The New Normal?

Being brutally honest, one fabricator explains how his investment in a Chinese-made fiber laser has worked out

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When the industry’s top equipment and software providers assemble each year at Fabtech, the future of metal fabricating comes into focus. This year, automation, digital solutions and tools to combat the challenging labor market were plentiful, as they have been in years past. One trend, however, seemed to be hiding in plain sight: Throughout Chicago’s McCormick Place, Chinese equipment manufacturers occupied large footprints in both halls. An interesting question to ask, therefore, is whether this is the new normal for the future of the fabricating industry.

Distrust for these new exhibitors is a part of American industry, but they still managed to attract attendees with their bargain basement price tags and promises to match the capabilities of the industry’s legacy brands. Many of these equipment makers may be nothing more than the ineffectual paper tigers of Chinese lore, but can some of them be a legitimate partner?

Mohawk Metal is known for its diverse capabilities as a traditional job shop, which means the company’s equipment must be able to process a wide range of materials and thicknesses.

To understand why a buyer might consider investing in Chinese-made fiber laser machines, Shop Floor Lasers spoke with Tony Bloom, CEO of Mohawk Metal Co., Eugene, Ore. The conversation with Bloom was a candid one. He didn’t sugarcoat the inherent issues of working with a Chinese-based brand, but he did offer a fair assessment of the equipment he purchased as well as practical advice for those that might consider investing in a Chinese brand.

To date, Bloom has invested in three fiber lasers cutting machines from Senfeng USA, the American branch of Jinan Senfeng Laser Technology Co. Ltd. They are a 6-kW 4020 flatbed laser, 6-kW 3015 combination laser with flat sheet and profile cutting capabilities and 12-kW 4020 flatbed laser. All three feature pallet changers and autofocus cutting heads.

With Chinese-based machine manufacturers, some longevity in the market should be a must as should a local presence for service and support. Senfeng offers both having been in business for 15 years with a North American office for eight years.

Before discussing your Senfeng investments, please tell us about your company, Mohawk Metal Co.

When I purchased Mohawk in 2007, the company was located in a little town called Walterville just outside of Eugene, Ore. Back then, Mohawk was basically the size of a four-car garage. As soon as I acquired the company, I moved us into a 25,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing plant in Eugene. I bought a range of lasers and press brakes, diversified the customer base, added employees and moved into the new facility, all in a 90-day period.

Between 2007 and today, we’ve grown from four employees to the approximately 120 that we have now. We service about 900 customers from Alaska to Arizona with projects ranging from “I need this today” to two-year-long projects. We do everything from major bridges in Alaska and skyscrapers in downtown Seattle to decorative metal parts for artists to display. We service about 21 different market sectors.

That diversification and ability to shift based on what’s happening in the market has been one of our core strengths. It’s what has allowed us to weather the storms, which includes the Covids and the downturns of 2008 and 2009. We went through all of that while being profitable the entire time.

In 2011, we opened our second facility in Vancouver, Wash., and currently, we’re looking for a new facility to enable further growth in the Seattle market. We’re also talking with a couple of companies in Arizona about expansion. While we service those areas and service them well, we want to be able to offer facilities in those locations.

To date, Mohawk Metal has three Senfeng lasers on its shop floors, including a 6-kW 4020 flatbed laser, 6-kW 3015 combination laser with flat sheet and profile cutting capabilities, and 12-kW 4020 flatbed laser.

When did you invest in the Senfeng lasers and why?

We bought two in 2021 and one in the very beginning of 2023. Two of the three lasers are in Eugene with the other installed in our Vancouver location.

There is nothing negative to say about our previous brand of lasers. Essentially, the decision centered around the need to make an upgrade from CO2 to fiber technology. Finding technicians to service the older CO2 machines in a timely fashion had become a struggle. Our annual expenses for repairs were getting to a point that was unbearable.

We requested quotes from a variety of machine makers, but Senfeng was in a completely different price arena. After installing the first two machines and working with them for some time – and prior to investing in the third machine – we went through the ROI process and determined that the initial machines were, indeed, providing us with the capabilities we needed.

Because of the price, we realized we could justify quicker machine changes versus the legacy machine brands that would traditionally be running on our shop floor for six or seven years. Today, we could run a Senfeng machine for three years, getting the same ROI as a machine that would have to be in use for a much longer timeframe and then be able to invest in a new one and run something brand-new for the next three years.

That philosophy of always aiming for the newest equipment begin early in my career. I grew up in the metals business, and by the time I was done with school, I was running a 1.5-kW laser that was 12 years old. I kept saying to the owner, “Look, we’re cutting parts so slow, we can’t keep up with the competition.” His response? “Well, we’re still making money off of it.”

I always thought that when I got the chance, I’d look at it differently. If I can stay ahead of the competition with technology, I’m going to be making money. I’m going to have machines that have less downtime, and I don’t have to stretch out the lifespan of a machine.

The next machine that we plan to replace is a 10-year-old CO2 laser. It’s past its lifespan, but is still useful because it’s a large-format plate laser with a 100-in.-by-314-in. table. So yes, we have held onto it longer than we probably should have. The other machines were in the six- to seven-year-old range, so it was time to move on – especially with the change from CO2 to fiber technology.

Three years from now, I don’t want to get stuck in the same situation when the next type of technology comes out. Whatever it turns out to be, I just want to be adaptable enough to be able to incorporate it before my competition does.

Assuming you process the full range of thicknesses and material types, can the Senfeng machines deliver on the quality you need?

Carbon, aluminum and stainless are by far our biggest products, but we process other materials, as well. Being a traditional and true job shop, our thicknesses run the gamut – everything from 30 gauge through an inch and a half. And that is one thing that Senfeng has brought to the table: higher wattage machines to cut clean pieces from 1.5-in.-thick plate.

The legacy machine makers have focused so much effort over the last 20 years on consistent, clean beam delivery, and they’ve done it well. But the focus hasn’t been on the gas that’s being used. A laser beam can cut through very thick plate – you can basically cut through anything with a laser beam. The problem is being able to remove the molten steel quick enough, and that has to do with how high the pressure of the gases is around the beam. I think that’s where Senfeng came in and took a different approach.

They looked at the nitrogen or mixed assist gas as an expensive consumable, so they modified their cutting heads, nozzles and cut parameters to be able to use low-cost shop air from a compressor specifically designed for laser cutting. In doing so, customers still get the high-quality cuts they need, but at a much lower cost. Even if you choose to continue using nitrogen to reduce the heat-affected zone, you can still expect savings thanks to the reduced pressure and volume required.

Tony Bloom, Mohawk Metal CEO, says that while the Senfeng software might not be as intuitive as what some of the legacy brands offer, the learning curve was of no concern.

What has the service and support experience been like with Senfeng?

They have offices in Los Angeles, and I believe they have a technician that lives and works here in the Northwest. I can’t speak to that directly because the machines are so new that we really haven’t needed much. I can say, though, that they’ve been able to accomplish a fair amount remotely without having to send somebody out here.

During the install, there were communication challenges because of the different languages, but we haven’t seen any real issues. You have to remember that the Senfeng machines were made to work overseas and not in the United States. All in all, the only setup issues we had were more in the areas of electricity and air connections. There’s nothing like getting to the point of enacting power and then finding out a power conversion needs to be done that’s not available in the United States, for example. But, they’ve taken all of our feedback to improve the overall experience working with their machines.

Since purchasing Mohawk Metal in 2007, Tony Bloom has grown the company from four employees to approximately 120.

In regard to training, it was as easy as any other piece of machinery we’ve bought – so there is no concern there at all. The software was not nearly as intuitive as what the legacy brands offer. But again, they all have a lot of history. Senfeng asked us to write a letter outlining the challenges we were experiencing and the general expectations that we had regarding what the machine should accomplish. In that letter, we asked for a piece of software that programs for both Senfeng and our other legacy brand and they agreed.

Those types of things are just part of the learning curve for a new company shipping to the United States. And based on my experiences working with them, I believe Senfeng will work through that stuff, and we won’t see any of that in the future. In the end, it all comes down to the ROI and the set of goals a shop wants to achieve with the machine.

Mohawk Metal Co.

Senfeng USA

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