The sound is sublime, the view superb

April 1, 2004
Exhaust system supplier uses an automatic laser tube cutter to maintain its competitive edge

Lafranconi Silenziatori, a name known around the world by motorcycle aficionados, has occupied a cluster of buildings in Mandello del Lario, Italy, nestled on the shore of the right leg of the inverted Y that is Lake Como, where the 7000-foot mountains of the Horn of Canzo dwarf them. Two of these, big and small Mount Grigna, capped with snow on the bright late Winter day we visited, rise up immediately behind the plant, framing it perfectly for a picture.

Last year, Lafranconi celebrated its 75th year as a leading supplier of exhaust systems for motorcycles and farm tractors, which started with the company, a supplier of tubular products, selling custom tubular frames for the famed Moto Guzzi GT 500. Of course it helped a little that this renowned bike manufacturer was located a short distance away in Mandello.

Today Lafranconi stainless-steel exhaust systems can be found on various models of BMW motorcycles. Why? Because the 100-employee company takes pride in offering customers complete service, from product concept though design, planning, testing, prototype, and finally to production. They do this with a fairly simple philosophy—to be a leader in research and development, quality and reliability, innovation, and, most of all, in customer satisfaction.

BMW's new GS1200 features a Lafranconi exhaust system.
Click here to enlarge image

It's a competitive world, supplying exhaust systems, and past performance is not necessarily a given for success in this business because all exhaust systems must meet strict European and company standards for emissions, noise, and bike performance. There is little room left for the suppliers to innovate. All use the same theoretical concepts and materials such as those used for noise damping, so on-time production, quality, and service and, above all, unit cost are important considerations. So far Lafranconi has managed to meet and beat most competitors. Once a contract is let, all subsequent exhaust systems in that series go to the winner.

To help it compete the company maintains a semi-anechoic chamber to ensure that bikes meet ISO 3744 standards for noise and a test track to check out engine performance. We asked a rather naive question, which when translated brought a smile to the face of company CEO Nino Gini and a laugh from his son Daniele. The question was, do you tune the exhaust system to produce a distinct roar? The answer, no, bikes must now meet strict noise and emission standards and one of the company's design goals is how to achieve these standards in a compact design that is also eye pleasing. No distinct "potato, potato" sound that identifies Harley's here at Lafranconi.

Sitting with Nino Gini and Daniele, who is manager of the technical department, surrounded by examples of recently supplied exhaust systems, you can't help but admire this company that competes in a tough arena with aplomb and a touch of Italian Èlan.

We are here because Lafranconi, already an owner of an Adige Sala 100 series, fully automatic laser tube cutter, was the first purchaser of a BLM Group LT 905D, 3D laser cell for cutting bent and formed tubing. Daniele tells us the LT 905D was developed by BLM Group with his input. A fact acknowledged by Stefano Farina who was in charge of the 905 developments for the BLM Group. When asked, Daniele responds that this system is now key to the company's ability to compete for new business in exhaust systems.

For those uniformed about tube fabrication, and before a visit to BLM we certainly were, it is an old business. BLM Group enjoys a 50-year reputation, as a supplier of tube benders and Adige Sala has been involved in tube cutting from cold saws to laser for 50 years also (see sidebar). As Antonio Farese, market development manager for the BLM Group, reminds us several times during our visit to the company's three plants, "we are tubing people, we know tubing and we know how to shape and cut it." A fact confirmed by Daniele Gini. For BLM Group, the technology advance into multi-axis laser tube cutting was a natural evolution in a company devoted to satisfying customer needs.

The five-axis head provides flexible cutting of shaped tubes.
Click here to enlarge image

At Lafranconi we saw two examples of the BLM Group's advanced tubing cutting equipment, the 905 five-axis systems and a TT631, a 1995, second-generation model, automatic laser cutter for round straight tubes. Powerful software is a key feature developed in-house for part design and process control. The former demonstrated to us at Adige Sala in a short 20-minute session that led us, intuitively, to design a twisted, rectangular tube with two holes and a slot on the twist.

Standing in front of the LT 905D at Lafranconi we asked Daniele Gini why the company had invested serious money in this multi-axis laser system. He cited as an example the exhaust tube that was currently being cut, a fairly simple part, a 45mm diameter stainless-steel, L-shaped tube with a slight twist on one leg and a 10mm diameter round hole located near one end and a rectangular slot about 15 × 20 mm at the twist. Before the laser this part required four steps, end cut by cold saw, mechanical hole drill, mill the slot, and a deburring operation. Total time, 4–5 minutes per part, including load/unload, but not transit to each workstation. With the LT 905D, total time is 34 seconds, including load/unload, for a finished part. And this part is only one example of innumerable weirdly shaped tubes used to fashion compact motorcycle exhaust systems. No wonder Daniele tells us, "For Lafranconi, it's the perfect machine."

At BLM we saw a demonstration of the latest version of the 905. We asked Farina why BLM Group had invested 2.5 years from concept to first unit delivery in this system. He said that as a tube bender BLM knew full well that innovation in cutting bent tubes would be necessary if the company was to compete in today's expanding global markets. Because the company has laser experience through Adige Sala, transferring to five-axis cutting was an obvious step.

The 905 has its cutting head mounted on ball screw drives to move 2000 mm in the X (or horizontal) direction, 600 mm in the Y (or vertical) direction, and 500 mm in the Z (or lateral) direction. A full rotation in the C dimension and 135° in the tilt or B direction allows tubing of just about any size, shape, and twist to be positioned under the cutting head by a lightweight ABB robot. The robot's function is to pick up parts and position them under the cutting head, which then performs all the cutting motions, with the robot retuning the part to an off-load station.

Why use vertical linear motions we asked Stefano: "We thought conventional overhead motion like a gantry ourselves, but Daniele Gini asked us how we expected to handle a long tube without extending the cutting area and take up valued floor space. Why not vertical tube positioning was his own answer." At Lafranconi floor space is critical, so the compact vertical motion system is a true pace saver. An example, citing the exhaust tube mentioned above, is that the floor space necessary for the bins to inventory parts for the old four-step process (which we estimated at 15 × 30 meters) is now occupied by machines making money thanks to the laser systems.

Another attractive aspect of the 905 is its ability to cut small orders profitably. At Lafranconi orders can run from 30 to 20,000 tubes and all must be quality cut, cost effectively.

Currently the company is cutting two shifts per day during a 5 1/2-day week. The company is now in final prototype stage for a large order of exhaust systems for a 2005 bike and is in the quoting stages for another large order for a 2006 bike, which will keep the shop and the laser equipment busy for the coming years. Tractor exhaust systems are on a longer lead-time schedule, as much as five years between model changes. As we were departing the tube cutting shop, at the door we saw a parked tractor that was being fitted with a prototype exhaust system, pointing up Lafranconi's philosophy of working closely with its customers.

We left this progressive 75-year-old company with a lot of respect for its engineering and manufacturing prowess and some envy for its beautiful surroundings.

They know tubing

The BLM Group, a leading manufacturer of production machines and systems for tube, solid, and profile processing and fabricating, has plants located in Cantù, Levico Terme, and Novaledo, all north of Milan, Italy. BLM, located in Cantù at Lake Como, designs and builds CNC tube benders, end formers, and manufacturing cells. Adige, perched above a river in the middle of the beautiful valley of the same name, builds LaserTube cutting systems, with several hundred now installed worldwide, and advanced cold saws. Just down river is Adige Systems, a builder of the combination sheet metal/tubing cutting system. In North America, the company has a showroom, sales, and service center in Wixom, Mich.

The BLM Group's philosophy is straightforward; use the excellent resources of more than 300 people and their R&D innovations to serve customers. At BLM and Adige the attractive equipment showrooms emphasize the company's customer orientation.

Adige sold its first laser tube cutter in 1988, to cut straight round tubes up to 90 mm in diameter, to be followed shortly by a unit to cut up to 130 mm. In 1990 it introduced a unit that programmed and cut openings along the tube as well as the ends.

In 1996, in a real breakthrough, the company previewed a unit that cut tubes of different sections, round, square, and rectangular, with integral CAD/CAM software for component design. This was followed in 2000 by a fifth-generation machine, which was fully programmable using digital CNC and new 3D CAD programming software. This unit was recently supplanted by a new version that features 40-50 percent improvement in production rate, and finally the Laser Tube 905D, the subject of this feature.

What struck us as we toured the plants was the strong confidence all the employees we met had for the company's understanding of the tubing business. We asked how potential customers reacted when viewing the shelves of samples, some with innovative tab and slot assembly. "Do they understand what you are showing?" we asked. The answer, "Of course they do. They are tubing people and we are tubing people. We speak the same language."

And that about sums up the success, current and future, of the BLM Group. —DAB

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