Bringing laser cutting in-house enhances product quality and opens the door for new business
David A. Belforte & Laureen J. Belleville
Aero Manufacturing is a 40-year-old, family-owned company specializing in the fabrication and machining of precision parts for the power generation and aerospace industries. The company had its beginnings in 1971 when Salvador and Mike Fonzo and three other partners started the business in Danvers, Mass., with 18 employees. In 1974 Sal and Mike bought out the partners with Mike taking over as CEO and Sal as president, running the shop.
With their background in metal spinning the brothers did all of this work for the company, and Sal still comes in today to do this operation.
Because of their background in metal forming and spinning aircraft parts the company was successful from the start, and in five years’ time they had expanded into a 28,000ft2 plant with 75 employees. In 2000 the company relocated to a new 60,000ft2 building in Beverley, Mass., to which it recently added another 4,000 ft2.
Over the years Aero has worked with some of the world’s leaders in aircraft engines and power generation, maintaining relationships that have lasted for more than 20 years, and in some cases 40 years. This is an acknowledgment of the quality and consistency of the company’s work, and a testament to its customer-oriented business attitude, a company maxim that is not only spoken but also practiced. The company prides itself on setting up partnerships with customers to ensure that the highest-quality parts and assemblies are delivered on time.
As you walk the floor at Aero you see dozens of horizontal and vertical machining centers, turning machines, mills, and lathes. Alongside are EDM machines and TIG and MIG welders. Off to one side is the metal forming equipment, including spin lathes, expanders, presses, and shearing and notching equipment. All told more than 150 pieces of equipment, much of it of recent vintage. We’re told that the Fonzo’s are fascinated with machines and have spared no expense to purchase and install the latest technologies.
An in-house laser improved hole quality on a land-based turbine engine part.
Which leads us to laser cutting, the purpose of our visit. About two years ago Aero took on a job to produce 30-piece lot quantities (2000 pieces per year) of a part for an aircraft turbine engine that required rectangular slots to be laser cut. This operation was subcontracted, with less-than-desirable results in terms of dimensions held and cut quality. When the laser cut parts were returned Aero had to deburr and even scrap parts, up to 10 percent, that would not meet the customer’s specifications.
Deciding that it wanted full control of the laser cutting process, the company set out, in June 2004, to look at what was available in multi-axes laser cutters, on the premise that the poor quality of current parts being processed was not a laser problem but one of fixturing, a capability that Aero prides itself on. It checked out three major suppliers, finally settling on Mitsubishi, because customers with its units spoke highly of zero downtime, good quality cuts, and, when necessary, good service. Aero placed an order for a Mitsubishi ML3122VZ1, 2.0-3.0 kW CO2 laser powered, 5-axes unit that offers three-dimensional cutting in an 84 in. x 102 in. x 34 in. work envelope. The long Z dimension is necessary because a significant percentage of the parts that the company cuts are large. Aero added a sixth axis that provides ±5/16th motion for accuracy and a rotary table to index the many round parts it processes. This system was installed in September of 2004.
Aero mostly laser cuts Hastalloy X, Nimonic, and Haynes 188, Inco 718, and 750 alloys for hot section hardware for land-based turbine engines and aircraft engines, such as combustion liners and flow sleeves. It uses N2, at 6 bar, for alloy cutting. A look at the company’s process sheets shows the laser cuts have a minimal heat affected zone and recast of less than 0.0005 in., well inside tolerances, with minimal dross. These results are consistent with Aero’s stated commitment to zero reject rates and 100 percent accuracy.
The company is a major subcontractor for General Electric and several GE licensees. Currently land-based turbine work represents about 80 percent of its cutting volume. Aero now runs its shop on a single-shift, 8-12 hour, and five-day-a-week schedule- cutting with the laser about 30 hours per week.
Orders for land-based turbines slowed down after a peak in 2003 and the company found its sales decreased by about 50 percent, causing it to look at new opportunities outside of this field. Purchase of the laser cutter was an article of faith, which management hoped would draw in new business. And indeed that is exactly what has happened. Although the land-based turbine business is picking up and there are new laser cutting opportunities, it is the potential of new business from new customers that has Aero excited.
The laser cuts have a minimal heat affected zone and recast of less than 0.0005 inch.
For example, the company is in the final negotiation stages for a part that could require it to commit a laser for two shifts exclusively. For that order the company may have to purchase another laser cutter when the contract fully ramps up. It is already seeing the cutting load on the first laser increase as it finds new applications in-house to replace punching operations, for example. Of course a lot of the aircraft engine applications have to be process certified, a lengthy procedure, so Aero looks to land-based turbine parts for switching to laser cutting.
Management sees the laser’s potential in producing small holes and shapes, faster and with higher quality. This added capability is a key selling point that the company is now making as it expands its marketing operation outside of its current customer base. With its current customer base, following up on the company’s partnership approach, it is looking for ways to improve existing part design to employ laser technology that can improve part processing and reduce manufacturing cost.
To an outsider visiting Aero Manufacturing it is clear the company is betting heavily on the success of the laser to bring it the added business needed to compete in today’s markets. We asked about the possibility of competing in the flat sheet cutting market but that option does not appear attractive, probably because it is a crowded and very competitive business today.
Aero’s plant and equipment are first class and in excellent condition. The plant floor is well organized, as evidenced by an uncluttered and orderly layout. As stated, the bothers are sort of machine junkies and the assortment and quality of equipment in use supports this. It appears that the company is not reticent to spend for new equipment even when business is down, as it recently invested $2 million in machines, including the laser.
We had gained an impression of a company in transition; moving from traditional machining operations to more high technology, such as the multi-axes laser, as a means to find new business and to move the company back to higher annual sales. It would appear that the laser is viewed as key to this quest, and company management confirmed this as they state that the laser operation is extremely important to them.
Aero’s commitment to its customers and its willingness to invest in new equipment to produce the highest quality parts is the type of advertising that encourages long-term customer relationships. It appears that the laser investment will only enhance their reputation.