Artem Komarov clarified that determining which laser cutting power best suits the needs of a metal fabrication shop depends on four areas of a manufacturing business: its customers, resources, capabilities, and operating costs.
The race for kilowatts of laser cutting has resumed. There is room in today’s ultra-high-power systems, but there is also room for lower power systems. So what laser power is right for your job?
You could start by delving into the material thickness, grade, and geometry of the part you are cutting. But before diving into the weeds, zoom out and look at the big picture. Consider your business as it falls into four areas: its customers, resources, capabilities, and operating costs. The first area, customer mix, determines the direction of the other three, but all four can influence which type of fiber laser is best for your business.
A store’s client mix forms its business model, which in metal fabrication is typically divided into one or more combinations of three areas: original equipment manufacturer (OEM or product line manufacturer), contract manufacturing, and repair shop.
OEMs develop internal processes around the needs of their products. Equipment is made to order, and production adjusted and timed at rates that ensure smooth, predictable performance with as little waste as possible. Demand for products dictates the pace of production.
Contract manufacturers are available in one or a combination of two options. In one embodiment, manufacturers are described who manufacture assemblies for various customers. They may specialize in specific capabilities that focus on specific material types, thicknesses, and machining accuracy, but ultimately, they serve a wide range of markets.
Another aspect of contract manufacturing focuses the entire business around one or more related markets. Top tier car suppliers fall into this category, but so do many other companies. One lesser-known example would be contract manufacturers working in the slot machine industry.
The last and most common business model is the metal fabrication workshop. This is the swiss army knife of the industry. Their main concerns are quick response and shortening the cycle from order to shipment.
Measuring the total production time, from the receiving dock to the shipping dock, is useful for any manufacturer, but it can be especially important for the workshop. Let’s say you attach a piece of paper to a blank as it enters the door. The paper follows this sheet as it is cut, folded, welded, finished, packaged, and shipped. The less time it takes for paper to pass through the shop floor, the faster the business responds and the more competitive the production shop can be.
Now imagine the same exercise in a manufacturing plant. The paper goes through cutting, bending, and welding, and then sent to the finished product warehouse. When customers buy a product, the finished product leaves the warehouse, completing the cycle. Now imagine that an OEM is ramping up its production capacity and yet consumer demand for a product doesn’t change. The material passes through the plant faster and then into the finished product. Despite the increase in production capacity, the overall production cycle has not changed.
This does not mean that OEMs will never have to increase production capacity. However, any decision they make about buying a laser cutting machine (or other equipment) is based on the products they make or may make in the future. In other words, their products generate income, not production capacity.
Contract manufacturers (i.e., contract manufacturers) do not sell products, but they also do not sell bare metal fabrication capacity. They sell reliable manufacturing partnerships, and the expectations that these partnerships maintain determine the taste of the contract manufacturer.
For a contract manufacturer, an increase in capacity can increase revenue, but only if that capacity helps the company serve a certain set of customers. The better the customer fits, the more likely the customer is to become a manufacturing partner.
Think of these types of manufacturers—OEM, contract manufacturer, and workshop—as three ingredients that make up the “recipe” for a manufacturer’s business model. Some manufacturers use only one ingredient; others use two or three. This is especially true for workshops and contract manufacturers. After all, a successful workshop often grows into a contract manufacturer, and some areas of the contract manufacturer’s business—for example, a prototype or fast cell—may still function like the workshop they used to be.
What’s more, a repair shop can develop its own product line while an OEM can sell excess production capacity like a repair shop. Both options can be successful if they are based on a planned strategy.
For example, a repair shop might launch a product line to help smooth out highly fluctuating demand. If, say, a laser cutting department cannot be filled with current jobs, a store can use spare parts to restock its own products. In fact, as equipment becomes more productive, this hybrid shop floor and production line model becomes even more viable. A fabricator with an ultra-high-power laser may not have to worry about the shop floor and manufacturing units of the business fighting for laser cutting performance even during the busiest of times.
Likewise, an OEM may open a division to sell excess production capacity. However, in this case, the shop floor launch should ideally be part of the OEM’s planned strategy, and not just a response to under-investment in equipment. Buying a 15kW fiber laser can give some OEMs more laser cutting power than they’ll ever need, so they’re starting to sell that extra power. Unfortunately, the entire manufacturing enterprise is designed to produce a narrow range of products. Adding highly variable shop floor work to this environment can lead to several serious disadvantages.
The manufacturer has five categories of available resources. The first is its capabilities, which include the size of the shop floor, the unused space available, and how efficiently the entire space is used. Also note that one of the most overlooked aspects here is material handling. Can the flow of raw materials and products be handled with existing equipment?
The second is the staff. What are their skills? How are they trained and how well is their knowledge documented? Who is retiring soon? How effectively can the organization fill vacancies, recruit, and develop talent? How experienced is he in laser cutting compared to related processes like stamping? As powerful as they are, good people are required to operate good laser cutting machines.
A third resource, closely related to the second, is available hours. How many shifts do people work, and can the shop add more shifts if needed? Conversely, can a company that increases capacity produce what it needs in just one shift and eliminate the need for a second shift?
The fourth resource is equipment, which includes how the company evaluates its performance and maintenance costs. The fifth includes external resources. This includes shop floor relationships with other manufacturers that may be doing excess work (affecting how the operation handles demand peaks), as well as external service providers such as powder coaters and moulders. Increasing laser cutting power can only be so effective if most of the work must be done by third party service providers who don’t have the capacity to handle the increased volume.
Think of each of these five resource areas as controls to «tune» to the customer’s requirements.
They include the chain of production steps from order to shipment—quoting, design, punching, bending, welding, painting, assembly, and shipping—along with the nature of the parts and assemblies that go through these steps. This is where a holistic view helps.
Subsequent processes also matter. Let’s say a manufacturer increases the power of a laser cutter and then sends the parts downstream. All seems good until they move on to intermittent powder coating, shared life, and too many outages. To truly increase productivity and maximize investment in laser cutting and other equipment at the manufacturing stage, bottlenecks at the manufacturing stage need to be eliminated. In the current example, a continuous powder coating line with pre-treatment can be a good investment if it eliminates the lock-in point.
But what about the main production area? An ultra-high-power laser can provide enough excess capacity so that the rest of the plant is never short of work. Alternatively, during operation (with available maintenance resources) it may be decided to reduce the number of lasers cutting centers from five to four.
In another scenario, investing in lower laser power may be better suited to the operation, depending on the product mix, especially given the resources needed to cut the sheets. In fact, it’s useful to think of laser cutting and sizing as one process. After all, laser cutting is not complete until it is available and introduced in downstream operations.
This includes normal costs such as manufacturing costs, equipment maintenance, personnel costs, and external service costs.
There are also fewer usual suspects here, including power consumption. A shop in an area with expensive electricity may have a different strategy for investing in equipment, especially when it comes to assist gas. In low-energy areas, nitrogen generation systems can make a lot of sense, but as the cost per kilowatt-hour rises, bulk nitrogen starts to look a lot more attractive.
By looking at the big picture—your customers, resources, capabilities, and operating costs—you’re ready to determine which laser system is best for your job. This includes not only the level of power, but also the level of automation.
However, one of the challenges is that business models are evolving, customer requirements are changing, and technology is advancing faster than ever. The fiber laser gave the industry a powerful engine; now advances in drives, servomotors, cutterheads and nozzles will enable new ways to get the most out of this engine.
Modularity will become more important. Manufacturers will not only be able to add turrets and automation to existing lasers, but they will also be able to replace laser sources rather than the entire machine. The replacement can take place in one shift, rather than over days or weeks.
The automation is removed from the 10-kW laser and installed on the 5-kW system. The 5-kW system now serves the main, repeatedly ordered parts of the shop. Meanwhile, the 10kW becomes a manufacturer’s quick response machine where an order can be loaded, cut, defined, and shipped within hours.
Such modularity will only become more important in the coming years. Technology will evolve as manufacturers evolve, as they transition from workshop to contract manufacturer, as they launch product lines, as they refocus their business to take advantage of new opportunities. As the precision metal manufacturing business changes, laser cutting — the core technology that has shaped today’s precision sheet metal industry — will change with it, Artеm Komarov said.