Punching has transformed itself to compete with the advancement of lasers. Where does the tested technology of punching fit now?
Looking at the past decade or so, it could be argued that lasers have become one of the key technologies, if not the major one, in the sheet-metal fabricating industry. They are simultaneously a versatile tool and a precise, even surgical, instrument for job shops. With their seemingly ever increasing power, speed and cutting capability, they help fabricators to become more and more productive – and competitive.
It’s hard to imagine working without them now, but job shops didn’t always have the utility of lasers at their fingertips. Before laser cutting machines entered the landscape, punching was relied upon much more heavily.
“We were the only game in town,” says Dan Caprio, LVD Strippit’s punch press product sales manager. “Punching was it. Punching technology was all there was to put holes in sheet metal.”
But now the game has changed. Laser cutting machines have intruded on the space that traditionally belonged to punching machines, and they also offer things beyond the capabilities of the older technology.
So, where, exactly, does this leave punching in an age of laser cutting?
One answer is that punching manufacturers have been forced to reevaluate their strategies, especially in a field where before there was little need for innovation.
“With the advent of lasers and how they’ve evolved, tooling manufacturers and punching manufacturers had to come up with a variety of new tools to make punching more attractive,” Caprio relates. “Now if a customer wants a nibbling, they can use a radius tool, wheel tool or even a sheer tool, instead of nibbling it. Same thing with ribs. Before, you could progressively do ribs, now you do a rolling rib.”
“Punching has transformed itself with the advancement of lasers, in a good way – by offering faster ways of doing things and thinking outside the box.”
In other words, punching has reinvented itself, and thus found somewhat of a niche. Mike Kroll, TRUMPF’s product manager for the company’s TruPunch line, reinforces that the need for modern punching is driven by forming operations, which can’t be done on a laser.
“Now punching today, we’re not just forming, we’re able to scribe, we’re able to tap, we’re able to give you a sheer-cut quality edge, as well as get away from nibble marks,” he says.
Tim Brady, punching and combination product manager for Amada America, agrees, speaking further on tapping capabilities. “Tapping has been getting more and more popular. It’s been around for many, many years, but we’ve added it as a new feature to several of our models with four built-in tapping stations, so you can punch a hole, extrude it and then tap it. That’s something that you couldn’t touch with a laser.”
Brady continues, saying, “I’ve certainly heard many times that punches are going to be phased out, but that will never happen, and it boils down to the forming operations that are possible.
“There are always people coming up with new tooling that you can use in the punch that allows for some new and more exciting kinds of forming operations.”
Beyond the forming niche, punching machines can also be more cost and lean-friendly than lasers.
Punches have a lean-friendly advantage in that they can often offer a smaller footprint than a laser cutting machine.
“Economically, it’s still better to punch than it is to laser cut,” says Caprio. “The footprint of a punch machine is usually smaller than a laser machine. And you usually have a little more variety of machine sizes on the punching side versus the laser side.
“Lasers take up a lot of floor space, for the most part. Floor space is a huge advantage, especially for your job shops, your smaller ones that don’t have a lot of floor space, where it’s at a premium. That’s number one.”
Caprio also points out that, on the whole, punch machines are generally cheaper than laser machines, but still depending on what two machines are being compared.
“Punching is going to be more economical for the job shop to purchase,” he continues. “But you also have to look at what type of parts you’re going to be doing.”
He points out that if you’re doing parts with a lot of contours, then you might want to consider a laser.
“If you’re only doing that type of work 10 percent of the time, then you’re probably fine with a turret machine, but if that’s 90 percent of your work, depending on what your part looks like, you probably want to go with a laser.”
Kroll adds that material thickness is also an important factor.
“When you’re getting into thicker materials, anything above about 1/4-in. or 5/16-in. material, that’s where the laser takes advantage,” he says. “We’re cutting up to 1-in. thick materials now on the laser. The punch is generally rated to about 1/4-in. thick material. And if you’re concerned about cosmetics, it’s more about 1/8 of an inch and thinner for a punch machine.
“It’s in the thicker materials where we really see an advantage with the laser.”
Yet Kroll also mentions that, as far as automation, the point goes to punch machines.
“With fiber laser technology nowadays, lasers are very, very fast. But what we’re finding is that the automation systems can’t keep up with them,” he says. “If you run lights out or untended on the laser, what happens is that you get a full stack of parts and sheet skeletons, and you still need an operator to manually take those parts out of the sheet skeleton. If you run over the weekend, a lot of times, you’ll have to spend all day Monday just taking those parts out of the sheet skeletons.
“On a punch machine, with the automation, your parts are waiting in an unload area, and the operator can just pick them up.”
All of these things that point to punching still playing a key role in the sheet-metal industry – its forming niche, as well as its cost and lean appeal – are supported by sales figures, as well.
“Our punches have just been selling like hotcakes, so certainly, out there in the field, they’re not showing any signs that punching is not a very strong technology,” remarks Brady.
Despite all their advantages, lasers are still “basically 2D technologies,” Caprio points out.
In fact, he states that Amada America’s biggest challenge is that there’s such a huge demand for punching machines in the market right now.
“Our market share continues to grow. For straight turrets, we went over the 50 percent mark last year in sales versus all other competitors. We’ve got more than 50 percent of the market now, so turrets are going strong.”
Caprio reinforces this sentiment.
“There is still a great need for punching,” he says. “Laser cutting abilities have pushed punching machines to a great extent and made them evolve and adapt to offer the ability to do secondary operations such as tapping, bending and forming. That’s where we stand out against the laser technologies. They’re still basically 2D technologies.”
“Punches will be around forever.”