Laser job shop sees continued growth through automation using nesting software
With competition on the rise in today’s market, a laser job shop must be able to stand out. Iowa Laser Technology Inc. (Cedar Falls, Iowa; www.iowalaser.com) has succeeded in doing so, and has found continued growth through the use of automation, new technology investment, training, and nesting practices. This technology and use of “lights out” manufacturing plays a crucial part in keeping Iowa Laser ahead of its competition.
The term “lights out” is being used to describe fully automated facilities. Human hands never touch the products during the “lights out” manufacturing process. The plant is able to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with down time only used for scheduled maintenance or repair.
Throughout the 1980s, Iowa Laser grew slowly, helping to introduce laser processing into mainstream manufacturing. With significant demand for its laser capabilities and secondary processes in the 1990s, Iowa Laser needed to identify new ways to improve efficiencies and do more with less. To better serve industries such as automotive, agriculture, construction, defense, fitness, food service, and mining, Iowa Laser has put into service seven TRUMPF lasers (80 in. x 160 in. to 4000 watts) that can produce upwards of 900 cutting hours per week. In addition to flat cutting, they offer a diverse range of laser capabilities on six specialty lasers capable of tube cutting, welding, heat treating, and processing deep drawn or metal spun parts. These capabilities, coupled with six CNC brake presses, conventional and robotic welding, and machining capabilities, give the company the ability to fully address the diverse manufacturing needs of its customers.
When the company was formed it was using a single 1.2kW laser that operated on a DOS-based mill program. Part placements were drawn in CAD and manually entered into the program. While this method was effective, it proved to be time consuming and resulted in long manufacturing times on initial runs. As advances were made in laser technology, the company identified the need to be on the forefront of this technology to be a key player in the market.
In 1999, Iowa Laser purchased its first fully automated TRUMPF laser that featured a non-contact head and a Windows-based control. This gave the company the ability to cut up to ¾ in. plate and operate in an unmanned or “lights out” setting. The addition of these machines led the company to explore utilizing nesting to gain the best yield from material and capitalize on the full potential of the machine.
With a wide range of nesting packages available, Iowa Laser developed a team to evaluate the software options and spent six months reviewing which package best served its needs. After intense review, the team narrowed its search to three, which potentially could fulfill their nesting needs. Of the remaining companies, they investigated which software would give them the ability to grow and offer them a complete nesting solution. “After six months of reviewing available software packages,” comments Scott Hagberg, the company’s senior programmer, “we determined that SigmaNEST offered the best solution for Iowa Laser.”
In terms of the decision for CAD/CAM nesting software, SigmaNEST was evaluated and seen by Iowa Laser as the most advanced profile cutting optimization system in the industry today. From work order management to tight nesting and NC code generation, it had the ability to offer a complete cutting solution. The entire process time was dramatically reduced with the ability to provide simple bill of material scheduling and batch order processing. The company now has the ability to track remnants as inventory and use them for new nesting tasks. Small parts can be nested inside cutouts, and advanced NC features such as common line cutting and bridge cutting are available to get the maximum yield from the material and also improve machine productivity.
When asked about the major benefits of implementing this software, Hagberg replies, “I am particularly impressed that this software offers us the ability to automatically nest, share cut, and produce work orders and cost data information. It also gives us the ability to manually manipulate nesting results for “lights out” programming, as well as the option to interface with our ERP software.”
Automatic nesting gives the company the ability to nest like materials, maximize material usage, nest groups of parts or static nests, and run one layout during “lights out” operation to ensure continuous laser usage. Users save cut inches while maintaining quality with the use of share cut or common line cut technology. In a nest the company runs repetitively for one of its OEM customers, cycle time has been reduced by a third while gaining additional part yield.
One of the largest benefits and major selling factors was SigmaNEST’s ability to assist in automating and running a “lights out” operation. While running unattended, placement of support bars could interfere with slugs and drops. Utilizing bar layouts and running a single static program assists the operator in bar placement, helping to eliminate costly shut-downs. This along with other revolutionary technology allows Iowa Laser to maintain operations with no personnel in the building. Not only does it keep the machines running but also informs the company of how much steel is left to cut or how many parts are ready to unload. Hagberg states, “This ‘lights outs’ operation is so important because no one in our industry is utilizing this technology and SigmaNEST is the reason we can achieve this.”
Today’s improved automation paired with automatic nesting allows for parts to be nested faster with better raw material utilization. “With 665 active customers and over 40,000 individual parts in our nesting database,” Hagberg states, “SigmaNEST has helped to simplify our automation and manufacturing processes.” With an increase in sales exceeding 50 percent since 1999, this program has played a critical role in supporting this type of growth for Iowa Laser. In closing, Hagberg says, “With their knowledgeable staff and helpful support team, we look forward to further implementing SigmaNEST’s software and taking advantage of their cutting edge technology.
Lyndsey Scott ([email protected]) is the marketing coordinator for SigmaTEK Systems (www.sigmanest.com), Cincinnati, OH.