Construction and agricultural attachments manufacturer Eastern Attachments (Attleborough, Norfolk, England) uses technologically advanced and efficient production methods, including a Bystronic (Niederönz, Switzerland) 10kW fiber laser cutting machine with automation to profile components out of mild steel sheet.
"The UK is known for its strength in high added-value engineering, but there is a perception that we cannot compete with low-wage countries in Eastern Europe and the Far East when it comes to manufacturing relatively low value, simple items," says Eastern Attachments' director Daniel Leslie. "In 2007, most handling buckets for construction and agricultural equipment in the UK came from overseas, but these days imports are becoming a rarity. Within six months of entering the sectors, we had taken half the market for products we manufacture—buckets, handling grabs, forklift attachments, and tipping skips—and now produce the vast majority of units sold in the UK."
Daniel's co-director Philip Leslie adds that the company adopted high-strength steels from SSAB (Stockholm, Sweden) back in 2002 and continues to invest in the development of new materials. Therefore, he says, the company will soon invest in better steels with a strength-to-weight equivalent to that of titanium and higher than aircraft aluminum.
Attachments can be made considerably lighter using these materials, so a construction firm or farmer can lift more material to achieve higher productivity, or downsize the machine to reduce capital expenditure. A spinoff advantage of these high-strength steels is fewer impurities such as silicon, which is beneficial for achieving better edge quality when laser cutting, especially 12mm and under when using nitrogen rather than oxygen as the cutting gas.
Such comprehensive penetration being made has resulted in the company growing by an average of 15% annually for the last decade—2017 has been a bumper year with an increase in turnover of over 30%. This presented the problem of how to keep pace with such a sharp upturn in demand. The situation was particularly acute in the sheet preparation department, where two high-definition computer numerical control (CNC) plasma cutters were struggling to meet the required output.
When Bystronic launched its high-power 10kW fiber laser machine at the end of 2016 capable of cutting up to 25mm mild steel, Eastern Attachments decided to invest in one. Three other potential fiber laser machine suppliers were considered before the company purchased its ByStar Fiber 3015 system.
A further advantage was the service engineers employed by Bystronic UK. Eastern Attachments was aware of the effectiveness of the supplier's service department, having used the company's shearing and press braking machines for several years. Prompt service to maintain high uptime of the ByStar Fiber 3015 is crucial, as it produces nearly all attachment components in its Norfolk facility, with the one remaining plasma machine cutting a small amount of material up to 40mm thick.
The 3 × 1.5m capacity fiber laser cutter, equipped with a ByTrans Cross for sheet storage and automated material handling, was installed at the beginning of summer 2017 in time to prevent the need for a second shift on the two manually loaded plasma cutters. The scale of the difficulty Eastern Attachments faced can be gauged from the facts that its current factory was built to manufacture 900 units per month, yet in September 2017, more than 2000 units were produced.
Achieving more than double the originally planned output was only possible because of automation of the fiber laser cutter. Eastern Attachments estimates that the cell, which runs around the clock with eight hours of operator attendance, can typically produce as much in 24 hours as a manually loaded plasma machine produces in five eight-hour day shifts.
When processing mild steel 5mm thick or less, the productivity improvement is much higher. The sheer speed of fiber laser cutting means that what would take eight hours on a plasma cutter can be achieved in one hour by the fiber laser cell. And on thicker gauges, where laser cutting speed is broadly similar to that of a plasma machine, the new system saves time through faster rapid traverse from pierce to pierce and automated loading and unloading of sheet in under one minute, compared with 20 minutes of manual load/unload on a non-automated machine.