On the road again

Increasing productivity and decreasing production costs are possible with laser processing

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In the June 1999 issue of ILS an article on the use of a 4-kW Nd:YAG laser to weld aluminum truck-cab components showed the advanced manufacturing know-how of Freightliner. In June 2003 ILS described the company’s use of laser cladding of the fifth wheel of these truck tractors. And now we are pleased to present the company’s upgrading of its laser sheet-metal cutting capability. Freightliner is committed to the laser as a means to improve its products and productivity. -DAB

Increasing productivity and decreasing production costs are possible with laser processing

Freightliner-of all the names found on the many big rigs that are the lifeblood of our economy, no other conveys the purpose of the vehicle it is on. Not only does Freightliner identify a particular manufacturer, it immediately calls to mind an image of an 18-wheeler. All semis are big, but somehow, in the imagination, a Freightliner is bigger. That image is soon joined by the sound of a big truck, shifting gears, heading out into the night on a mission-transporting America’s goods.

Freightliner began manufacturing operations in 1942, with its aluminum-framed semi-tractors. It was acquired by Daimler-Benz in 1981. Freightliner LLC is the largest producer of heavy-duty trucks in North America. Although best known for its namesake semi-tractors, it manufactures a broad product line that includes medium-duty trucks, school buses, and custom chassis.

OEM production

Vehicle and chassis manufacturing is carried out in seven plants: one each in Oregon, Canada, and Mexico; the other four clustered in the Carolinas. One plant, located in Gastonia, NC, is dedicated to producing parts for all the manufacturing plants and eight parts-distribution centers.

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The Freightliner parts manufacturing plant produces components ranging from pressed sheet-metal body parts to formed, heavy-gauge chassis parts. It has total manufacturing capabilities: laser, punch, shear, machine tools, welding, e-coating, and so forth. The manufacturing plant has ten lasers, some of them dating back to 1994. The two newest are Mitsubishi Lasers, which started operation in April 2006.

In 2004, a committee was formed to combat rising laser maintenance costs, increasing downtime, and cutting speeds that fell short of current industry benchmarks. Besides improving reliability, speed, and ease of use, the plant wanted a vendor that could be a single-source provider for its equipment. Some of the company’s existing systems required the involvement of multiple vendors for repairs.

The search process included team members from the three areas most affected: engineering, operations, and maintenance. Goals included compiling and organizing a list of must-haves and wishes, identifying potential laser system vendors, creating a short list and visiting installations, comparing notes after each visit and compiling findings, and making a recommendation for purchase.

The team visited several working installations. One was especially memorable because the laser was down and the back panel was off the resonator-not a good sign. At another site, there was tower-based automated material handling. Carolyn Mitchem, the operator on the team, was mesmerized by seeing such a system for the first time.

At the Mitsubishi installation, Mitchem learned how this laser eliminated the focus difficulties that Freightliner operators had experienced with some lasers. After meeting with engineering and purchasing and compiling a good report, the maintenance technician was “extremely impressed.”

The Freightliner team was surprised when the company’s owner told them he upgrades his four Mitsubishi lasers every year. He explained that by doing so, he is assured of having state-of-the-art laser-cutting systems and never has to “play catch-up.”

After comparing notes, the team made its recommendation: Mitsubishi was the unanimous choice. Aside from excellent spec sheets, Mitsubishi laser systems had impressed the team with their “hassle-free” operation. In 2006, the Gastonia plant replaced two of its older lasers with two Mitsubishi lasers, a 2015VZ1 2 kW and a 3718 LVPlus 4 kW and also tower automation.

The solution

The two new laser systems made a dramatic impact on the shop floor and have significantly impacted productivity, production costs, and quality. Phil Davidson, senior manufacturing engineer, says, “The plant gained enough capacity to be equivalent to replacing three to four old lasers, not just two.” The new lasers handle thicker materials and make cleaner cuts. Because of the increased capacity and related improvement in production costs, the plant has been able to bring a number of parts that were previously outsourced in-house.

The new system and software have produced the most dramatic changes by increasing productivity, improving work flow and simplifying material handling. System reliability has also improved significantly with the new systems. The experience of other customers suggests that this improvement will continue well beyond the first year

Freightliner also has plans to purchase up to three more lasers over the next two years. The plant can leverage its expertise and systems to obtain the optimal installations to continue to support its parts-production operation.

This feature was adapted from a story appearing in the Mitsubishi Experience newsletter published by MC Machinery Systems Inc., Wood Dale, IL, USA (www.mitsubishi-world.com).

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