Laser engraving instrument panels

Tom Macy

The efficiency of a laser marking/engraving system enables this manufacturer to eliminate bottlenecks and accept new business

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A successful laser system-based solution is best achieved with a strong user/supplier partnership fostered by effective two-way communication. One example is Vytek and its enthusiastic partner Glenn Harmison of Proto-Fab (Elkhart, IN, USA; www.protofab.net). Proto-Fab is a developer and manufacturer of instrument-panel and switch-panel systems to the specialty-vehicle, marine, industrial, and commercial markets. From initial designs to the finished products, it strives to provide customers with a complete solution. 

By coupling its design, manufacturing, fabrication, and thermoforming capabilities, along with a strong knowledge of and relationship with all the major gauge and switch manufacturers, Proto-Fab can offer a product that is specifically designed and integrated to meet the needs of its customers. Founded in 1989 and located in the heart of the recreational-vehicle market, Proto-Fab was initially involved with the Class A motor-home market. Since then, the company has expanded into other markets, such as the construction, transit-bus, emergency-vehicle, stationary-equipment, marine, and golf-cart markets.

Proto-Fab’s production process includes engraving several parts, such as backlit instrument panels, where a film is removed from the front of opaque material to create text and graphics. Other applications include monitor panels, such as for a battery holding tank or water tank, where text and graphics are engraved on the face of the panel, and actuators (plastic toggle switches), where a coating is removed to generate text and graphics.

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Prior to working with Vytek, Proto-Fab had been using a CNC engraver to perform engraving work. At only 55-in./min engraving speed, this was the most time-consuming step—the gating item—in the manufacturing process. With its business doing very well, Proto-Fab had to work weekends to perform engraving to keep up with demand.

After putting up with this work environment for some time, the company decided something had to be done to speed up the engraving process and alleviate the bottleneck. After discussing the situation internally for several months, Harmison began to research potential high-speed engraving solutions.

Looking for an answer

At a trade show he approached the Vytek booth where several laser systems were on display. Here he met Dirk Burrowes, Vytek president, who showed him the capabilities of a number of laser and system alternatives, including a gantry/flying optic platform with a fiber laser to produce a flexible, high-throughput, easy-to-use engraving system. The value of fiber laser technology is that it offers a strong blend of performance, flexibility, value, small footprint, low operating cost, and long life and seemed a likely fit for Proto-Fab’s needs.

Purchasing a laser system would be a big step for Proto-Fab, requiring a significant investment for a relatively small firm with 55 employees. So Harmison spent a year considering the offering, researching alternative solutions, and reviewing the expected ROI associated with such a purchase so that he would be confident that the investment would be a wise one. Toward the end of this process, samples and files were sent to Vytek for an engineering study, where the laser system integrator would demonstrate its engraving capability and perform time studies for throughput estimation.

After Vytek produced high-quality samples and promising throughput estimates, Harmison went to the company’s Fitchburg, MA, USA, factory, where he observed a laser system engraving Proto-Fab parts. Shortly thereafter, Proto-Fab purchased a Vytek M/X5124 gantry/flying-optic platform configured with a 51 × 24-in. work area and 50-W fiber laser capable of up to 150-in./s scanning speed.

Installation was straightforward, requiring only leveling the system and plugging into 110-V single-phase. Training included loading a Corel Draw file from a computer into the system via Ethernet, file-optimization techniques, showing Proto-Fab how to load in up to 32 parts at a time for step-and-repeat processing, and optic-assembly replacement.

“As word of our high-quality work has spread to other customers,” says Harmison, “Proto-Fab has had the opportunity to take on small, often one-time projects. Marking nametags for permanent identification of medical instruments and personalizing nameplates for trophies are two examples.” He continues, “Because the laser system completes work so quickly and is easy to program, there is time to run these extra jobs at a profit. Using a CNC engraver took too long to make this economical. Thus, the M/X series has opened another area for generating revenue.”

A success story

Today the laser engraver operates 100–150 hours per month marking 500–1000 parts per month. “The system is doing a superb job. We like the fact that we can accept a job with 20 or 30 parts, set it up, walk away from the machine while it runs the job, perform other tasks while it’s running, and then return to unload the last and load the next job. We’ve saved significant labor time, and now we have our weekends back,” states Harmison.

Harmison also praises the system’s ease of maintenance. He notes that using the supplied cleaning kit and Q-tip swabs each day ensures that the high quality of the laser-engraved product is consistent from run to run. Additionally, the parts his company laser engraves and marks are at least equal in quality to those produced by tier-one automotive suppliers. “This allows Proto-Fab to be very price competitive with high-volume shops on lower-volume jobs for our smaller customers,” notes Harmison.

Proto-Fab achieved a tenfold throughput increase because of the 30-in./s engraving speed. Harmison says, “The M/X eliminated a bottleneck and gave us wonderful quality. We call it ‘serendipity’—there was more than one benefit to the project. The system does perfect work, and the user-friendly software makes it very easy to use. It generates superior quality parts that are fitting for the high-end RV market. It provides us with a competitive advantage in our marketplace and has strengthened our customer relationships.”


Tom Macy is sales and marketing manager at Vytek Laser Systems, Fitchburg, MA, USA. Contact him at tmacy@vy-tek.com.

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