Conveyer belts have been around since the late 1800s, and ever since, they’ve been used to effectively move coal and car parts and groceries and luggage from point A to point B with ease. Since 1907, Flexco, a global leader in conveyor belt solutions, has been helping its customers maximize productivity by manufacturing mechanical fastener systems, belt cleaners, transfer chutes and maintenance tools. By partnering with its customers, Flexco also offers custom systems for unique challenges.
Flexco has multiple locations throughout the Midwest as well as worldwide. Its Grand Rapids, Mich., location was originally founded as the Clipper Belt Lacer Co., birthplace of the Clipper Wire Hook mechanical belt fastening system. Since those early days, the shop has evolved into a clean, modern manufacturing facility that performs new product development engineering along with manufacturing a range of additional products, including the Novitool line of endless splicing equipment and a full line of belt conveyor products, such as cleaners, plows, trainers, skirting systems, impact beds and pulley lagging.
Thanks to the company’s production of state-of-the-art products and solutions, it has been steadily growing over the years. Along the way, Flexco has continuously looked to expand its collection of advanced manufacturing solutions to further increase productivity and meet production requirements.
Noel Cormier, manufacturing engineer at Flexco, explains, “We were running a plasma machine, but it couldn’t consistently achieve our required tolerances and we couldn’t get the quality we wanted out of it. As a workaround, we outsourced our laser cut parts but there was a lead time of two to three weeks. Sometimes, it even pushed into four weeks. It just wasn’t acceptable for the pace our business was growing.”
Between outsourcing the laser cutting and a plasma machine that was not hitting its mark, Cormier realized something needed to change. “We knew there would be a cost savings by bringing the laser cutting in-house,” he recalls.
It wasn’t just cost savings for the laser cut parts, though. It was also enhancing and maximizing other equipment on the shop floor. “We purchased a press brake a few years ago to more efficiently form our plasma cut parts in-house,” Cormier says. “We used to use form dies in a regular crank press, which required a long setup time for each part. The brake is much quicker to set up and is more versatile.”
When it comes to vetting new equipment, there are various types and options to choose from – especially with cutting equipment. From sheers to plasma and waterjet, Flexco researched them all.
“Although we talked about the possibility of bringing in HD plasma or a waterjet, they were not the right solution,” Cormier says. “I had previous experience with waterjets and depending on the application, there is an advantage, but we’re cutting mostly 0.25-in. to 0.375-in. steel, so a waterjet was too slow. Even HD plasma wasn’t high definition enough for us. There is a portion of our product portfolio, maybe 10 to 15 percent, that has tighter tolerances than plasma can produce.”
While cutting speeds and hitting tolerances were crucial factors, the laser offered other benefits, as well. “An additional reason to go with the laser was the cleanliness of the process itself,” Cormier says. “Both waterjet and plasma machines tend to be messy and require extra cleaning of the cut parts and the area around the machine. As a company, we talked about laser for a while and roughly a year ago, it became clear: A fiber laser would be the best solution for our needs.”
A good choice
While knowing a fiber laser machine was necessary, that didn’t mean that just any laser was the answer. Cormier had three specific criteria that narrowed down the playing field. The laser needed to cut 1-in.-thick material, it needed to be from a reputable brand and the machine tool supplier needed to have excellent customer support.
While the first two are easier to uncover, knowing if someone offers exceptional customer service is a bit more challenging. Cormier decided to do some homework, which opened his eyes to the reality of the situation.
“Everyone says their customer support is good, but that isn’t tangible,” he explains. “You can’t understand and know the full extent of a company’s service model from a sales quote. So, I started reaching out to customers who had the laser brands I was considering, and I asked them what they thought of the companies’ service and support.”
After researching, attending demonstrations and considering the options, Flexco selected the Mazak Optiplex Nexus fiber 6-kW machine. “I looked at three reputable laser manufacturers,” Cormier says. “Ultimately, we decided on the Mazak. What stood out was the capacity per cost, speed and clean quality in thick material. But also, after talking to existing Mazak laser users, I knew we would get good support from the company. I felt confident going down that path with them.”
With the new fiber laser cutting machine installed, it has done nothing but impress. Cormier explains the increased efficiency Flexco has achieved with the new fiber laser. “The laser saves us time in so many ways,” he says. “First, is the Mazak laser’s dual pallet system. We can load material while the laser is cutting, which helps keep run time up. We were not able to do that on the plasma machine. Secondly, in thin material, the laser is much faster. Third, we can move parts from the punch press to the laser. Now, we can run a full sheet, half sheet, quarter sheet with the setup time being significantly less. The reduced setup time and smaller lot sizes help us achieve our lean manufacturing goals.”
Clearly, the speed of laser cutting has been a major boon for the company, but Flexco also benefits from having the process carried out in-house. Reducing the need for secondary processes was an added bonus.
“We save money because we are now insourcing parts and not paying another company’s overhead,” Cormier says. “Laser cut parts require less deburring of plasma cut parts, so we are also able to save the cost of manpower for secondary processes. We still tumble our parts, though, to remove the oxide layer, which allows the powder coat to adhere better.”
Cormier knew that bringing the laser cutting onto his own shop floor would be a gamechanger, but he didn’t realize the full scope of having that control in-house.
“We make special components and when a customer wants a product that is slightly different than our standard offerings, we have a specials program,” he explains. “When we were outsourcing, it would take four to five weeks lead time to get these specialty parts to our customers. These one-offs are hard to plan for and having to use a vendor for it is tough. Having the laser here makes us more responsive to customers; if we need it today, we can get it done today. This flexibility helps us satisfy our customers’ needs.”
But all of that speed and control doesn’t matter if the machine experiences issues that can’t be addressed in a timely fashion. Mazak’s service program has given Cormier piece of mind that if anything happens, Flexco’s operations won’t be in jeopardy.
“Support is big to me,” he says. “Everyone can say they offer great support, but when it comes down to it, will they? If we have issues, how long will we have to wait? What degree of support can we expect? Well, with Mazak, there has been no concern. Sure, we’ve had issues, which is to be expected with new equipment, but Mazak has been there to help us through all of it. They’re always quick to help and to teach us about the machine. As an example, we were dialing in our tech tables for 1-in. and Mazak helped us every step of the way.
The hand off
Implementing new technology isn’t easy, Cormier says. “We didn’t have a fiber laser before and were relatively new to laser technology. We didn’t know what we were getting into and were unsure about a lot of things like whether the machine was really going to be able to fit our needs, if we were going to have issues and the full capability of the laser overall. Having a company behind you that can support you as a partner was essential – and Mazak delivered tenfold.”
With laser technology being new to Flexco’s in-house operations, getting the new laser and personnel up to speed for production was essential.
“Before the machine arrived, four of us went to software/programing training and machine training,” Cormier says. “For almost two months, I personally ran the machine while we got ramped up and started to shift parts from the plasma machine to the laser. We ran into several issues, but we were able to quickly overcome any obstacles with help from Mazak customer support.
“Once some of the kinks were worked out, I started to shift operations to one of our machine operators, Jason Schooley, who typically runs the laser now,” he continues. “Handing over the keys to production has been surprisingly smooth, and I only occasionally get called out to assist.”
With an effortless handoff, Flexco continues to grow, as do its operations. As of November 2019, Flexco broke ground on a new 288,000-sq.-ft. facility in Walker, Mich., with an expected completion date in early 2021.