Job shop cranks into overdrive

March 1, 2004
When Jeff Gauger saw his shop's latest purchase in action he decided going with a new laser system with automation was probably the best business decision he's made in a very long time.

When Jeff Gauger saw his shop's latest purchase in action he decided going with a new laser system with automation was probably the best business decision he's made in a very long time.

Argon's Mitsubishi MSCIII FMS system comprises dual 4kW Mitsubishi (Wood Dale, IL) lasers with Ncell automation fed by a 12-shelf material-handling tower that, according to Mitsubishi, represents the fastest FMS laser system running in the world today. As soon as it began running, Argon increased its capacity by 300 to 400 percent, according to Gauger—an amazing increase considering Argon reduced its lasers from four to two.

Ncell Systems Inc. (Minnetonka, MN) and Argon Industries (Milwaukee, WI) have developed a one-of-a-kind automation system that links Ncell and its various modules to the company's JobBoss manufacturing software. Gauger said Mitsubishi's relationship with Ncell made the difference in choosing a laser for his growing shop.

"We're going after the long runners as they are perfect for automation," Gauger says.

Gauger was impressed with Ncell's willingness to work with his shop to create a custom system, which has been specialized to handle four motorized finished product carts, as opposed to the standard two.

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The Mitsubishi MSCII laser cutter features two load stations internal to the storage tower so that different materials can be easily cut.
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Commenting on how the laser and Ncell can communicate both ways, Gauger says, "With the other machines, it couldn't do that. It could just communicate to the machine; communication couldn't come back from the machine."

The software eliminates many of the chores the shop used to do manually: Entering the job into the manufacturing software, pulling information together, taking sales orders to the engineering department, pulling files together with prints, then eventually sending it to the floor.

Argon is doing away with that process. Soon, inside salespeople will be able to enter orders into JobBoss (Minneapolis, MN), which will send them directly to Ncell and into a queue that can automatically discern how many parts it has going for a certain material and nest them tightly on 16-gauge carbon steel, stainless, or whatever material is needed. The integration covers business-side tasks as well—Ncell tracks how much time and material a job uses and sends it right back to the manufacturing software.

"It automates our entire system—not just manufacturing, but everything, the accounting side of the business as well," Gauger says.

However, the system is no black box. With its iManage module, Argon employees can peek at which jobs are running on the new lasers, right from their laptops, locally or remotely, at any time.

"Anyone in the company with log-in credentials can go to our Web browser and see what products have been nested, what products are being cut, what the cut time was, when it was done, if it's in the queue, if it's a work in process, [or] if it's done," Gauger comments.

That allows Argon salespeople at a customer's shop to pull up a specific part on a laptop and report on its progress. In a special twist for customers curious about the process the company is going to install Web cams in the shop, Gauger says. "So if it's being cut right now, our salesman can say, 'Here let me show you; it's being cut right now."

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The system also can run with no monitoring whatsoever, so the company runs lights-out on less-expensive material after second-shift employees have called it a night. "When second shift has completed their shift at 1 or 2 in the morning, they set jobs up so that throughout the night and until first shift starts, the lasers will continue to run and cut," Gauger says. "When our first shift comes in, there's a stack of finished goods sitting on the finished product carts."

The Ncell-JobBoss combination even will allow repeat customers in the future to interact with Argon's system themselves. "As this develops ... they'll be able to go to our Web site and say, 'I need 1000 of Part 1234, and I need it by this date,'" Gauger predicts. "It's sent, it goes straight to JobBoss, which generates the order. There's not even a telephone call. It's automatic and paperless."

On the other end of the order spectrum, an Ncell module called iDemand allows Argon to insert spot orders into the product schedule to accommodate urgent orders or higher-margin jobs, such as prototypes.

"Or maybe a customer needs a couple more parts of something—we can go to the iDemand module and say, 'I need two of these immediately,'" Gauger says. "It'll stop what it's doing, unload that material, load the new material, cut it, and have it done in minutes."

What really sets the system apart, though, is its speed. Argon's MSCIII has a 30-second beam-off to beam-on time, half the time it takes other systems to perform the same function. It also boasts a nest unload/sheet reload time of one minute, which outpaces other systems' times by about 400 percent. Additionally, the system uses two load stations, allowing it to load dissimilar materials to either laser without skipping a beat.

Gauger notes that the flexibility offered by 4 kW of power is ideal for a shop that plays in a tough neighborhood. Argon fabricates a full gamut of parts, from flat pieces all the way up to full assemblies, out of a variety of materials—from relatively easy-to-cut carbon steel (from 22-gauge to 1-inch plate) as well as different gauges of stainless steel and aluminum.

"We're the type of shop that prefers to chase the more difficult jobs, the types of products that most job shops cannot cut," Gauger says. "There are a lot of customers that come to us with some thicker materials and say, 'Well, you probably can't do this, can you?' And our response is, 'Absolutely—give us the tough stuff.' We're well aware of the fact that a lot of people out there cannot cut the thicker materials, and a lot of people don't want to work with stainless steel or aluminum. The new system has no problem with stainless, edge quality is fantastic."

While Argon does use alternate cutting technologies such as abrasive waterjet and turret punching, the lasers clearly are the machines Argon is pinning its hopes on. "Lasers are pretty much replacing turrets now," Gauger says. "They're so fast. Even though you do have some consumables—nozzles and lenses and gases and so forth—materials that they're capable of cutting and the speed at which they can cut make it virtually a no-brainer."

Despite the system's advantages, getting buy-in from Argon employees for the FMS system wasn't exactly the easiest task, simply because it changed the way Argon did its business so greatly. The shop's old stand-alone lasers required a good deal of manual labor to move material in and out and operate the machine. The 12-shelf tower and elevator system changed that quite a bit.

"It was definitely a cultural change for the shop," Gauger says. "What we're doing is essentially eliminating as much human intervention as possible. We'll probably reassign some duties of people because...this system is capable of running 24/7, fully unattended."

"When we began this company, our goal all along was to have the latest and greatest, cutting-edge technology," Gauger says. "We felt that by doing that we could effectively compete with the foreign companies as we could make our parts more efficiently and with a higher quality."

To contact Mitsubishi, call (630) 616-2970.

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