Mixing the old (manual) with the new (laser)

Suzhou, China - Li Je Hua started a fabricating business 14 years ago in this Shanghai suburb, which is now a booming industrial center. With a $4-million annual turnover and 40 employees Suzhou Jiezuo Banjin Co. Ltd. (SJB) currently serves two major customers from a rabbit’s warren of buildings occupying about 2000 m2. Shoe horned into the premise are several punch presses, press brakes, manual welding stations, and other fabricating equipment supplemented by two TRUMPF laser cutters, a 3030 and a TLC6000 combination unit.

Li added the gantry style 3030 specifically for one of the world’s largest suppliers of mobile phone transmission towers for whom he laser cuts thin gauge 5052 aluminum antenna receiver components that cannot show any scratches from material handling. These parts are a 10-foot long complex shape that has a large number of tabs that when bent 90° form receptors. The laser cuts in the 2mm sheet are sharp and because the laser head moves over a stationary part, the parts exit the laser shiny and scratch free.

What sets SJB apart from a U.S.-style shop is the final assembly area where the antenna parts are prepared for shipment. At a long table one man sits in front of an antenna section and patiently bends each of the tabs 90°. I counted about 10-15 tabs per section, which timed out at about 3 tabs/minute. Mr. Li proudly pointed to the hand-operated bending tool that he designed. Next to this operation about 10 young men inserted ½-inch-long round standoffs into pre-punched holes to act as standoffs. As I watched I estimated that one antenna section was produced, ready for assembly into an aluminum case, in about 10 minutes. Mr. Li told me that at this stage the antenna had a manufacturing cost of about $10. Only in China could you perform so many manual operations and still meet that cost while turning out 20,000 assemblies a year.

Business is good at SJB and Mr. Li has invested $2 million in a new 10,000-m2 plant across town, where he will move the company by mid-summer. When I asked if he was concerned that two customers represented 80 percent of his business, Mr. Li acknowledged saying the new facility should give him the space to bring in more diversified customers. He is confident this can happen and he plans to add another laser this year to handle the expected business increase. - DAB

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