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Lasers gain trust.

Lasers gain trust

For many years, US fabricators mistrusted or ignored the laser cutter, in part because initial attempts at applying lasers in metal cutting environments were costly and unreliable. During the past 18 months or so, however, that situation has changed dramatically. Like their European and Japanese counterparts, US fabricators, large and small, are embracing the technology and applying laser-based machine tools widely.

"At last there's recognition that laser-cutting brings significant benefits," says Mark Lowell, Jr, president and CEO of Trumpf Inc, Farmington, CT. "At the same time, today's laser-based machines are far more reliable, accurate, and easy to use than were machines of just five years ago.

"Cost is an important factor here, too," he continues. "Today's machines cost less initially than did earlier models. Then, too, for fabricators doing a mix of parts and jobs--especially in small lot-sizes--the matter of tool costs looms large. With a laser machine, you have great flexibility in the shapes you can program, yet you need not carry a large inventory of tools."

In addition to reliability and accuracy, laser machines also offer other potential benefits, especially when cutting aluminum. Lasers can cut aluminum without leaving any dross, which eliminates secondary clean-up operations. "We are not pleased with a laser cut that calls for a secondary operation," claims Mr. Lowell.

No panacea

Mr Lowell quickly adds that the laser-based machine tool is not, and shouldn't be, regarded as a panacea. "We use our own laser machines to build Trumpf machines in Farmington," he points out. "One of the machines we installed recently is a combination laser and punch press.

"We chose this machine because we make a lot of small, round holes. Even though today's lasers can pierce quickly, the best way to make a lot of small, round holes is with a small, round punch."

But for the average fabricator, as lot sizes shrink, changeover and setup times have become more critical. This is where the laser's flexibility pays off. "Time spent in cutting is no longer as important as time spent setting up for the next job," Mr Lowell stresses. "Lot sizes are shrinking, so the ability to shift quickly from one job to the next is valuable Laser machine tools are good at this," the Trumpf executive adds.

Swing to cells

In other aspects of fabrication, Mr Lowell sees a burgeoning interest in small, flexible cells, accompanied by waning interest in large, complex systems. "US manufacturers find it increasingly difficult to justify big-ticket fab systems," says Mr Lowell.

"If a prospective customer can't see benefits of running one-part lots, he likely won't be interested in a big system with AS/RS, high-level computer, scheduling software, and so on. But he may be interested in a simple flexible cell, either manual or automated." A laser cell consists of one machine, with a means to load stock and unload finished pieces and skeletons. The cell will typically machine a variety of parts within a family with only one setup required.

As the cost of laser machines comes down, and the initial mistrust dies away, smaller job shops are investing in the technology. "About 50% of our business comes from job shops," says Mr Lowell. "In fact, sometimes the small shops are quicker in adopting new technologies, if the owner is convinced the technology will give him a competitive advantage."

Mark Lowell Jr President Trumpf Inc Farmington, CT
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Metalworking Product Guide
Publication:Tooling & Production
Article Type:Interview
Date:Aug 1, 1990
Previous Article:EDM, lasers, other thermal-process machines.
Next Article:Metalforming machines & tooling.

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