential, but more than that is the ability to be flexible and deliver parts when customers need them and at the right price.

Ignachio Palomarez, president of Spacesonic, a company in Silicon Valley, says, “Monday through Friday is the American paradigm. Nobody wants to work on weekends. Yes, you can hire a worker cheaper than you can purchase equipment automation, but the machines can work 24/7. I found that excuses don’t cut it with our customers. When they want a job, they don’t want it tomorrow or next week. They want it now. So automation takes people out of the equation.”

Spacesonic’s material handling equipment allows the company to work 24/7 with little operator intervention, allowing them to compete with China “that’s sucking parts away from the U.S,” Palomarez notes.

When Palomarez was asked about justifying the costs of marrying automated material handling systems to his lasers and turret-punch presses he says, “A lot of it is about the productivity I’m able to get out of it and also the ability to keep work here in the U.S. versus having companies send it to China. It’s also based on which tool will help us survive. If you survive the low times, the high times will take care of themselves.”

The company’s sheet-metal processing journey started when Palomarez’s father worked at Ampex, a company noted for its audio equipment. “My dad started working for the company in 1954 and learned the sheet-metal industry. In fact, many of the owners of the shops in my area originally worked at Ampex. In 1967, the company moved out of the area, but my dad wanted to stay. He had saved up $5,000 and decided to start his own company, because he knew that Ampex was still going to be outsourcing work. However, the problem was that he never got an ounce of work from the company. So he subsidized his employment by taking on a night job at another company.

“At this time, the company was in about a 1,000-sq.-ft. facility. In time we kept expanding and adding machinery and increasing our workload.”

In 1995, they moved into a 54,000-sq.-ft. facility and then in 2001 acquired another 30,000-sq.-ft. plant. Palomarez’s other shop stamps and punches parts for solar products. “Since 2008, we’ve just been surviving; it’s been interesting, really interesting.”

Automation, the way to go

In 1989, Palomarez purchased a load/unload sheet handling equipment for an Amada Pega 345 30-ton CNC Turret Punch Press. It allowed the punch to run untended, freeing the operators to do other tasks.

“This was just the table,” says Palomarez. “Then in the early 90s, we bought another one of these systems. Then we bought an Amada LCE 645 laser that pushed us into cellular manufacturing. Since it was a laser beam, we had no tooling setup like we did with a turret-punch press.” Spacesonic was one of the first companies in the area with a laser.

On a trip to Japan, Palomarez saw an Amada CNC turret-punch press with a laser. “I thought this machine would be perfect for our needs. We bought one in 1992. It was the Amada Apelio 357 Laser/Turret Punch Press that uses a 1.5kW CO2 laser combined with a 58-station, turret-punch press with an eight-shelf material handling loader.”

The reason behind this is that Palomarez grew up with punching and had the Pega 345 equipment with a load/unload system. Then with the Amada LCE 645 laser, Palomarez could cut up to 0.5-in.-thick steel plate.

“However, we were doing cutting for a company that needed 0.5-in. and 0.75-in.-thick steel plate cut,” he adds. “That’s when we looked at a Mitsubishi 3kW CO2 Laser hybrid machine that was rated to cut 0.75-in.-thick steel. Then I could see the difference between thick and thin laser cutting.”

For more lights-out capability, and because there was a lack of qualified people to run the equipment, Palomarez purchased a Mazak X48 super turbo-charged 2kW CO2 laser cutting system combined with sheet-metal handling that automatically loads/unloads itself around the clock. This flexible manufacturing system can handle various materials ranging from 22-gauge sheet metal to 0.625-thick plate automatically.

“We stop this machine for two hours each Friday for routine maintenance, and it runs the rest of the week,” says Palomarez. “If you buy a quantity of parts, why should you pay for manned machine time?”

With the different lasers that Palomarez has, he’s able to match part production to each one to get the best cutting capabilities. This allows untended operation for both thick- and thin-sheet metal processing.

“We have lasers that are used for thin plate and ones used for thicker plate. If we have a long-run job, rather than having other jobs wait until it’s finished, we have other lasers available to do it,” he says.

For CNC hole punching and forming, Palomarez has three 20-ton Amada Vipros 255 Turrett Punch Presses that have 50-in.-by-50-in. beds. He notes that they are perfect for intensive precision hole and perforating work and have material load/unload systems attached that “make these machines ideal for those high run quantities.

“We found a need for automation for our turret-punch presses that gives us higher part volumes. Sometimes customers want the entire order at once and these machines can do it.”

Palomarez’s latest equipment is an Amada LC3015 F1 4kW CO2 Laser System with a 5-ft.-by-10-ft. table and an ASF material handling system.

The LC 3015 F1 is Amada’s new linear-drive laser that offers fast accelerations and decelerations, and quick traverse speeds for all three axes for overall reduced processing time.

Being a linear-drive laser and having a completely closed-loop feedback system for positioning its cutting head, it offers excellent accuracy for part cutting because of the way it reads positioning data from the drives. It uses a linear scale and scan head for each axis. The scale gives true feedback position to the linear control and can hold 0.0004-in. positioning anywhere on the table.

Palomarez’s ASF system has a small footprint. It includes two pallets for raw material and three offload pallets, each holding up to 6,000 lbs. A built-in scheduling system programs sheet-metal selection for processing and parts cut from it.

Palomarez notes that his AFS tower system runs seven days a week with little operator intervention.

Palomarez always had a dream for automating his company. “I wanted to get the first MARS system in here in 1986. At the time we had NC equipment and wanted to marry them together, but the companies were having issues with the equipment.

 “I need one universal machine,” he continues. “Companies are close to producing this type of equipment, but you still need knowledgeable people in the office or operators to run it. So we would still need someone on the weekend to tend the equipment.”

 Along with other Amada equipment, such as robotic and automated press brakes and a host of other machines such as inspection equipment, welders, insertion presses and even painting systems, Spacesonic can design, engineer and produce prototype products, such as one-offs along with long-run parts. But an average run for the company is only 100 pieces.

Spacesonic isn’t a flat-sheet processor either, where it would just cut parts and ship them mentions Palomarez. They are more of a manufacturer of parts that need additional processes, including painting, bending, welding and assembly work to produce a finished or semi-finished product.

The company’s engineering capabilities aren’t used to design parts or products, but rather to help companies that might be having problems with manufacturing a product design. But they could design a product if needed, as Palomarez has designed many unique sheet-metal parts for his own use.

With the speed and flexiblity of his Amada equipment, Palomarez can offer quick part turnarounds, too. In fact, for prototypes he says that they can work on a design in the morning and have a part ready by the time they get back from lunch.

Having the proper equipment is more about survival, notes Palomarez. He’s seen many changes in his area. From machine and sheet-metal shops lining the streets in his town, to only a handful enduring. To survive, and to make sure his employees do the same, as many are relatives, material handling equipment and automation is the key to increasing productivity he says.

Amada
Spacesonic