Faster and cheaper than China

Faster and cheaper than China

December 10, 2013 2:37:18 PM

Metalwerx Uses Technology to Serve Customers More Efficiently than Overseas Competition 

For several years now, the metal fabrication industry in the United States has either heard about or suffered a nonstop barrage of doom and gloom over jobs and business flowing offshore to China and other fast-developing countries. However, as shops here in the U.S. have invested in updated fabrication technology, that trend is reversing itself in the most unexpected corners of the industry.

Metalwerx, a six-employee fabrication shop in Fredonia, WI, specializes in fast-turnaround jobs for a wide variety of customers, including automotive, railroad and military. Up until last year, Metalwerx ran its jobs across a trio of 2-kW lasers that once performed adequately—that is, until the company began thinking about the future.

Up until recently, 70 percent of the company’s revenue came from woodwork—etching, cutting and the like. However, virtually all of that work migrated to China. So to rebuild and refocus itself on metal fabrication, Metalwerx put a new face on itself with new technology, in the form of a Mitsubishi LVPLUS 3015/40CFX laser.

Making the 4-kW laser machine central to its production has allowed Metalwerx to radically increase its production speed, lower its per-hour operating cost and increase its material utilization in one decisive stroke. 

At the same time, the LVPLUS has given Metalwerx greater flexibility in the types and thicknesses of metal that it can cut. The shop typically cuts 10 different varieties of material per day in stainless steel, mild steel and aluminum. It can cut stainless up to 5/8-in. thick and routinely cuts mild steel anywhere from 20 gauge to 1-in. thick.



Higher Speed



A prime example of the company’s newly found production speed is a complex washer for railroad ties that the shop cuts from 3/8-in. mild steel. With its old lasers, cutting a batch of washers from a 48-by-120-in. sheet took 4.2 hours. The same job now takes less than one hour.

“And now we get more parts on the same size sheet with faster pierce times,” General Manager Todd Weaver says. “Plus, we don’t have any grinding anymore.”

Part of that extra edge quality is attributable to the squarewave pulse emitted by Mitsubishi’s cross-flow resonator. 

Using a square-wave pulse, as opposed to a continuouswave pulse, allows Mitsubishi’s lasers to operate on an 80 percent duty factor, which results in cooler operation at the same cutting speeds. The laser is running 80 percent of the time and cooling off 20 percent of the time, producing a smaller heat-affected zone and better edge quality.

“We’ve eliminated a lot of secondary processes by being able to air cut and nitrogen cut light-gauge steel parts that need to be powder-coated,” Weaver says. 

In addition, the shuttle table of the LVPLUS allows operators to switch between production-quantity work and prototyping efficiently. That feature will become more critical as the company begins to do more prototype work for its new production facility in Mexico.

Tighter Nesting

Another key feature of the LVPLUS is the Ncell software package that allows tighter nesting of parts so that the shop can utilize material better. One creative move is to place parts within parts—nesting jobs with smaller pieces on the same sheet as larger ones to reduce waste.


Now you’re using what was deemed as scrap to put more parts in,” says Jeff Hahn, Mitsubishi Laser. “Material utilization is becoming more and more important because the cost of everything—the cost of producing the material, the cost of the material itself—is going way up.

Ncell software maximizes the machine’s nesting capabilities, which has helped the shop save even more money—about 35 percent per run with one particular mild steel job, Weaver notes. This helps combat the spike in raw material costs.

Lower Cost of Ownership

Metalwerx has seen significant cost savings aside from steel as well. Labor aside, operating its three old lasers was costing the shop about $90 an hour for consumables such as gases and electricity. That number has plummeted to less than $10 an hour with the LVPLUS. 

“That’s 80 dollars an hour, and we’re getting more throughput,” Weaver says. “We just put in a bulk gas system, so actually, our cost of gases has gone down.” Another low-cost selling point that attracted Metalwerx was the cross-flow resonator itself. Instead of using glass tubes to transport gases for laser beam generation, the cross-flow resonator uses an open stainless steel cavity. 

“The maintenance on this machine is very low,” says John Wettstein of Northland Laser, a Mitsubishi dealer. “We’ve had very few problems.”

Gaining speed while decreasing operation costs has helped boost Metalwerx’s bottom line. What was a $40,000-per-month operation now generates $200,000 per month in sales with the same number of employees.

“We’ve been trimming everything we can to stay really lean and competitive,” Weaver says. “Now we have a lot of production that has come back from China. We found that with lower overhead, a lot of our current jobs were in China. Even if we’re a little bit higher per piece price, with the savings in shipping, we’re blowing them out of the water.”


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