Investing in a new or additional fiber laser cutting system can be a big step – and a big expense – for many fabrication shops. A company that contracts out its laser cutting work reduces a
lot of risks, but most will eventually come to consider bringing their laser cutting in house. This typically occurs when the subcontractor can’t offer timely delivery or the cost for the laser cut parts become unsustainable. Increased productivity, and profits, is almost always guaranteed when a shop can control all of its processes, including laser cutting, in house.
Once the decision is made, the next step is finding the right laser cutter provider. There are numerous sources from which to choose, whether the company is looking to invest in state-of-the-art cutting equipment or a simpler machine that can still can perform efficiently with today’s technology.
While it may seem obvious to only work with a long-standing, reputable OEM, the temptation is there – to be swayed by the price tag of equipment from a lesser-known company. Regardless, there are a variety of reasons why a good reputation outweighs a lower price. The team at Shop Floor Lasers spoke with some of the biggest laser companies to gain their insight on the topic.
According to Stefan Fickenscher, director of sales at Trumpf Inc., “When it comes to equipment purchases like laser cutting machines, it’s all about the ability to produce a part in the most cost-effective way. Depending on the performance ability of a laser cutter, the actual price is only one factor that plays into this calculation. It’s not only about buying a laser cutting machine. Companies should be sure that the supplier is able to service it and supply parts that might be required to maximize the uptime of the equipment in a timely manner and for the lifetime of the equipment.”
George Johnson, national sales manager of the consumable products group at MC Machinery Systems Inc., agrees. “A reputation for quality should be a primary factor when evaluating OEMs,” he says. “Of course, any fabricator needs to consider price when shopping around. However, the investment in laser equipment is substantial, so the quality of parts and consumables is important. Lower quality and aftermarket parts and consumables can cause premature wear on a machine and even slow machine operation, both of which can be costly. Conversely, high-quality, certified consumables last longer and enhance machine performance.”
Most in the industry are aware that while low pricing does not always mean lower quality or service, it can certainly be an indicator. Therefore, it’s critical to look beyond that price tag and examine the company that produces it and the service techs and support staff they are able – or unable – to provide.
“Often, we will see an imported machine for sale at a significantly lower price,” says Matt Garbarino, director of product marketing, Cincinnati Inc. “Upon closer examination, it is often found that the machine is built in a country with lower labor costs, minimal or no labor laws, and no unions. Additionally, the infrastructure to support the equipment in the market being sold may be built on a house of cards. I have seen machines being sold here in the United States from companies that have a skeleton crew of direct service technicians based here and have parts and support coming from overseas. Ultimately, the performance of the machine and how problems are handled will indicate reputation.”
Robert St. Aubin, president at Bystronic Inc., took a different approach to the question of choosing a reputable OEM over a company offering a lower price.
“The true question that must be answered when considering the tradeoff of price versus reputation is what an hour of the machine’s time is worth,” he says. “Not what it costs you, but what it’s worth to you.
“With today’s modern high-power laser cutting machines,” he continues, “an hour of cutting time can be worth as much as $200 to $350 per hour. In a two-shift, five-day a week operation, there are 4,160 available cutting hours. With a reputable machine that provides 95 percent uptime and a supplier invested in service and support resources such that they can be on site within 24 hours, you might experience 200 hours of machine related downtime in a year.
“On the other hand, if you purchase a machine that is inherently cheaper and does not have support resources readily available, you might see as much as 30 percent or 1,250 hours of downtime in a year,” he says. “This difference of 1,050 hours, when considered at $300 an hour, means that you will not be earning $315,000 of cutting-based revenue.”
But it does not end there. St. Aubin adds that the direct costs of fixing the machine, the inherent loss of revenues from other downstream operations (such as bending and welding), and the intangible loss of reputation and potential loss of future business also cause lost revenue.
“A customer that only considers the price of a machine instead of the costs that they will experience may really lose out in the end,” he says.
Stefan Colle, laser product sales manager, LVD North America, points out that a number of long-standing, reputable OEMs offer lower cost laser machines.
“If the parts you will produce on the laser have a low price point and a low-cost, a ‘just-the-essentials’ machine is what fits your application,” he says. “A feature-rich laser at a higher price tag would actually increase your cost per part. So, as always, the application is key.”
He adds that while some of the benefits of working with an established OEM – one that has a service and support network and can provide local service assistance – are not immediately tangible, they should, nevertheless, be factored into the purchasing decision. When investing in any production equipment, even a basic, low-cost laser cutting machine, the machine’s service needs must be considered as part of the cost of ownership. Machine construction is also critical to reliable system performance.
“Fabricators should buy a laser cutting machine from a company that has the experience and proven track record of manufacturing this type of equipment,” Colle says. “Consider the key components that make up a laser cutting machine, such as the power source, cutting head, CNC control and drives, and evaluate these components individually. Also, consider automation. Even a simple automation system can enhance the efficiency of a laser cutting machine. Many lower cost laser machines aren’t available with automation.”
Another important consideration is safety. Reputable OEMs engineer and build in safety measures for the laser system, such as protective housing, light guards and warning systems. This is a design consideration for all laser systems – from low-cost to high-end models. Safe operations translate to higher productivity.
Any laser cutting machine that goes down needs to be back up and running as soon as possible. Companies need to determine if an OEM has a robust service department and engineering department to fit their needs.
“Do your homework,” Colle says. “Inquire about the number of machine installations and the number of service technicians and their location. You want prompt service intervention from a trained and qualified technician, if and when you need it. Also, check on the service offerings available, such as remote diagnostics, help lines, applications assistance, training, installation support and preventative maintenance.”
The approach the company takes to providing the reliability and uptime that customers need is telling. Some companies are better than others in their training and support of their service technicians. Also, some more forward-looking companies provide their service department the digital tools to be successful in maintaining the machines.
“Finally, you should look at the perception and approach of each supplier,” Bystronic’s St. Aubin says. “Are they only good in a reactive environment or do they offer proactive support services to make sure that you’re creating a ‘plan for success?’ In other words, how will they take care of the machine proactively to limit downtime versus how they will react if the machine breaks? Only when considering how robust a full-service response is can you understand how you will fare with your new machine.”
To identify a strong engineering team, Trumpf’s Fickenscher says that companies should make sure that the engineering department is leading the OEM in order to be seen as an innovation leader within their industry. Companies should also do online research to see whether an OEM has released groundbreaking developments in the recent past.
Parts availability and delivery is also a consideration when choosing a laser cutting partner. Multiple warehouses strategically located across the country and a regionalized service network
to provide fast service and delivery is a must to keep downtime to a minimum.
“A customer should expect that the OEM is constantly analyzing what parts they are required to have in stock and that the OEM is working toward the highest number of same-day shipments as possible to minimize machine downtime for their customers,” Trumpf’s Fickenscher says. “In the event that a part is not in stock, customers should know if their preferred OEM has a process to define why a part was not in stock and a check mechanism to define if it is necessary to stock it going forward.”
Bystronic’s St. Aubin agrees. “While it is impossible to guarantee that a supplier will always have exactly the right part in stock locally, you must look at the overall capabilities of the company. What size of part stock do they keep locally? What size of part stock do they keep on a worldwide basis and how fast can they import it? Finally, look at the numbers. What is their mean time to repair? What is their on-time, in-full shipments? What is their net promoter score? Without measurements like these, suppliers can never understand their customers’ needs and what it takes to continually improve their operations to support customer satisfaction.”
OEMs typically stock parts, whether they build them or buy them, based on usage. CI’s Garbarino notes that consumable parts should have a quick turnaround and always be in stock. This includes lens, nozzles, oil filters and hoses.
“Actual functioning parts like a gear box or transformer that do not break often might not be kept in stock,” he says. “It’s parts like these that could have a wide range of lead times. Most OEMs, if they are doing their analysis right on high-usage parts, should have 80 to 90 percent of their parts with reasonably quick delivery. It might not be 24 hours, but they certainly should be within a week.”
To summarize, MC Systems’ Johnson puts it best. “OEMs should warranty their products, provide prompt service, have a complete inventory of parts and consumables, and carry items for maintenance and preventative maintenance. It’s also beneficial to work with an OEM that has technical experts who can troubleshoot issues and recommend products based on specific needs.”