Growing gains with lasers

Growing gains with lasers

December 12, 2013 3:54:38 PM


Jeff Adams may have taken the nontraditional route in manufacturing by starting out in the laser equipment vendor community, but he has since moved to the job shop side of the industry, using his laser knowledge and expertise to help grow his 12-year-old laser job shop in Libertyville, Ill.

Growing pains with lasers

It took one phrase to change Jeff Adams' direction in manufacturing: "At some point in the future, this is all going to be done with lasers."

When Adams heard this, he knew he needed to learn more.

Today he owns and operates Laser Precision LLC, which uses laser technology for prototype parts, production runs of any size, stainless and carbon steel processing, aluminum processing, multiple-bend parts, and automotive parts.

"It's the right technology for the direction [our] markets are going to have to go," Adams said of lasers.

Lasers: The Wave of the Future

Adams didn't set out to specialize in lasers. He initially heard of their capabilities while he was working for a CAD/CAM systems developer.

One day, during an appointment with a tool and die company, he learned about how metal fabrication would change in the future.

"They said, "At some point in the future, this is all going to be done with lasers,'" Adams said. From there, Adams sought to figure out ways to use lasers, devoting two years to studying the technology and equipment.

He worked for a German company that manufactured lasers used to produce steel rule dies before he joined Mitsubishi, worked as its national sales manager, and started its laser division in the 1980s.

Today he has almost 12 years under his belt with Laser Precision, during which he's realized that laser technology is just one part of what helps his company enjoy and maintain success.

Based in Libertyville, Ill., Laser Precision has about 700 customers, 50 to 75 of which are active at one time. Some customers send a lot of repetitive work on a monthly basis.

Heavy industrial equipment customers are the company's primary clients, followed by food equipment, transportation (buses and trains), and specialty equipment industries. As markets evolve, Adams said Laser Precision adapts and will continue to adapt, taking on different manufacturing sectors.

With this diverse customer base inevitably comes a variety in the parts the company processes, from shim-thick stainless steel to 1-inch-thick plate. As for equipment, the company has five laser systems, three of which are automated and run 24/7. Laborwise, the company runs two shifts five days a week.

The Answer in Automation

Automation is a necessity in today's manufacturing industry, especially where competition with China is concerned. Because Adams can't fathom competing with China, for example, on labor, he feels it's necessary to automate.

"We aren't going to be a labor-intensive industry, so we have to automate," Adams said.

That's where lasers come into the picture.

"My belief has always been that lasers are suited for automation," Adams said, adding that the flexibility of laser technology is paramount to his company's growth.

"As long as we invest in the proper flexible technology, we're not precluding ourselves from any markets," he said.

When he invested in laser systems for his company, he had one major goal in mind: increasing production without increasing his staff, said Bill Isaac, vice president of Mitsubishi, who helped Adams choose his equipment.

"Jeff knew what he wanted—to be able to get higher production without more manpower—and that takes reliability and automation," Isaac said.

Isaac added that Adams was one of the first in a line of customers he has dealt with who are looking to meet the same types of demands in similar ways. As manufacturing companies continue to compete with countries that have a labor advantage, automation is becoming more and more important, Isaac said.

"People who are determined to keep their business in the U.S. have to reduce their margin and their cost to their customers," he said.

Adams is using automation to increase what Isaac calls his beam-on time, keeping his machines running, even without operators, to help keep costs down and customer satisfaction up.

"The running time without maintenance is very important," he said.

Lasers Aren't Everything

But at the same time, lasers aren't everything.

If you're automating your processes, Adams said, you can make more parts, but as you make more parts, you also have to increase your data management capacity so you can keep up and continually track your increase in parts manufacturing.

"The true challenge to automation is using it to meet customer needs effectively in handling so many more parts produced on the floor," Adams said.

One answer to managing data is the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that can track between 1,000 and 2,000 parts throughout the facility.

Another key is an electronic data interchange (EDI) customers use to adjust their schedules—changes that automatically alter Laser Precision's system so the company is making only the parts it needs to make, when it needs to make them. Customers can change the number of parts they need or when they need them, and the system communicates those changes as quickly as possible, on a minute-by-minute basis.

Isaac sees value in how Adams is using data management to enhance his laser systems' capabilities.

"The way Jeff is tying everything together with the ERP so he and his customers can look at where their parts are via the ERP or Internet is going to make him even more valuable," he said.

Currently the company manages 300 to 500 schedule changes a day.

Combining data management systems with automation has given Laser Precision a triple-digit increase in sales in the last 18 months, Adams reported. He said much of this success is due to data management, which he sees as the foundation for effectively managing his company's growth.

"Data management is the structure on which you hang everything else," he said.

The Shop of the Future

As Adams continues to plan ahead by adapting to the evolving markets his company serves — and could potentially serve—he said it's important to structure the company and use technology to take advantage of those changes.

In the future Adams envisions a company like his being run with one person managing the fundamental flow of information and orders processed through the facility.

He said this is possible with the right combination of computer technology, fabrication technology, and strategically placed personnel.

Adams thinks his company is on that track already.

In the last 18 months, the company has increased its staff by 25 percent. Adams doesn't see automation as a vehicle to eliminating jobs but, instead, restructuring staff to its greatest potential.

"I don't have a desire to reduce the work force," he said. "We have the people who are here do what they do best—make decisions."

Gradually staff who were in shop floor positions are taking on more managerial positions in which they make decisions so the equipment can handle more of the actual labor. Although the company hasn't increased labor significantly, it has been able to increase its sales by employing automation.

"As time goes forward, people will be meeting customer needs by managing quality through overseeing the technology," Adams said. By the end of the year, Adams plans to double the company's laser capacity.

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