The Path Ahead

The Path Ahead

December 12, 2013 4:14:00 PM

October 2013 - Few are the technologies that make it onto the list of what Clayton Christensen would call “disruptive innovations.” In his 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, popularized the contrast between disruptive innovations—those that dramatically alter the way markets and companies operate—and sustaining innovations, which gradually evolve over time and, while helpful and value-adding, don’t radically change existing business.

In the metalworking world, fiber technology straddles a fine line between the two. In recent years, it has proved itself as a much speedier, accurate way to cut thin sheet metal using a fraction of the energy and consumables as CO2, the prevailing metal cutting method for that material. In some cases, fiber lasers take up less space as physical objects on the shop floor, and the power sources can be wheeled around. The nature of fiber laser allows for flexible, multiple-beam path delivery, which lets users hook up fiber optic cables for welding or cutting, harnessing the same power source as if one fiber were used. Indirect fiber laser benefits keep appearing with more use.

As job shops and manufacturers watch others dive into fiber laser technology from the sidelines, shop owners wait and see if the investment is worth it. After all, it’s no secret that fiber lasers aren’t cheap. The up-front investments are generally higher than CO2 or other machines. Once tailored to a small, medium or large fabrication shop, fiber lasers have potential to change the way those operations do business, making money matters moot. So, what ultimately sells them? Discussing here what fiber has done for three manufacturers not only gives credence to the laser’s advantages, but also gives insight as to where the technology is headed.

Selling points

For Accrotool Inc., a contract metal fabricator in New Kensington, Pa., the biggest fiber laser selling points were the speed, cut quality and energy savings—the reasons any shop takes the plunge.

“After looking at all those factors, we saw we could not only get more parts out faster but make more profit,” says Matt Guzzo, engineering manager. In June, Accrotool bought a Mitsubishi NXF-3015 fiber laser from MC Machinery Systems after seeing it in action at Fabtech in 2012.

The optimal thickness range, where the machine cuts the fastest, is 0.030 in. to 0.125 in. steel for electrical enclosures, which Accrotool steadily produces. Right off the bat, Accrotool noticed the “pristine” cut quality. “We will match up our fiber laser cut quality with anyone else. With the parts we’ve shown to people, they say it’s some of the best laser cut parts they’ve seen,” Guzzo says. Customers generally don’t care about how long it takes to make a part as long as it’s delivered within the manufacturer’s given lead time. They want a perfect end product at a competitive price.

“It’s nice for us because we have this laser that not a lot of shops have,” he says.

Another fabrication shop, Metko Inc. in New Holstein, Wis., brought on a 4 kW Amada FOL-3015AJ fiber laser cutting machine in 2011 after maxing out the capacity on its existing CO2 lasers. Owner Mike McCarthy says it would’ve been much easier, less expensive and faster at the time to buy another CO2. But in the long term, he didn’t see it in Metko’s best interest.

“I didn’t want another 6 kW laser since we cut very little above 1⁄4 in.,” he says. “I have a 6 kW to cut 1⁄4  in. and thinner fast with nitrogen and it did that job well for several years. So the options were to get another 4 kW CO2, which to me would’ve been going backward; or go with brand new technology from a solid manufacturer that we have had years of past successes with.”

As McCarthy learned more about the fiber’s productivity-boosting speeds, “it really became a no-brainer what to do.” Since installing it, the accuracy and productivity have been the two biggest benefits. “The power savings to me is a distant third, but we’ll take it. It’s nice not to pay as high a utility bill.”

Priority or not, fabrication shops always have an appetite for power savings. The energy savings aren’t lost on them. As in the case with Metko, speed and accuracy gains are the fiber laser selling points first and foremost, despite what OEM marketing departments say. 

Jason Hillenbrand, laser product manager at Amada America Inc., nonetheless sees lower operating costs (energy consumption and maintenance) and throughput driving fiber laser demand. “Productivity correlates to lower cost per part,” he says. But he cautions that fiber isn’t a replacement for CO2 necessarily—the latter still excels at high speed cutting of thicker materials.

In terms of production cutting, it’s not the power savings that typically drive a company’s decision to buy a machine—in most cases, it’s a bonus if it will cut power consumption. 

Though, energy was a main reason Atlanta-based Tie Down Engineering invested in a fiber laser. 

“Across the board, we try to decrease our energy consumption,” says Sloan MacKarvich, president of the Industrial Laser Solutions division.

Tie Down initially was looking for higher throughput in the context of energy and maintenance savings. That is, the less money and time spent on consumables and maintenance, plus by having a laser that could run around the clock, higher throughput would come naturally. And it is. Tie Down already owned another OEM’s fiber tube laser, and in 2012 bought a Trumpf TruLaser 5040 5 kW fiber cutting machine.

“Between RF power tubes, bellows and optics, our maintenance costs have been pretty horrendous in the past on the CO2 machines,” MacKarvich says. “On the fiber laser, our maintenance constitutes simply changing out filters at 500 to 2,000 hour intervals. Now, we don’t have to worry about bringing someone in to work on the beam path components, or spending lots of time cleaning mirrors or changing gas. The maintenance side was really big for us, not just in dollars, but to keep the machine always running.”

Reduced consumable costs aside—if manufacturers like Accrotool, Metko and Tie Down can run their fiber lasers for hours, multiple shifts or overnight with minimal interruption using less power, there’s no reason to think more fabrication shops won’t start signing POs.

Put through the paces

To get an idea of how its Amada fiber laser would perform in terms of speed, McCarthy and the crew at Metko drew up a demo cutting procedure. It ran simple, medium and hard geometries of nested parts on a full sheet and compared the times with the same job on its 6 kW CO2 laser.

“Speed is a misnomer. You can double the speed, but maybe only cut cycle time 10 percent,” McCarthy says. “With faster speeds, even at 1,000 ipm, is the laser really going that fast around contours all the time?”

Overall, the Amada fiber laser cut up to triple the speed of the 6 kW CO2. Plus, Metko tested the amp draw on all aspects of the fiber laser—dust collector, chiller and automation. It found the fiber ran at 25 percent of the energy as its 6 kW CO2, a 75 percent energy savings.

“You really don’t buy a production machine to save electricity. In my mind, I’m looking at production. I’ll take the savings, but it won’t be the deciding factor,” McCarthy says. He emphasized the importance of automation and a nitrogen generator, as well, because the laser can cut parts faster than operators can handle them. Nitrogen gives the fiber laser’s fine beam the best possible cutting conditions. “If you’re not willing to invest in all three, just save your money and buy a CO2 because you have a racehorse here. If you’re going to tie one leg up all the time, what’s the point?”

Tie Down looks at the power consumption a bit differently. The fact is electricity is not getting cheaper. If fabricators can make a fiber laser investment now, the savings will have a multiplier effect as energy costs inevitably rise. The fiber laser is a champion here, because its on-demand power use only needs electricity when cutting, then instantly shuts off when not in use.

“Just the fact that we weren’t doing gas changes anymore, we actually started structuring our hours where we could keep the fiber laser on 24/7,” MacKarvich says. “There’s no way you could run like that without a fiber laser.”

Tie Down echoes using automation. In one example, the fiber was cutting 16 gauge pregalvanized material at speeds between 1,250 and 1,300 ipm, about three times as fast as its own 6 kW CO2. “We were waiting on the automation to hurry up and get the sheet out of the way,” MacKarvich says. “When that happens, we try to find some parts we can nest in the sheet just to eat up that time.” Not a bad problem to have.

 

From the OEM perspective, the biggest challenge in marketing fiber laser technology is convincing customers that they are as good as the OEMs claim. “It is such a quantum leap in technology, many laser users find it hard to believe,” says Bill Shiner, vice president of industrial sales at IPG Photonics, which manufactures fiber laser components.

Each shop has its own workflow that adapts depending on what the fiber’s role is. Metko has leveled out its cutting load between the fiber laser (for thinner material) and its other CO2 machines. Because of the fiber laser’s throughput speed at Accrotool, Guzzo says they are still in the process of optimizing its workflow. Tie Down equates its fiber laser to “a laser and a half,” and is cutting material it wouldn’t have tried before with a CO2 laser, such as copper. “We can do more with the fiber laser in a smaller footprint,” MacKarvich adds.

The crystal ball

Fiber laser technology wasn’t invented to replace CO2 machines—it’s not likely to be a sweeping trend in the short term, nor is it the premise of this article. Long term, there’s no denying that fiber lasers are competing with, and will outperform legacy CO2 machines regardless of material thickness. Fiber lasers can cut thicker material, but not at the speeds CO2 can. However, they will eventually catch up, whether five or 10 years from now. When they do, expect fiber lasers to show up in service centers, where CO2 lasers win out over their ability to cut thicker sheet and plate, says Bill Bossard, president of Salvagnini America Inc.

“The demand will come from two places: increased capacity requirements and machine replacements as older machines reach the end of their useful life,” Bossard says. At that point, fiber would be the logical upgrade.

MacKarvich knows there will be a limit in terms of how much revenue can be generated with Tie Down’s existing equipment unless something changes. “Fabricators are going to evaluate anything that gives them the chance to drive more revenue within a given time frame, and do so more efficiently. You have to keep up with laser technology these days because there’s no way for a legacy machine to compete with a fiber laser that can run circles around it. You have to keep looking forward,” he says.

Although Accrotool’s Mitsubishi laser is fairly new, it’s considering adding a second machine in three or four years, Guzzo says. Accrotool will be able to cut beyond its 0.020 in. to 0.125 in. “sweet spot,” and above its machine’s max of 3⁄4 in.-thick-metal, assuming the speeds will catch up. Despite a fiber machine’s advertised maximum thickness range, some fabricators have problems with parts sticking together on thicker metal because the beam is so focused and nearly kerf-free. “Once the thicker material can be cut this fast, that will make us open our eyes and see that it’ll be time for a second machine,” he says.

Like Guzzo, the industry is watching. After cutting thicker material, one big break for fiber machines will be demonstrated, honed use of the multiple-beam path delivery. It’s available now, but once fabricators get comfortable with what’s essentially a flexible cutting and welding source that can be moved around a shop, perhaps that is what will tip this sustainable innovation into a disruptive one.

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