Definition of Automation

In the modern era of manufacturing, automation comes in many forms


When folks think of automation, they typically picture industrial robots hard at work, welding parts together or tending to machines. For those in the laser cutting world, the word automation typically conjures up visions of material handling: load/unload systems and pallet changers that relieve operators from the task of physically removing and replacing material at the machine. But there is a third type of automation that is working behind the scenes that has been underappreciated or simply misconstrued as a software feature.

This third type of automation, sometimes referred to as process monitoring automation, is an essential component to modern automation, especially for businesses that want to work lights-out or truly want to combat the lack of available labor. Tim Place, business development manager at BLM Group USA, agrees, saying that automation is, essentially, being able to do more with less.

“The textbook definition that I would give for automation is displacing labor with better, more automated tools,” he says. “But it’s not just displacing labor; it’s affording a company the ability to produce what they wouldn’t be able to produce because of persistent labor issues. Automation makes it easier for a single person to do their job, but it also makes it possible to complete a job when you don’t even have a person there.”

Dave Cotton, business development manager of flat sheet laser products at BLM Group, elaborates, saying that while sheet and bundle handling of the laser are typically the first things we think of with automation, that’s just where it starts.

“There are several other types of automation that are required to enhance or work in tandem with the material handling itself,” he says. “You could have the best automation for material handling, but if the machine doesn’t have process monitoring automation, it kind of defeats the whole purpose because you still need a guy overseeing the machine. We want customers to have one guy running a couple of different lasers or even off doing other work.”

Proactive processes

Process monitoring automation isn’t a new concept at BLM Group, but it is getting a renewed spotlight thanks to the recent debut of the company’s new LS7 sheet metal laser cutting system, available in power levels between 3 kW and 12 kW. To allow its customers to do more with less, BLM Group offers a range of options beyond traditional material handling automation. A quick rundown of just a few of those features proves BLM Group’s understanding of what its customers need.

Watch the video to learn more about Active Nozzle Changing, a process monitoring automation feature from BLM Group, and how it goes far beyond simple nozzle changing.

Active Focus: Process monitoring automation features are found throughout the LS7, including the cutting head where an array of sensors continuously monitors the temperature of the lens. With Active Focus, users can rely on the machine to automatically adjust the focus position that would otherwise require manual adjustments according to varying material thicknesses or assist gases. An additional capacitive sensor maintains the distance between the nozzle and the material being cut.

Active Zoom: Typically, a laser operator needs to change cutting parameters according to the characteristics of the material being cut. With Active Zoom, however, ideal cutting speeds and beam parameters are automatically selected, freeing up the operator for other tasks.

Watch the video to learn more about the benefits of Active Mail, a feature that notifies users about a machine’s activity.

Active Cool: For customers that cut very small size geometries on thick plate, Active Cool automatically disperses a liquid to keep the metal’s temperature from rising. Not only does Active Cool help to maintain high-quality cuts, it also keeps the nozzle from overheating, thereby extending nozzle life.

Active Nozzle Changing: Despite the name, Active Nozzle Changing goes beyond the simple task of automatically changing a nozzle when it has come to the end of its useable lifespan. It also monitors the quality of the nozzle throughout its entire lifespan. Inspections are carried out with a camera system and can be scheduled whenever the customer desires – at the end of every sheet or after a certain number of cut parts.

“Let’s say you schedule the inspection after every sheet,” Cotton says. “After the laser finishes running and is performing a pallet change, the nozzles are inspected to show how much life is left in that nozzle. Compared to a human guessing how much life is left, Active Nozzle is accurate and consistent.”

In terms of keeping cut quality high while running lights-out or overnight, Active Nozzle Changing is a must-have. Customers can choose when to change out a nozzle based on a percentage of its remaining lifespan.

“During the day, you could program the laser to change the nozzle when 90 percent of the nozzle life is gone,” Cotton explains. “Overnight, however, you might want to set it to 80 or even lower. As that nozzle continues to deteriorate, there’s a chance that you could start losing cuts or edge quality and start using more gas that could affect the uptime of that machine.”

Active Piercing: Without Active Piercing, programming a cut for some machine operators can be a hassle. They have to calculate the time it takes to pierce the material to know when the machine can execute the actual cut. Overcalculations, of course, can add up, costing a customer in time and productivity. Active Piercing knows exactly when the pierce is complete.

Like Active Nozzle Changing, Active Piercing goes beyond its main task and monitors the cut while it is in process. “If it sees that too much energy is coming back, it knows that you’re starting to lose the quality of cut,” Place says. “It then automatically adjusts parameters to re-establish a good quality cut.”

Active Speed: Without Active Speed, a knowledgeable operator needs to adjust and balance a variety of parameters throughout the process, especially when encountering problems. Active Speed provides the correct parameters in every step of the cutting process. It also allows operators to simply adjust a single setting when encountering material problems and achieve high quality cuts by automatically modulating all cut parameters at once.

Watch the video to learn more about BLM Group’s material handling automation.

Quality made easy

While the overriding goal of automation is to do more with less, process monitoring automation features are also taking quality to the next level.

“Load/unload-type automation is necessary, but unless you’re talking about delicate part handling options like a conveyor belt instead of a metal pallet, it doesn’t really affect the quality,” Place says. “It’s the automatic process monitoring functions that can keep you in that sweet spot. Take Active Nozzle Changing as a prime example. Once a nozzle starts to degrade, it can impact your edge quality. Without that feature monitoring and inspecting the nozzle, you’d have to do it the old school way where an operator manually takes the nozzle out, inspects it with a magnifying glass and then makes a judgement call.”

As silly as it sounds, there was a time when making a judgement call was the only option. Laser operators would get used to the way their machine sounded and looked, meaning if something seemed “off,” they would stop the process to troubleshoot. Understandably, it was often time-consuming to find out what went wrong.

Fortunately, process monitoring automation can help with troubleshooting, too. BLM Group’s Active Mail feature can alert designated individuals via email about a machine’s activity.

“The machine has self-diagnostics and sends out alerts for production interruptions or at a set time for when a maintenance item needs to be addressed,” Place says. “A notice can be sent to the maintenance department so that an upcoming maintenance or preventative service item can be properly scheduled, say, in two weeks. That way, it can be properly coordinated with the production team, which is way better than it popping up in the middle of a production run.”

Active Piercing monitors the entire piercing process, saving fabricators’ time and increasing their productivity.

Traditional automation

While process monitoring automation relieves the operator of managing several tasks, “traditional” automation still offers the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to combatting labor shortages. And, as more higher power lasers are introduced to the market, keeping up with their speed will only be possible with modern material handling.

“The design of our new LS7 sheet metal laser includes a 9-sec. pallet change,” Cotton says. “The old days of waiting 40 sec. or more for a pallet change doesn’t cut it. But keep in mind: Even with the 9-sec. pallet change, you still need load/unload automation because manually, no one could physically remove a sheet full of finished parts in time.”

Whether a customer needs to keep up with high-power laser cutting speeds or simply doesn’t have the available labor, BLM Group offers three types of “traditional” automation, starting with simple load/unload. This option gives customers the ability to run the machine unattended, but in a limited nature.

“The next level of traditional automation is the compact tower, which basically takes up the same amount of space as a pallet because the tower is located above,” Place says. “From there, you get into more elaborate systems like a tower with load/unload or a tower with load/unload plus a separate unload station, which could be further equipped with over/under tables or a sorting conveyor.”

With so many traditional and nontraditional automation options, there’s a lot to consider. BLM Group, however, is ready to offer meaningful recommendations based on customer input.

“We spend time listening to customers to understand their goals and pain points,” Cotton says. “Sometimes, you have to peel back the onion to find out what’s most important, but it’s through that discovery that you can start talking about possible configurations and automation options that will allow them to do more with less.

Active Cool is designed for thick-plate cutting operations, automatically dispersing a liquid to keep the metal’s temperature from rising.

“Customers want and need less-skilled operators to be able to do the tasks that typically require a senior technician,” he adds. “With today’s automation, that’s a realistic goal.”

Because every customer is different, BLM Group chooses to be very modular about how the traditional automation puzzle can be put together. Cotton says there are a lot of options on the marketplace, but many of them are limited, “like load/unload that only goes in a certain direction or towers that are limited to a certain height.”

He explains that many towers come with a standard height of 20 ft., which means users couldn’t take full advantage of the 24-ft. or even 30-ft. ceiling heights that some customers have. The modular aspect of BLM Group’s automation means additional shelves can be added at a relatively minimal cost.

“These are the things we look at with a customer to find out what’s important to them and how we can help them utilize their space better,” Place says. “We look at the flow of the plant – where parts area coming from and where they’re flowing to. It can take a few trips to their shop and several iterations of laying it out before we get to the ideal configuration, but we always get there.”


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