Production of foil-based control elements

Lüneberg, Germany -- The use of flat control and information panels is standard throughout the world. Their industrial design and compact construction enables a cost-effective solution in applications such as: membrane keyboards in medical engineering, mobile phones, household appliances, teller machines, and remote controls.

Quality and reliability demands on the keyboard elements are high and increasing. Keyboards must be permanently usable under a particular set of conditions and must overcome external influences such as humidity or soiling. Flexibility combined with ease of cleaning and a high level of resilience are decisive criteria.

This creates increasing demands on manufacturers and the processing industry as the extensive product range and shorter delivery times call for simpler production methods. This is where laser cutting comes into its own as there is: no material chipping as happens in punching, no knife cleaning, no adhesion of individual parts, no humidity as in water jet cutting, and cut edges are sealed.

Punching is a quick way of shaping foil products. Depending on product value, punching tools for medium and large series can be deployed cost-effectively. For individualized products or small series, the expensive production of a punching tool drives the cost and makes production non-viable, especially if immediate delivery is required and if it is a question of individually varying product characteristics.

Water jet cutting quickly reaches its limits when it comes to precision cutting. Soiling and a high level of humidity on the material to be processed are natural consequences of using water.

Knives are subject to rapid wear and tear, and consistency of quality decreases. Follow-on costs for replacing tools and the downtime associated with this are unavoidable.

What does laser cutting offer?

Laser processing is contact-free so that foil remnants cannot adhere to the tool; the material does not need to be fixed in place; and there is no danger of squashing or chipping, even if the foil is multilayered. The thermal process can cause the cut edges to melt, which acts as a seal, creating an automatic protection against soiling without additional expense.

Printed foils for fronts or particular functions can be precisely recognized and outlined by means of an interactive optical recognition system. To further automate the production of high quality keyboards, laser systems are often stocked with foil by a robot, and the sheet position is identified by camera recognition and cut precisely. The keyboards are then collected by the automatic handling system and separated from the remainder of the foil sheet. This fully automated process means that production can continue around the clock, taking advantage of the full potential of the laser cutter.

Laser technology now competes with conventional processing methods, even when dealing with large quantities. A high level of precision and the almost maintenance-free laser tool have convinced many companies to move towards this technology.

To survive the pressure of today's competition, companies must employ innovative planning processes and production methods. In practice, however, implementation is not always simple. Without flexible technologies and automation processes, new innovations in the sector cannot be implemented in a viable manner. Laser technology makes many things economically viable, both today and in the future.

Contributed by eurolaser GmbH, Lüneburg, Germany, www.eurolaser.com.


Solving customers' conveying needs

Chicago, IL -- Mayfran International was approached by one of its customers, S&C Electric Company, a large manufacturer in Chicago, to help solve conveyor problems it was experiencing on its lasers. The challenge was to provide a more reliable conveyor system that would enable their lasers to operate continuously in a "lights-out" condition or when no operator was present. S&C had also invested in an integrated sheet-metal storage tower for its laser system, utilizing its automated load/unload capability to achieve higher productivity and operating efficiencies.

The existing conveyor system was experiencing regular jam-ups from scrap remnants getting caught in moving components and exhibiting excessive wear due to laser dust and other particles that became lodged between its many moving parts. Cycle interruptions during lights-out production hours also impacted the flow of parts to critical production and assembly operations, typically resulting in the loss of multiple production shifts until the system was restarted.

With these and other conveyor related problems, the full capabilities of S&C's state-of-the-art laser system were not being realized. These regular production interruptions also meant the projected return on investment was longer than originally estimated.

Mayfran's solution focused on improving the end result, and a Shuffle drive conveyor system was recommended that was specifically designed for laser applications. Constructed with fewer moving parts and utilizing a field-proven "shuffle" design, the operation of this system is more reliable where there is dust and debris being generated by the laser cutting process. Dust and debris is collected in a tray supported by a suspension system that moves in a forward and back motion, causing the collected material to move in the desired direction.

One of the other weaknesses of steel-belt conveyor systems is the amount of carry-over debris that is dragged back into the machine by the belt, which then has to be removed before it can cause further production interruptions. Since there is no belt with the Shuffle drive conveyor system, it has a distinct advantage over a steel-belt system. Whatever goes into the tray, comes out at the end, which significantly reduces housekeeping concerns within the laser system.

In addition, a Mayfran Poly Armor elevating conveyor was installed on a second laser system purchased by S&C, where it is used to elevate and remove laser scrap and debris to a larger scrap collection bin. This conveyor has a solid-surface flat belt with side wings designed to keep debris from getting into other conveyor components. A positive drive system is used to run the belt, which eliminates any chance of belt slippage and the need to track the belt. With the Shuffle drive and Poly Armor conveyor combination in place, conveyor wear, unplanned downtime, repair costs and lost production hours have been significantly reduced on this laser system.

This newest laser system has been running for about 1.5 years, and the payback on the investment in the Shuffle and the Poly Armor conveyors is estimated at seven months. These lasers perform the first machining operation for critical production lines, and if required parts are not available when needed, delayed assembly schedules and delivery commitments can have a costly impact on operations. The improved reliability of the laser systems has also reduced outsourcing requirements and the overtime needed to meet production requirements.

Editorial supplied by Paul Tamlin of Mayfran International, Cleveland OH, www.mayfran.com.


Rapid prototyping speeds updates on 2014 Chevrolet Malibu

Detroit, MI -- When Chevrolet set out to refresh the Malibu's interior and exterior for 2014, designers used one of the most cost-effective and time-saving methods in its high-tech tool box: rapid prototyping, also known as 3-D printing.

The processes literally grow prototype parts out of powder or liquid resin at a fraction of the cost associated with building tools to make test parts. Selective laser sintering and stereolithography -- the official names of the processes -- helped accelerate the Malibu's development and evaluation. Both processes use specialized software, math data and digital lasers, which accomplish in days what would have taken weeks of clay sculpting in the past.

Rapid prototyping enables designers and engineers to quickly see, touch, and test versions of individual components and systems in precise one-third scale and full-size models without having to make changes to production tooling, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"When you need to get intricate, fully functional prototype parts quickly, nothing beats rapid prototyping," said Todd Pawlik, chief engineer, Chevrolet mid- and full-size cars. "Our ability to rapidly fabricate inexpensive prototype parts throughout a vehicle enables key components to get confirmed earlier so that we can go from computer models to production-caliber parts."

Rapid prototyping proved particularly useful for updates to the new Malibu's floor console, which now features a pair of integrated smartphone holders for driver and passenger. The new console also weighs less, which helps contribute to the Malibu's improved fuel economy.

In addition, the Malibu development team used rapid prototyping to:

  • Update the center stack trim and evaluate various surface treatments for the console and center stack.
  • Create a prototype of Malibu's redesigned front fascia, enabling aerodynamic and climatic wind tunnel testing without expensive production parts.
  • Re-sculpt the front seat back panels -- located between seat frame and upholstery -- for improved rear seat access and passenger comfort. The 2014 model has 1.25 inches more knee room compared to its predecessor.

Selective laser sintering fuses plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders in cross sections. A laser scans a pattern on the surface of the powder, fusing the particles together into a layer four-thousandths of an inch thick. As each new layer of powder is added, scanned and fused to the previous one, the part gradually takes shape within the 28-inch-cubed reservoir.

Stereolithography combines photochemistry and laser technology to build parts from liquid photopolymer resins. The parts are also built up in layers as a UV laser traces the section onto the surface of the resin, curing the liquid into a solid as it scans. Because the resin won't support the parts being formed, a fine lattice-like structure is generated below each part during the manufacturing process.

Contributed by General Motors-Chevrolet, www.chevrolet.com.

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