Windows of opportunity

Upgrading power with a new laser retrofit increases productivity

Dan Robinson

Hygrade Metal Moulding Manufacturing Corporation, better known as Hygrade Components, is a leading manufacturer of insulating glass and window components and custom roll-formed products. Based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the company was founded in 1939 and began working in the window and door industry in 1955.

It manufactures laser welded air spacers, warm edge air spacers, traditional and contoured muntin bars, insect screen frames, stainless-steel patio door track covers, and steel reinforcements for vinyl windows and patio doors. It also designs and develops products for its customers who meet proprietary needs by using Hygrade’s custom roll-forming capabilities.

Hygrade’s high product quality and cost-effective manufacturing processes helped it win an impressive list of customers over the years, including nationally recognized window manufacturers such as MW, Patriot, Peachtree, Pella, SME, and Weathershield.

In 1998, the company, which was originally based in Farmingdale, NY, diversified its operations by moving its manufacturing operations to Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. With the move, Hygrade now had two strategic locations that could easily supply its seven distribution centers across the country.


Hygrade laser welding roll formed window spacers at 100 feet per minute.
Click here to enlarge image

The $5-million expansion project allowed the company to dramatically increase manufacturing space to 100,000 square feet and to devote a substantial amount of space to product testing, research and development, sample production, and specialized training.

About a year ago, Vince Pagano, company chairman, was looking for a way to increase the productivity of the company’s welding lines without incurring the expense and downtime associated with purchasing and installing all new machinery.

“Hygrade is very focused on customer service-from delivering orders on time, to being able to fill all the proprietary needs of our clients,” Pagano says. “Our orders were strong and our equipment wasn’t able to keep up. We needed to do something.” And that something was to replace the lasers on the existing welding systems.

After making this decision, the company quickly found that a mid-power gap had developed in the laser market as laser manufacturers around the world focused on the 500W sealed and 2000- to 5000W high-power markets.

For Hygrade, the solution was a product just being introduced by PRC Laser. At the time PRC, a manufacturer of industrial CO2 lasers in Landing, NJ, was bringing its XL series to market. The XL 1000- and 1500W lasers were designed for use in thin-metal and non-metal processing, and the latter was a perfect match for Hygrade’s needs.

“The XL series was created to bridge the gap between sealed laser sources that stop at the 500W level and more costly 2- and 2.5kW laser sources,” says Greg Hewett, OEM account manager for PRC Laser. “These lasers offer up to 1500W in a compact enclosure that gives a much better dollar-per-watt ratio than lower powered sealed lasers and still represent a smaller investment than a 2- or 2.5kW laser. For companies like Hygrade who were looking for cost efficiency and power, the XL offered them the 1500 watts at a price they would normally pay for a 500-watt sealed product.”

Hygrade immediately took delivery of five 1500W units at its Pennsylvania plant and six units at the Tennessee plant, and the beneficial results were almost instantaneous. Production speeds went to two times what they were prior to the installation.


Finished Hygrade product ready for shipment.
Click here to enlarge image

The new lasers replaced 1500W and 1750W lasers that had been installed in the 1980s. It didn’t take long to get the revamped systems up and running. The company pulled out the old lasers in a single day and PRC was able to install five units in Pennsylvania in one week and six in Tennessee in four-days.

The company also took the opportunity to upgrade its chillers and with help from Laser Mechanisms Inc. (Farmington Hills, MI), the beam delivery system. Once everything was in, all that was left to do was align the beam to the roll forming equipment and they were quickly back in business.

Hygrade uses the lasers to seam weld progressive roll-formed flat coil steel that is made into square tubes known as spacers. The spacers are used inside double-paned windows to hold the two panes apart equidistantly to allow a thin layer of inert gas to be placed between the panes for insulation. The company’s laser welding expertise allows it to weld pre-painted material without requiring any post weld cleaning or touch up.

According to Mark Gabowitz, Hygrade production manager, the primary reason for replacing the older lasers was their downtime. “The old lasers required up to an hour of warm-up time and needed constant adjustments and maintenance. Just finding replacement parts for them was becoming a major headache as well. With the new lasers we’re up and running in around five minutes, they don’t require constant tweaking, and we don’t need to factor downtime into our delivery schedules.”


Multiple roll-forming lines make up Hygrade’s production floor.
Click here to enlarge image

Because the XL series offers high beam quality with a choice of either a low M2 TEM00 mode or TEM01 “D” mode beam, Hygrade opted for the “D” mode beam, which would provide a slightly wider weld bead, but later decided to try the deeper penetration and narrower weld provided by the TEM00 mode.

Finally after finding that Hygrade was running but not completely satisfied, PRC created a custom optical configuration that offered welding characteristics in between the two standard modes. The new “semi-custom” laser suited the application well. “In addition to solving our downtime problem, thanks to the new lasers we were able to speed up our welding lines” Gabowitz adds. “When we found that the new lasers were capable of welding at much higher speeds, we actually had to go back and increase the number of passes, or tooling steps on our roll-forming lines to keep up with the lasers. We were able to increase our welding rates by about 33 percent to 100 feet per minute. It’s important for us to increase our yield and efficiency to remain competitive against other manufacturers and competing technologies.”

“Another thing that impressed us was the ease of the retrofit. They were installed using the same machine controls and run exactly the same as our old ones. The only training we had to do was to show our people how to turn the laser on and off.”

The consistency of welding is excellent and the results are so good that even with the modifications to the roll-forming lines the company runs the lasers below rated power because the lines can’t keep up.

Hygrade is pleased with the performance of these new lasers, the improved uptime, increased weld speeds, and reduced operating costs. They have greatly improved the company’s manufacturing efficiency, helping it to keep out the cold draft of competition.

Dan Robinson (drobinson@prclaser.com) is vice president sales & marketing for PRC Lasers, Landing, New Jersey, www.prclaserscom.


Industrial laser breakthrough

Back in the late 1980s suppliers of high-power lasers, specifically CO2, were looking for what is known today as that “killer application,” meaning volume sales of units. Photon Sources Corp. (long since part of GSI Lumonics), through some effective applications work, came up with a way to seam weld roll-formed thin gauge aluminum tubing used as thermal window spacers.

This application fits the word serendipity nicely. With a donut mode beam and only 1 kW of power it was hard to weld aluminum especially at high line speeds used in roll forming. The result was an interrupted seam weld, with what welding engineers call blow holes (porosity). But much to the applications engineers relief these pores acted as a means to allow room temperature air into the thermal window space, preventing fogging. So, problem solved, the spacer manufacturer placed orders for a number of lasers, the first multiple-unit order for high-power CO2 lasers. And soon they, and other window manufacturers, had dozens of lasers welding thousands of miles of window spacers.

Today, as exemplified by the Hygrade application described in this article, window spacer welding is still alive and a significant laser application. - DAB

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