To most fab shops, laser cutting systems – especially those equipped with solid-state fiber lasers – are the best thing since sliced bread. They’re fast, flexible and, given the right workpiece, will quite simply blow the doors off their turret punching counterparts. But what if there was a way to increase the throughput of these important machine tools several times over while simultaneously reducing labor and operating costs?
If you’ve ever attended Fabtech or a regional metalworking exposition, you can probably answer that more quickly than the first few questions on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Even in high-mix, low-volume environments, automated material storage and handling systems are a no-brainer for any shop that wants to run around the clock with minimal human intervention.
The problem is: what if you didn’t know any of that when you bought the laser?
Ready to grow
According to Dustin Diehl, laser division product manager at Amada America Inc., not having the foresight, knowledge, budget or part volumes necessary to invest in laser automation is nothing to worry about, even if those game-changing factors come years after the machine purchase.
“A lot of fabricators are at first hesitant to embrace automation, for any number of reasons,” he says. “That’s why we make all our laser automation systems modular, so that you can add to their capabilities a year or two down the road with minimal cost and downtime.”
That automation might come in the form of a simple load/unload system with one pallet of raw material in, one pallet of finished parts out. The same system can be expanded to receive a 10-shelf tower. It could include conveyors or an AGV [automated guided vehicle] to carry cut products to the press brakes. And, it can be attached to additional output stations, robotic parts sorting equipment or be made part of a multi-machine production cell. “Whatever the requirements, we can grow with you as needed,” Diehl says.
The word’s getting out. Since its introduction at Fabtech two years ago, Amada’s AMS (automated material storage) flexible automation concept has been installed at more than 200 shops, each one based on customer-specific needs and budget and with many arriving well after the laser’s initial installation.
Diehl says none of this is surprising as the industry overall is trending toward increased automation, but notes that even something as relatively basic as a tower system remains a big leap for some shops.
“It used to be that if you just wanted more parts, you just threw more machines at it or added a second shift,” he says. “But considering the difficulty of finding skilled operators along with a greater push toward reduced operating expense – much of which comes down to production cost per square foot – automation is clearly the path forward. For example, we have customers that have gone from five lasers down to two just by adding a tower, while also increasing their output.”
One happy tower owner is NSA Industries LLC, which according to the company website is “the largest metal fabrication, machining, powder coating and assembly operation in New England.” Capital engineer manager Brian Poirier says what began in 1982 as a three-person fabricator of garden carts is now a six-facility, 450-employee, 300,000-sq.-ft. manufacturer that services “just about any industry” and has manufactured “everything from salad bar tops and road graders to exercise machines and commercial cooking equipment.”
It’s also no stranger to automation. NSA Industries bought its first robotic press brake roughly 15 years ago and has since added several more, most recently, a pair of Amada HG 1003 AR and EG 6013 AR robotic bending systems. It also has automated pallet loading/unloading on many of its lasers and punch/laser combos, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that the NSA team learned the benefits of a multi-shelf tower, knowledge that Poirier wishes had come sooner.
“Around two years ago, we bought an Amada FOL 3015 4-kW fiber laser with a 10-shelf tower,” he explains. “The problem was that we were up to our necks in work at that time, so decided to postpone the automation part of it and let Amada sell the tower to another customer. And when the replacement tower arrived, we were still too busy and ended up storing it until we could afford a few weeks of downtime for the installation and training. So it wasn’t until maybe eight months ago that it finally became operational; in hindsight, we would have been far better off if we’d just bit the bullet at the start of the project.”
Having a tower system has been an eye-opening experience, Poirier says. NSA Industries had to “slightly change the way we program” to assure that parts stay securely in the nest, but is now able to run job quantities ranging from 10 to 1,500 pieces around the clock. Changeover time is “basically zero,” and he can “go home at four o’clock in the afternoon, come back at seven o’clock the next morning, and the machine is still going. “If it’s up to me, we’ll never buy another laser without a tower system.”
Father and son
Tanner Benetreu, president and owner of the Bill Benetreu Co., shares a similar success story. As one might have guessed from its name, this 40-something sheet metal and machining company was founded by Tanner’s father Bill, but was inherited by his son after Benetreu passed on several years ago.
Today, the Bill Benetreu Co. has a dozen or so employees and a 40,000-sq.-ft. facility in Springfield, Ore., producing a range of parts for the off-road industry, sawmill equipment and general job shop work as well as several proprietary products, including lump crushers, roll splitters and other equipment for the area’s paper mills.
Like NSA Industries, the Bill Benetreu Co. has had some level of automation for many years, starting with a Cincinnati CL-7 CO2 laser in 1992, followed by a used CL-7 a few years later, each with dual shuttle tables. But when Benetreu realized in early 2018 that he could keep dumping money into his outdated equipment or upgrade to new technology, he traded both CL-7s in on an Amada LCG 6-kW AJ series fiber laser equipped with the same AMS 3015 tower purchased by NSA – in Benetreu’s case, however, the automation was immediately put to work.
“We cut a ton of different parts on that machine in job quantities that generally don’t run more than 30 pieces at a time,” Benetreu says. “Between the Amada software, the fiber laser and the automation, we’ve really optimized our cutting capabilities. There are times when we hit cycle start at noon, spend the rest of the day doing other work, and when we come in the next morning, the Amada’s still cranking out parts.”
Unattended machining is great, but the system brings much more to the table than that. Benetreu’s quoted lead time has gone from two weeks to four days. The company has attracted new customers and routinely takes on lights-out overflow work from other shops in the area. Cutting speeds and, therefore, throughput have increased substantially. And of course, routine repair bills have dropped to zero.
Says Benetreu, “I admit it was a big jump for us at first, but the gamble has definitely paid off.”