By bringing laser and automation in-house, a builder of displays, fire apparatus, and fluid transport sees the light
West-Mark (www.west-mark.com) is literally a tale of many chapters, especially when it comes to laser fabrication. Originally started in 1967 as a manufacturing and repair facility for dairy transport tankers, it quickly expanded to become a leading West Coast builder of fluid transport vehicles (see FIGURE 1) for many industries, including petroleum, firefighting (see FIGURE 2), military, construction, food, liquid sanitation, even arctic equipment, through its branch in Fairbanks, Alaska. Today, the company enjoys a diversified customer base and, in addition to the Alaskan location, operates manufacturing, fabrication, assembly, and repair facilities in Ceres, Atwater, and Bakersfield, California. More than 150 employees provide West-Mark customers a broad range of vehicles for sale or rent, plus the company maintains full service and repair operations.
In the late 1990s, another market sprung up for the company, namely, the fabrication of display enclosures for entertainment venues, kiosks, elevators, airports, shopping malls, and other retail/commercial establishments (see FIGURE 3). Using the engineering and manufacturing skills that had proven successful in the industrial markets, the company opened its “Digital Factory” in Atwater, where today it produces an assortment of enclosures and freestanding kiosks, under the Perfected Protection brand name.
West-Mark had long been an integrated design, fabrication, and assembly company, according to fabrication director, Chris Portmann, “…but we saw one area that needed better control and cost containment, namely, the laser cutting of the various stainless steel, carbon steel, and aluminum materials we processed.” The company was utilizing the services of three local laser job shops and occasional bottlenecks would occur, in addition to the cost factors involved. As the company was continuing to grow, these production challenges grew as well. West-Mark knew a change was in the wind.
At a meeting with one of its machine/equipment dealers, Metal Process Engineering, West-Mark was introduced to the Han-Kwang (www.hankwangus.com) plate laser with integrated material tower automation. In one of those classic “light bulb” moments, a decision was formulated and the sale proceeded. The company also hired an experienced laser operator from a local shop. The benefits soon became apparent.
As Portmann explains, “Very quickly, we realized we could run a lot faster to save time and money. Beyond that, we could be more responsive to the one-off and short run job requirements we get, all the time, in our operation. Because of the software we use and the products Han-Kwang provided us, we were able to integrate those short runs into the nesting strategies with our longer run jobs.” The tower automation provided West-Mark the flexibility to do several more things in its production. They could stack frequently used materials on pallets into the tower for quick access and start-up, owing to the powerful CNC onboard the Han-Kwang laser, while the fully automated cycle capability allowed West-Mark to quickly move into a lights-out manufacturing strategy, thereby providing additional cost containment in personnel and power consumption.
The machine configuration utilized here (see FIGURE 4) is Han-Kwang’s Model FS 4020, a long bed gantry style, flying optic plate laser with twin 6 ft. x 12 ft. shuttle pallets and an 8-high materials tower, all controlled by a Siemens Sinumerik 840D CNC. Materials processed at West-Mark on this laser include 304 and 316 SS, plus A36 and 570 carbon steel as well as 3003 and 5054 aluminum. Portmann pointed out that the company uses Masonite blanks to protect the high-quality surfaces of materials during unload sequences and that this extra protection step has not slowed the laser’s production in any substantial way.
West-Mark typically utilizes Inventor CAD and Radan CAM systems, plus the proprietary nesting software provided by Han-Kwang. Since West-Mark launched its 3D software use at approximately the same time as they purchased the laser, the company’s programmers and operators shared a learning curve, but Portmann noted, “It was a ‘law of unintended consequences’ situation, because the market slowed at the same time we were acquiring the new machine and software packages, so our guys were able to learn in the slow times.” He further observed the company has enjoyed an ability to be more responsive to customer needs and that has led directly to more new business for West-Mark, including doing laser processing for other local firms in the area.
FIGURE 5. Laser texturing of step steel plate for vehicle production.
A particular benefit of the laser, according to company personnel, is its ability to process aluminum tread plate with the diamond side up, so the dross falls onto the back side of the material, compared to the typical laser cutting diamond side down, where the dross falls on the visible side of the material (see FIGURE 5).
A rather direct fellow, Portmann sums up by saying, “When we need another laser, there will be no question about getting another Han-Kwang. Their machine quality, application assistance, operator and programmer training, plus the overall improvement they made in our company’s production makes that decision an easy one.”
West-Mark, in addition to the Digital Factory production of enclosures and kiosks, builds fuel tankers, buffaloes and bowsers, water tenders, firefighting apparatus, grease trap and septic tank vacuum trucks, DOT Code tanks, even aircraft refuelers, working in a variety of industries, as well as for the Department of Defense, National Park Service, Department of Interior, U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and the civilian supply chain.
In the production of its high-precision metal parts, assemblies, and fabrications, the company operates a full complement of laser, shearing, roll forming, head forming and flanging, brake forming, punching, milling, welding, and quality inspection equipment.
West-Mark service operations range from leak repair and testing to full retrofit and field replacement.
Robert Won is the director, North American Sales for Han-Kwang, www.hankwangus.com.