Increase the pace

Laser automation: The answer to setting your cutting pace


In addition to serving as president of Advanced Technology Sales & Service, Patrick Medlin is a manufacturing strategy consultant. He’s been featured in Shop Floor Lasers in past issues and knowing his vast experience working with fabricators and manufacturers to define and execute plans built upon the principles of lean manufacturing, we checked back in with him for his thoughts on automation.

To this end, automating laser cutting operations can significantly increase throughput and pay big dividends for fabricators of all sizes.

SFL: The word automation gets tossed around a lot these days. Let’s begin by defining exactly what is meant by automation.

Medlin: Depending on one’s perspective, automation can take a number of different forms and meanings. For some, it might be the ability to incorporate sophisticated nesting and production management software into a company’s operations. It can also mean the freedom to move away from spreadsheets to an advanced quoting system.

For our purposes, let’s focus on the automation of necessary but menial and repetitive tasks such as searching up programs and conditions, loading raw material and unloading finished parts, and other steps that are best performed by the laser itself.

Today, there’s a laser machine that fits the needs and budget for virtually every fabricator. While lasers are quickly becoming the industry workhorse, automation allows companies to better leverage laser speed and versatility to maximize that investment more fully. 


Does the type of laser matter when investing in automation?

Automation is all about maximizing the capabilities of a particular machine. For example, if you were to automate the pallet changing capabilities to a CO2 laser, you would be pretty happy with the increased throughput. Do the same for a fiber laser and you’ll see an increase of 50 percent to 300 percent beyond the automated CO2, depending on the type and thickness of materials being processed.

Simply put, fiber lasers – with their superior speed and versatility – have a greater productivity potential. But regardless of the type of laser or the volume of cutting, automating these machines, even at basic levels, can have a measurable impact on the bottom line.

Should smaller shops invest in automation?

Not all should. Many smaller shops don’t want to spend the money for automation or, more likely, cannot afford to spend the money. Others may not have room on the shop floor for automation, and still others may not yet have enough total volume of work to justify automation.

For everyone else, however, there is a simple rule of thumb to go by: If you purchased a laser machine to make money, then it needs to be automated. It’s all about maximizing the machine you have, and even a modest amount of automation will pay for itself.

Where is the ROI found with automation?

There’s a lot of hidden and not so hidden downtime associated with metal fabrication. So much so that I invite any production manager or shop owner to take a random look out on their shop floor and take note of what they see. Is that laser waiting to be loaded, to have parts removed, for the operator to come back from a break or for the next program or nest?

If that laser machine isn’t cutting, then you’re losing revenue. In this business, it’s all about beam-on time, and automation keeps that machine cutting. Therefore, automating a standalone laser even with a simple, entry-level load/unload system can increase a CO2 or fiber laser’s productivity by at least 25 percent.

Most machines are now Industry 4.0 compliant and machine monitoring is a large portion of that initiative. Monitoring machine cutting efficiency and breaking it down by day, week, month and even shift is a great way to assess your automation needs as well as your overall productivity.

But that’s just the beginning. The results are increased exponentially when a fully automated lights-out operation is implemented, leveraging automated nesting and schedule software, material storage towers and river systems for tracking and storing different material types and thickness.

In this case, high-volume fabricators have the ability for unattended overnight or weekend runs, leaving say 60,000 lbs. of cut parts stacked up for the morning shift. The fabricator can bring in temporary workers to break out parts, allowing the skilled labor to concentrate on more complex tasks.

Automation also goes a long way toward addressing every shop owner’s dilemma: finding and keeping skilled employees and achieving the largest rate of return on their efforts. Automation allows shops to reallocate human resources away from menial tasks to more productive duties, thereby increasing the total production dollars generated per employee and per operation.


Fiber laser with integrated loading and unloading

How can automation impact other areas of the business?

Leverage your resources – that’s the name of the game. Let your people and machines contribute where they will have the biggest impact. When you allow your laser to set the productivity pace, you can put your skilled labor to work on billable, value-added tasks, such as engineering, forming, welding, finishing, scheduling, production planning, marketing, process improvements, sales support and so on.

What do you mean by setting the production pace?

Machines are programmed to perform tasks. They don’t take bathroom breaks, stop for lunch or check their Facebook page. In a manually driven shop, the laser finishes the job and sits idle waiting for workers to offload cut parts, install new sheets of material and initiate the cutting process.

At any given time, there may be 5,000 lbs. to 10,000 lbs. of raw materials and finished goods on the offload cart or on pallets waiting to be taken to a secondary operation. Even the fastest worker cannot keep pace with a fiber laser. Consequently, the machine can only work as fast as the worker allows, and every minute that a laser isn’t cutting is lost revenue.

This is why automation is needed. When the machine is free to load, cut and unload at its own pace, productivity increases exponentially.

What about lower volume fabricators?

Some smaller fabricators may be intimidated by the word automation. Don’t think because you have a lower volume of parts that you’re not a candidate for automation. Many of our laser cutting customers probably average a batch size of 25 to 50 pieces per order. Even at these lower volumes, many are seeing 80 to 90 percent improvement, which is double the throughput, by automating their laser cutting.

What would you say to someone who might be contemplating automating their laser operation?

Take a minute to observe that laser out on the shop floor – the one you spent a nice chunk of change on to bring in some new business. How long does it take the operator to clear the cut parts, polish off that bottle of Mountain Dew and then begin loading material for the next job run?

If your goal is to maximize your laser investment the answer is: too long. Remember, it’s all about beam-on time, allowing the machine to set the pace and maximizing your resources.

If the bottleneck is in programming and scheduling, where the operators are waiting for the next job to be programmed, then investing in automated nesting and scheduling software is an inexpensive way to increase throughput on a standalone machine.

If a machine is sitting idle because it is waiting on raw material or waiting for finished parts to be unloaded then automating the load/unload process is what they should be looking to do. Fortunately, there is an array of inexpensive entry-level automation options to choose from.

With most laser manufacturers, you can start small and then grow the system as your business grows. In short, most of today’s automation is modular.

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