Software drives the laser

Automotive company achieves substantial savings by installing software to drive 5-axis laser machine tools

Firstek Limited, a manufacturer of prototype automotive components, currently runs two Prima five-axis laser machines to manufacture components for companies such as Visteon, GKN, and Federal Mogul.

Firstek was originally founded in 1972 at its location in Basildon, Essex, UK, becoming Firstek Limited about three or four years ago when the company changed hands. It offers prototyping services predominantly for the automotive industry where orders might consist of from 1 to 20 of a particular component. With the recent integration of Camtek PEPS SolidCut Laser CAD/CAM software and 5-axis lasers the company is seeing growth into low-run production work (up to several hundred of a particular component.) The company has a staff of 30 employees and experiences an annual turnover of £ 3 million.

The company's previous five-axis CAM system was purchased along with the first machine in 1997. It was a text-based, Unix-driven system, and it was not user-friendly. In 2002 the manufacturers withdrew it from the market, along with product support and updates. The decision was subsequently made to research the market for a replacement system. Says Rob Blackwell, technical manager, "I'd worked in another company that had used PEPS back in the mid-1980s and remembered then that both the product and support were good. So I had no problem with continuing with them again."

The company installed a seat of PEPS SolidCut laser in the CAD/CAM department, and Blackwell underwent a five-day advanced training course. However, he was comfortable using the system after only two days.


Figure 1. Parts such as this fuel pump protector for a car can be designed, with code generated in half the time previously required.
Click here to enlarge image

Upon installation the most noticeable improvement was that of speed. "Programming was at least 50 percent quicker than the previous system, mainly because PEPS is solids-based and can utilize the solid information stored against the part. Previously we would pull in an IGES or other format file with an inner/outer surface. We then had to delete all of the inner surfaces on the old software. PEPS takes in the solid model, so we just pick the edge, and one click of a mouse generates NC code. A part that might have taken five or six hours to go from drawing to code can now be done in two or three hours, which over the course of a week saves me about a day," says Blackwell.

Every company has its own preferred methods of working, and Firstek is no different. When it wanted to change the visual format of the output NC code, it turned to Camtek's support department. Blackwell adds, "We needed some help to change the headers and footers into our desired format. My experience of support from Camtek has always been a swift response, sometimes even in a matter of minutes for this particular instance." As Iain Tennant, general manager, points out, "It cannot be underestimated how important support is. A user will always need support as the data from customers is not always formatted consistently. It's amazing how good, bad, and indifferent the files we receive from customers can be. Unless you are a large company with a big IT department you will need people like Camtek to hold your hand through the initial learning curve."


Figure 2. Firstek is moving towards more low-volume work rather than prototyping because of the increased throughput SolidCut Laser allows the machine to deliver.
Click here to enlarge image

The Prima Optimo can handle larger jobs, which accounts for around 10 percent of Firstek's business. These jobs require fixtures that previously were impossible to generate manually, requiring alternative part holding methods to be used. PEPS includes automatic 'egg-box' fixture generation, nesting each plate onto a sheet.

With the company's business progressing more towards low-volume production work as opposed to purely prototyping, the requirement for fast and reliable throughput of jobs on the 5-axis lasers is paramount. Firstek plans to recruit a new machine operator who will also make use of SolidCut Laser. Tennant finished by saying, "PEPS is important for our business not only because of the time saved, which is substantial, but also because of the ease of use. We can now recruit an operator and easily train him on the system rather than a specialist CAD operator, which would come at a much greater expense. I believe that PEPS is as easy to use as systems costing much more."

Company details

  • Established 1972
  • Staff of approx 40
  • Business: prototype automotive engineering
  • Machines used: Prima Optimo and Prima Rapido
  • Website: www.firstek.uk.com
  • Benefits achieved
  • Programming time reduced by 50 percent—saving approximately one day per week in programming time alone
  • Much easier user interface
  • Solids-based product drastically reduces programming time
  • Automatic fixture generation especially useful for larger jobs
  • Windows platform—easier to support and maintain
  • Frequent software updates
  • Fast and comprehensive support
  • User was proficient with the system in two days
  • Future staff costs reduced as the company can employ semi-skilled staff instead of CAD experts

Martin Bailey is group marketing manager for Camtek Ltd., Malvern, Worcestershire, UK. Contact him via e-mail at mbailey@jetcam.com or visit www.peps.com.

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