A high-speed laser with multi-pallet load/unload system doubles productivity, cuts labor requirements in half, and improves part quality for growing business
Standard Sheet Metal Works, LLC (SSMW) was established in February 2001 to support Standard Maintenance Company, LLC (SMC), a Memphis, Tennessee-based general/mechanical contractor with more than 50 full-time employees. At the time, SMC vice president George Hampton was simply looking for a way to provide his customers in the food processing, chemical, and medical industries with “turnkey,” high-quality general construction, process piping, millwright work, structural steel work, and sheet metal fabrication as quickly and efficiently as possible. Today, SSMW does just that, and more. The shop has grown its capabilities and its business with the addition of a high-power flying optics 4kW CO2 laser with a CNC-controlled multi-pallet load/unload system, allowing it to pursue a more diverse range of fabrication and production work in the Memphis area as well as for national accounts.
Fabrication operations were primarily manual and labor-intensive when the company first opened its doors. The majority of its work is custom stainless steel components including kitchen equipment, material handling equipment, conveyor and transfer chutes, and devices for the food industry. Many of the parts are large and highly contoured, such as a segment of a cone, hoppers, transitions, segmented elbows, and kitchen counter tops, but the company also specializes in creating small piece parts. Lot sizes have been as large as 1,000 pieces. Hampton soon realized that the complexity of the parts and the need to quickly generate highly accurate parts required more advanced technology. After eight months of research and justification, Hampton and SSMW Vice President Tommy Ripley purchased an Axel 3015 L 4kW CO2 laser cutting system manufactured by Strippit/LVD, of Akron, New York.
In his search for a laser system to meet the shop’s growing requirements, Hampton and Ripley considered sheet size capability, thickness capacity, wattage, level of automation, and ease of operation. These features, along with speed, accuracy, cut quality, and software, were evaluated. The flying optics laser with integrated load/unload system and 4kW CO2 laser source provided the right combination of features and capabilities. “We wanted to achieve the highest level of quality with the highest possible accuracy and in the fastest way possible,” says Hampton.
The majority of the company’s jobs are stainless steel components in thicknesses from 20- to 22-gauge up to 1/2 inch. The laser gives SSMW the ability to cut thick stainless, which gives the company a competitive advantage over local job shops.
The 4kW laser power also allows the shop to efficiently process thin and thick materials in mild steel (3/4-inch) and aluminum (3/8-inch) at high production rates. This high-output power maximizes feed rates, significantly improving productivity. The laser system’s flying optics design aids in achieving high cutting speeds accurately, regardless of the size or weight of the sheet to be cut. The company is able to cut parts at speeds in excess of 300 inches per minute and reposition at 6700 inches per minute.
SSMW uses nitrogen assist gas to process oxide-free parts without burrs. High-quality parts are processed in one operation on the laser. The quality of the laser-processed parts eliminates time-consuming grinding and finishing operations and allows more cost-effective production.
Part quality is especially important to the shop, as its primary customer base mandates the highest part quality and accuracy for aesthetic as well as sanitary purposes. “We want to provide our customers with machine-quality fabricated parts and components parts in a more timely and cost-efficient manner. We want to be part of boosting the standards by which work in our industry is done,” says Hampton.
The machine’s axis positioning accuracy of ± 0.002 inch/40 inch with repeatability of ± 0.0004 inch ensures consistently accurate processing. The accuracy and consistency of the laser cut also reduce the welding and assembly time. Components go together smoothly and precisely. “The fact that parts cut on the laser fit together perfectly significantly reduces the labor associated with welding and finishing,” notes Hampton.
With an eye toward future work and the objective to operate the laser around the clock in a “lights out” environment, SSMW added a three-pallet load/unload system. The use of multiple pallets allows the shop to change out materials quickly, significantly reducing material handling. The loading system handles plates up to 3/4 inch and stack heights up to 12 inches per station. It can control the speed of the unloading system through the CNC according to the weight of the material or the size of the parts being offloaded, to ensure that the unloaded parts stack smoothly. Cut parts are deposited on a scissors table with a capacity of 5 tons and a stacking height of 14 inches.
The fully integrated CNC-controlled load/unload system allows loading and unloading functions to be performed independently, with a total load/unload time of 40 seconds. The integration of the load/unload system also permits unattended production, freeing the operator to perform other tasks. While the laser is cutting, the machine operator is programming the next group of parts. The unmanned operation is providing significant savings for SSMW, which has experienced a drastic reduction in labor requirement since installing the laser.
Subcontracting fabrication or laser work left Hampton with little control over the delivery schedule, production process, or final result. Today, Standard Sheet Metal Works is able to respond even faster to its customers’ needs and provide a single-source solution. “A lot of our work is done during plant shutdowns. We feel much more secure not having to depend on someone else,” says Hampton.
“We approach our business from a service standpoint,” he continues. “The laser gives me full control over when the parts get fabricated and how they’re fabricated. Turnaround time is a key issue in our business, and our reputation is built on being responsive to our customers and delivering a very high-quality product...when they need it.
“The laser helps give our customers a higher level of confidence in our capabilities,” he adds. “Our customers want to concentrate on their business; they want to be able to hand off their fabrication work to a vendor they can trust.”
In addition, the flexibility of the laser is allowing Hampton and Ripley to pursue new business beyond the support work for his company. “The laser makes sheet metal fabricating easier and gives us the diversity that we need to go after new business,” Hampton says.
The SSMW shop recently expanded to add 18,000 square feet and now has 30 full-time employees. According to Hampton, the investment in laser technology is already paying off.
“It’s a large investment for a small company, but we weighed the risks against the benefits and we’re confident in our business and in our relationships with our customers. The turndown in the market was a concern, but not a significant issue. We are already experiencing an increase in business.”
For Standard Sheet Metal Works, the business opportunities are growing. The company recently invested in additional fabrication equipment, including a Strippit/LVD PPEB 190/13 precision press brake with Easy-Form® Laser adaptive bending system and a Global 20 1225 CNC turret punch press. The additional capacity further expands Standard Sheet Metal Works’ ability to address its customers’ needs quickly and efficiently with high-quality products.
This article was prepared for ILS by Strippit/LVD, Akron, New York (www.lvdgroup.com).