To simplify the options available to customers, Mazak Optonics Corp. recently announced that its NEO fiber laser cutting machine will become the only laser cutting platform it offers moving forward. Knowing how hard it can be for customers and even service teams to differentiate between the various platforms, the company decided to uniform its entire product line.
Hearing the news might make one picture Keanu Reeves in his long black jacket and dark sunglasses as Neo from The Matrix. When the movie’s protagonist, Mr. Anderson, becomes The One, an anagram for Neo, that’s when things get interesting.
While Mazak’s NEO might not perform acrobatic stunts to dodge bullets and the like, it can totally transform cutting capabilities. With intelligent functions, such as its nozzle changer and centering camera as well as its camera-assisted part nesting, users can sleep easy knowing they’re getting the most from their equipment. The NEO also provides increased control of the beam shape and diameter to process a wider range of material, and it accomplishes all of that at high speeds and with high-quality cutting. For fabricators in today’s competitive economy, it’s basically the same as saving the human race from Agent Smith and a doomed existence in simulated reality – basically.
Best of the best
“Previously, we had all of these different platforms and configurations, which was hard to keep track of for the customer,” says Naoko McIntosh, an automation specialist at Mazak. “With the NEO, you can have different power levels and table sizes, of course, but the basic machine platform stays the same. Therefore, it’s easier for the customer when they upgrade to a newer machine because they’ll still be dealing with the same platform. This is true for service people and installers, too.
“That’s one of the reasons why some OEMs decide not to service certain older versions of a machine,” she adds. “As time goes on, newer technicians will have never seen the older machines, which were based on different platforms. We think it’s a smart approach to centralize the platform and simply offer different power levels and table sizes.”
Jacob Fogarty, who is also an automation specialist at Mazak, agrees, but adds that it’s not just about simplifying things. The shift to one single platform is also about honing in on the best attributes of the company’s pre-existing equipment.
“It’s just good to re-center,” he says. “We had all these different varieties of machines, so we were able to take the best of each of them to refocus them onto one machine platform. We were also able to get rid of some of the things that didn’t work so well.”
As an example, one of the main selling features of the NEO, its side access doors, will remain in the singular platform moving forward. The same holds true for its long and narrow form factor.
“The NEO really just takes the best of everything that Mazak has offered before,” Fogarty says. “We used to have long-side access or front-side access, but with NEO, you get both. Another positive is its form factor, which makes it easier to fit into a shop. Many customers place it against a wall, saving precious shop floor real estate.”
When assessing the company’s various platforms to pinpoint what should stay and what should go, a lot was learned in terms of automation options. With the overriding goal to simplify the offerings available to customers, the team at Mazak recognized that they offered different types of automation for the different machine platforms. The time had come to streamline things.
Modularity is key
“The NEO doesn’t feature one standard automation option,” McIntosh explains, “but the most popular material handling option adopted by NEO customers is the Laser Flex system. It can keep up with the speed of the NEO and expand in capabilities as needs change. For example, the Laser Flex can work standalone at first and can later expand to support two or three laser cutting machines and then beyond to supporting double towers, carts and conveyors – whatever a customer can imagine.”
It’s worth noting that customers can opt for a basic load/unload system with the goal to replace it down the road with the Laser Flex. When needs change in six months or whenever, customers can incorporate value-added automation to the Laser Flex, such as a tower or conveyor. Essentially, all future automation can be built on the Laser Flex will be upon what all future automation can be built. It can be considered the foundation of a customer’s overall automation system, no matter how it is modified or grows.
“We have quite a few different automation models, but by far, the Laser Flex has been the best mate for the NEO,” McIntosh says. “And it’s always improving. It’s often the first thing the customer will invest in after the NEO.”
Mazak will, of course, always offer customers more economical, basic load/unload systems, such as its C-series, but that must come with the understanding that those customers could lose the modularity they may need in the future. Choosing a C-series isn’t always about price, though.
“A good application for the basic load/unload system is for a machine that is locked into certain corner of a shop where the owner knows that they are never going to add a second laser or a tower because space just doesn’t allow,” McIntosh explains. “The basic load/unload system can still take that material handling pressure off of the operator.”
When a customer visits the Mazak website, it’s fairly clear to see that even though there are quite a few automation options, each can be built on top of the other. Regardless, Mazak wants potential customers to know that they don’t have to make assumptions and can count on the company as a partner and consultant.
“We always strive for application-based sales,” McIntosh says. “Rather than a customer going to the website and just trying to pick and choose, we will instead listen to them and let them tell us what they’re trying to achieve, what they want to improve in their operations, or what their current challenges or limitations are, for example.”
In this scenario, a customer can verbalize their long-term goals – the amount of growth they’d like to see, the new customers they’d like to acquire or the markets into which they’d like to expand. Often, relaying these types of business and operational goals can be much easier for a customer than internally visualizing the type of equipment or automation they need to get there. After talking to a customer, McIntosh and her team can usually narrow the options from 25 different configurations down to two.
“They can start small with the basic load/unload system, and if they get the budget or extra work next year, they can move to a system like the Laser Flex that will grow with them as they continue toward their growth initiatives,” she says. “Therefore, if the work doesn’t come through, they don’t have to expand. It’s less pressure monetary-wise and less worrying that you’re going to get locked into something. Flexibility is one of the things that customers appreciate with the Laser Flex system.”
A basic rule of thumb for when to choose the Laser Flex versus the basic load/unload C-series system is based on power levels and desired throughput. Fogarty says the Laser Flex works well with Mazak’s highest power levels – the NEO is available in 20 kW, 15 kW, 10 kW, 7 kW and 4 kW.
“Once you get into the 7-kW or 10-kW lasers and certainly above that, you should start with the Laser Flex versus the basic load/unload,” he says. “The Laser Flex can keep up with anything, including our highest powered 20-kW machines. We normally chase throughput, such as how many parts you want to run per shift.”
McIntosh agrees, saying without that in mind, customers will just be pushing the problem downstream if there are too many parts coming out of the laser. It’s all about finding the sweet spot between labor and laser performance, she says.
“We never want a customer to overspend on something, especially when everything’s so modular,” Fogarty concludes. “It’s so much easier to upgrade when you need it.”