Constantly updated laser cutting systems keep pace with ever increasing customer demands
Actually at that time (15 years ago) all I wanted was to work in peace for myself,” says René Michel commenting on the founding of his own metalworking shop in Herzogenbuchsee, Switzerland. He did his welding, alone in his small workshop, and it could have continued in this way if others had left him in peace, or rather if he had left himself in peace. But that’s the way it is with a “machine freak” like Michel. As customers wanted more than just simple welding jobs, the small metalworking shop gradually expanded premises and staff, as well as production possibilities. Today, Michel Apparatebau AG is a subcontracting company offering customers everything from construction of parts and appliances to paint spraying. The number of employees has grown to 30, the factory building was enlarged last year for the “umpteenth” time, and the plant operates at the very highest technical level.
Michel emphasizes laser cutting, a strategic decision he made more than ten years ago and which he consistently adheres to. Because of his company’s proximity to Bystronic (www.bystronic.com) headquarters, which is situated just a few hundred meters from his premises, it was only natural that this was the first place Michel turned to when he was ready to expand equipment capabilities, forging a deep-rooted partnership between the two companies.
A stroll through the workshop reveals no sign of the earliest machines. “There is nothing worse for a subcontracting company than to lose touch with technology,” explains Michel, “Because then one reaches a situation where even though lower hourly rates can be calculated due to the fact that the machines are amortized, the advantage is quickly eradicated several times over due to the greater time consumed on the old machines. The competitiveness drops off, the orders do not come in, and long-overdue investments become ever harder to make.” Hence his machines are written off in five years and are then replaced by new systems.
This year’s acquisition, a Bystar laser cutting machine, was put into a laser cutting center together with a two-year-old Byspeed machine and a fully automatic warehouse. Michel determines which order is cut on which machine based solely on the thickness of the material: “All sheets up to six millimeters, whether steel, stainless steel, or aluminum, are cut on the Byspeed. Everything that is thicker is done on the Bystar.” With this work distribution he did not skimp on laser power; the Bystar was purchased with 5.2 kW of CO2 laser power while the Byspeed was equipped with 4.4 kW.
This high power permits a significantly higher cutting speed with an exceptionally high cutting quality, in particular with thicker materials due to the fact that the laser source is capable of raising and lowering power at any time while maintaining laser performance at an almost constant level.
Modern cutting technology
Both laser systems allow achievement of the highest precision, process security, and the fastest processing times. An example, zero piercing time, reduces cutting times up to 35 percent per cutting plan and reduces heat transmitted to the part being processed. Another, the newly developed Controlled Pulsed Piercing (CPP), involves a monitoring function built into the cutting head to measure the reflected light and, when a signal is no longer detected, initiates the cutting process, resulting in a considerably smaller start hole, with less debris to collect on the cutting head and the sheet.
Scanning Mode, a Byspeed specialty, enables up to 5.5 square holes per second to be cut. “The processing speed and the accuracy achieved when processing such holes are absolutely unique, and for us, they’re a real productivity factor,” declares Michel, who speaks from experience because parts in which a number of square holes have to be cut are among the most regular orders received.
The automated warehouse consists of seven silos that give Michel a total of 124 storage cassettes and 20 return cassettes enabling the company to keep the complete range of thicknesses of the required material in stock. “In my opinion, this is an absolute must for a modern subcontractor, since in recent years our customer’s requested delivery times have increasingly become shorter,” notes Michel. “The greatest advantage of the cutting center for us, however, is that we are in a position to process orders around the clock,” emphasizes Michel, whereby during the lightly manned night shift, processing usually involves larger series.
In addition to flat parts, Michel’s shop also processes a large number of tubes and profiles, mainly made of stainless steel or aluminum. With a Bytube, his business has practically no competitors in Switzerland, which also explains why during the daylight shift this machine is almost never idle. “In the first year, capacity was around 60 percent, but with the number of inquiries we receive today, we could even fill a second shift,” explains Michel. The advantages of this system, according to him, are simple: “fast, accurate, and reliable.” In the machine’s feeder warehouse, up to six tubes with a maximum diameter of 170 millimeters can be stored, which are then automatically fed to the cutting area from outside using a lathe chuck. The machine can also process larger tubes, up to a diameter of 320 mm, but the machine operator must individually mount them in the easily accessible cutting area. This machine is equipped with 3 kW of laser power, which is sufficient because the wall thickness of tubes seldom exceeds 12 mm.
“The market for subcontracting has changed enormously in recent years,” says Michel. Whereas in the past, the demand for cutting work was mostly for flat parts, today that type of work only accounts for about ten percent of the total order volume, and today’s customers in general expect a wide range of production work from a single source. And as for precision, there has also been an increase in customers’ expectations. “Naturally, one must keep pace with these increased demands in order to survive in the market,” states Michel. He feels that his strategy-to invest 100 percent of the profits in new, more powerful machines-is confirmed by the company’s success. And he adds that his turnover has increased over the past five years from 4.5 to approximately 7.5 million Swiss francs per year. This growth, explains Michel, was never the driving force for him, but rather a side effect of his guiding principle, which he intends to follow in the future as well: “My goal is to manage a healthy company, with committed employees who give their very best for our customers.”
Martin Engel, editor-in-chief of the magazine BystronicWorld, can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected].