Tubular structures are part of our everyday world – from the office chairs we sit in to the racks we hang our clothes on. Today’s products increasingly incorporate tubular frames because of their structural integrity; tubing has a very high strength-to-weight ratio.
A hollow tube can be stronger than a solid one of the same mass. In the past, designers were prevented from using tubing because of the cost to fabricate tubular parts, particularly if the design called for features such as end copes or slotted holes. In the age of laser technology, however, complex features are no longer a problem.
Using laser technology to fabricate tubes and profiles provides a number of process and cost advantages. The efficiency and flexibility of tube laser cutting opens the door to a world of application possibilities – providing more versatility in engineering design and shortening the time to market for new products.
Laser cut tubes and profiles can be found in a variety of markets: agriculture, automotive, sports and recreation, steel service centers, in-store displays, electronic housings and aerospace – the list is constantly growing. With a tube laser cutting machine, a user can process round, square, angle and open profiles, all in a single pass. No extra handling, tracking and queuing is required.
Reasons to use
Additionally, fabricators find tube laser cutting technology attractive because:
- Tube laser cutting allows the use of tabs and slots for more creative designs. The addition of tabs and slots can make assembly much easier and can simplify tooling. The only cost is a few more seconds on the machine. Using tabs or slots can also greatly reduce or even eliminate the need for weld fixturing.
- Tube laser cutting is more flexible than other fabrication methods and is quick and easy with regard to changeover from one part to another. Multiple parts can be produced from the same setup with no changeover with tube laser cutting.
- From simple joints to complex profiles, tube laser cutting offers versatility for a wide and growing range of applications.
- Tube laser cutting technology makes a variety of tubular shapes possible in a range of materials. Fiber laser extends that range to copper and brass and improves efficiency in aluminum cutting.
- Tube laser cutting can efficiently handle high-volume applications that can’t be easily achieved with conventional tube cutting processes like sawing and machining.
For these reasons, OEMs and jobs shops are bringing tube laser cutting capability in-house in increasing numbers. Not only are they using it to more efficiently process the one or two tubular components found in a multi-piece assembly, but they are also finding the technology is opening new areas of fabrication work such as tubular-only assemblies.
Tube laser cutting produces parts with high accuracy and repeatability, which can reduce the number of manufacturing steps.
Here’s how a few fabricators are applying the technology:
Hearth & Home Technologies forms and cuts tube and welds it to plate to assemble the burner tubes for the fireplaces it manufactures. Burner tube production begins with a 10-ft.-long tube, which is laser cut. Prior to tube laser cutting, the company used coping tools, but the hard tooling was expensive, required significant maintenance and was a slow process.
Today, however, tube laser cutting technology offers the company more capabilities and also speeds the product design cycle, while also providing more design flexibility and an increase in the variety of designs. This helps H&H compete in an industry focused on achieving a more unique and beautiful burn at a better value.
Since adopting tube laser cutting technology, H&H has also reduced the burner component of new fireplace design from weeks to days. Using the tube laser, it can produce sample parts faster, which shortens the new product development process and hastens time to market.
“When we design a tube for a particular burn, we want to be able to get feedback on that burn as quickly as possible,” says Nate Harnly, an engineer at H&H. “Using tooling, this could take a significant amount of time. With the tube laser, we can prototype in a day or two and have parts to test.”
The tube laser also gives the company more control of part quality and design features.
Tube laser cutting technology simplifies how designs are put together, facilitating new designs and new products.
“We’re measuring features more closely and can quickly adjust for any quality issues we see, so we can make quality input into our Speedy Design Review or SDR process,” Harnly explains.
For example, if a fireplace needs to have a higher BTU output, the burner hole size can be increased incrementally to reach the correct BTU output. This flexibility helps speed changes or enhancements to critical features such as heat output, flame appearance and flame activity.
“We can more quickly arrive at the fit, form and function the customer desires,” Harnly says.
The tube laser’s strength is coping. H&H uses it to cut parts with air apertures and end profiles. For parts that require many small holes (200 or more) or certain hole types, H&H turns to punching. The production method it uses is based on the total cycle time to build the final burner. H&H has the flexibility to choose the best process.
“The tube laser lets us look at the process more objectively and find the right solution faster,” Harnly explains.
On the manufacturing side, tube laser cutting has made the company more lean by moving value-added activity closer to the point of use.
Elite Laser Cutting Inc., a full-service fab shop handling projects from hobbyists to aerospace manufacturers, uses its eight years of tube laser cutting experience to offer customers creative solutions for design and to cost-effectively manufacture those designs. The company takes every opportunity to engineer customers’ parts around using tube laser cutting, a process it finds to be underutilized.
“The tube laser makes short work of cutting virtually any tube size with little or no cleanup,” says Elite Laser’s owner, Jeremy Kegher. “We save a significant amount of labor hours in what is typically a very time-consuming process.”
The production of tubular structures is handled in a single operation, which shortens lead time and reduces the cost per part.
Tube laser cutting technology also simplifies how the designs are put together. An assembly with multiple tubes coming together in one joint (a compound intersection) is challenging to handle with traditional tools. This could involve contouring a shape on a milling machine, one tube at a time. Producing multiple beveled notches or a custom-made notch is easily achieved using tube laser cutting.
In the competitive fabrication world, tube laser cutting technology offers the company a way to differentiate. The value added by a tube laser can be higher than that of a flat sheet laser cutting system.
“Having the tube laser has opened doors,” Kegher says. “It has brought customers in for tubing and we have ended up doing all the other processes associated with their projects.”
For Rockford Process Control Inc., a job shop that makes products for recreational use, such as utility vehicles, four-wheelers, ATVs and motorcycles, tubular structures are part of everyday production. RPC handles tubes 20 ft. long in 3/4-in. to 5/8-in. rounds and 1-in.-by-2-in. rectangular configurations, producing suspension and steering components and more. Tubular structures are used because they are strong and lightweight.
Tube laser cutting technology has also streamlined RPC’s production. Tube cutting was a seven-step process that involved sawing the tube to length, setting up a forming die in a press and then forming and trimming the ends using a sawing operation and working in batches. Now, RPC produces tubes-to-need and is working toward creating a set cut schedule for standard parts to further lean its process. Tubes are brought in on one end and go out the other as a completed, welded part. Ninety-five percent of the tubes go into a weldment.
“We’ve eliminated a huge amount of tooling, reduced production time and reduced work in process inventory,” says Rick Williams, manufacturing process engineer at RPC. “We don’t need to have two weeks’ worth of product made ahead of time. In some cases, we can cut a week’s worth of parts in three to four hours.
The tube laser cutting also allows RPC to react more quickly. “If we see something that needs to change in a design or if a customer decides to modify a design, it could be as simple as changing one line of code and it’s done,” Williams adds. “The tube laser provides us with a lot of flexibility.”
The speed of tube laser cutting and the clean, reliable cuts it produces means RPC knows what to expect from day to day.
“We get more reliable fit-up for welding,” he explains. “With mechanical coping and machining there were issues with the ends of the tubes becoming distorted, but with tube laser cutting you have no distortion – the part is the same every time.”
Increasingly, RPC’s customers are designing parts for tube laser cutting.
“They are designing parts with ends that mirror what we’re producing,” Williams concludes. “More designers are realizing what the process is all about. They are showing the actual fit up of a laser cut part to another tube; they are not showing a flush cope where it fits line to line. So, tube laser cutting is becoming an expectation.”