Dictating Profitability

Intelligent web/cloud-based quoting replaces guesswork and inaccurate data with the most accurate variables. Leveraging known variables such as up-to-the-minute material costs, labor rates, machine run-time, finishing operations and related information allows winning quotes can be generated in a matter of minutes. Additionally, the flexibility of such systems allows each company to customize quoting per its unique standards or requirements monitored and adjusted by management.

Some tried-and-true methods are worth hanging on to. But fabricators who continue to rely on manual (or Excel-based) quoting methods are quickly losing ground to those who are leveraging automated quoting tools.  Replacing dated information or best guesses with known variables is a competitive advantage for those with the ability to quickly pull such details together. 

Every manufacturing operation costs money. Capturing expenses allows actual numbers to be generated.  Known costs can then be marked-up to the competitive situation. Once run-times, operators needed and processing time is known, material costs can be added. Doing this accurately requires applying real part geometry against materials. Employing interactive tech tables to achieve accurate run times from cutting machines, or even welding, can save hundreds of man-hours each year.  Leveraging known pricing, run-time, and other production variables, web-based quoting allows us to dictate profitability – not hope for it.

Could your quoting process be costing you money?

If you’re still quoting manually, with Excel or even via a traditional MRP system the short answer is “Yes”.  Quoting processes, based largely on experience and best-guesses, are mired with manual, calculation-intensive steps, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies. Part drawings are manually inspected and measured to estimate material usage and machine run time. This is followed by an estimation of costs based on last known raw material prices. Next estimated secondary operations such as grinding, bending, welding, painting, etc. are added to the quote. Quantity-based discounts are provided to incentivize customers to purchase more. Finally, shipping costs are estimated and added to the quotation. Basing quotes on “gut feel” rather than on known variables and standard rules creates a number of problems as the quoting process (and final bid itself) often varies greatly from salesperson to salesperson. Worst yet, one could never be certain that a winning quote would be profitable.

What’s the Answer? 

Some have turned to MRP systems for the answer; but the truth is that most MRP /Quoting Systems rely upon the user to provide very basic information such as perimeter length, surface area, number of holes, and so forth. The estimator is expected to load part geometry into a CAD/CAM system, generate potential cutting paths and nesting strategies, and plug the results back into the quoting software - time that could use in more productive/profitable ways.

Conversely, employing quoting software created especially for the fabrication industry provides access to up-to-the-minute material costs, labor rates, machine run-time, finishing operations and other real-time information. An automated and standardized web-based quoting system allows sales to generate accurate and consistent quotes, based on variables that can be monitored and adjusted by management.  

Geometry-based quoting allows you to upload files and extract multiple parts from one CAD file. If you do not have a file, smart shapes can be used to approximate the geometry.  Such systems should employ built-in nesting engines to nest parts on different sheet sizes. This helps determine actual material requirements and cutting time. In a world where the fastest quote often wins estimation time is slashed dramatically.  Using native CAD, neutral files, or smart shapes accurate quotes can be created for lasers, plasma cutters, waterjet, oxyfuel or other profile cutting equipment. Additionally cutting plans for long parts such as bars, structural beams, pipes and tubes can be generated for more accurate quoting.

At the same time the integrated process examines inventory to determine if enough stock is available to complete the job. Up-to-the-minute material pricing is accessed to calculate costs for any additional material that might be needed. Furthermore, the process boosts efficiency/profitability by allowing work orders to be combined to fully utilize material and production run-time and costs.

Get your Head in the Cloud

Advantages of Web/Cloud-based quoting:

  • Accessible: From laptops to tablets and cellphones, quotes can be generated on any device. 

  • Simplified: Dashboards may contain fields that launch behind the scene calculations (rates, material costs, machine run-time, secondary operations needed and associated costs, etc.). 

  • Fast & Accurate:  Eliminating the need to transfer values between systems eliminates errors while simplifying and speeding the process.

  • Consistency: Customized forms provide a common template ensuring that all quotes are consistent and profitable.

  • Affordability:  Updates are performed at a single location rather than multiple sources.  Cloud-based quoting is often available as an affordable subscription service.

Leveraging CAD from Start to Finish

Web-based quoting systems can interface with CRM systems allowing the import and linking of contacts and organizations from your CRM or ERP system without reentering the data.  Payment terms can be defined along with credit limits and discounts per organization.  To speed quoting and ordering processes, customer information can be completed automatically. 

If CAD geometry is to be leveraged completely it must be supported by a platform that conforms to all areas of the business; yet is easy to use. From quoting through production, shipping and invoicing - one system synchronizing the shop floor with the front office providing automatic updates, reporting, and invoking next steps.

Give Excel the Boot and Democratize Quoting

Many metal service centers are offering value-added services including parts nesting, cutting, bending, polishing, and more. For these companies timely and accurate quoting is vital to winning jobs and ensuring profitability.  Unfortunately for too many the process remains more of an art than a science with quotes varying wildly from one salesperson to the next.

Excel, Spreadsheets and Tribal Knowledge

In the past, quoting often relied on the wisdom and best guesses of the most experienced salesperson. Part drawings or sometimes actual physical parts themselves were manually inspected and measured to determine weight and calculate the type and amount of material needed to run the job.  Steel prices were usually estimated and after some quick calculations that part of the quote was done. Next secondary or finishing operations such as grinding, bending, welding, shipping, and so on were estimated and rolled into the quote.  With a little luck, the job would be accepted – and with a lot of luck it would achieve maximum profitability.

For a surprisingly large number of fabricators the quoting process remains a black box known to a select few.  Quotes are seemingly concocted using a dash of intuition, a little “gut feel” and a bit of tribal knowledge handed down over the years.  As a result there are a small number of seasoned veterans entrusted to create quotes.  To compound the situation this knowledge isn’t easily transferred to the next crop of quoting specialists. Fortunately, today’s quoting software standardizes the process by capturing this knowledge allowing even the newest estimator to accurately quote jobs. 

The biggest obstacle your company faces is generating fast, accurate quotes.  Why is this? Until recently, the answer was a lack of automation. Just as some service centers are leveraging automation to expand offerings and attract new customers, some are leveraging automated quoting software to increase sales.  The software utilizes intelligent machine calculators to understand what is required by the machine to develop a part.  For example, if a part is too heavy, a crane may be needed to move a part also increasing the cost.  Best of all, this intelligence is ingrained into the software meaning that you don’t have to be an expert to generate expert, profitable quotes.

Tapping into Data

Intelligent CAD models allowed quoting to become more accurate. Quoting software tapped into embedded data associated with the part and rolled that information into the quoting process.  This allowed fabricators to know exactly how the job should be nested to maximize material use. This in turn helped determine exactly how much of a given material was needed to complete the job. 

Today we’ve taken things a leap farther. Leveraging up-to-the-minute material costs, labor rates, machine run-time, post-cutting operations, and other information instantly plugs known variables into the equation.  As a result winning quotes can be generated in just minutes. At the same time the integrated process examines inventory to determine is ample stock is available to complete the job. Accurate material pricing can be accessed to calculate costs for any additional material that will need to be purchased.  Furthermore, sophisticated quoting software even allows work orders to be combined to fully utilize material and production run-time and costs.

Cloud-Based Quoting

In a relatively short time the Internet has evolved into a viable production tool.  Tapping into today’s web-based tools allows fabricators to make business and manufacturing transactions part of a daily routine.  So why not leverage this technology?

Internet or cloud-based quoting offers a number of advantages. 

Simplified:  The dashboard contains fields that, once populated, launch behind the scene calculations (rates, material costs, machine run-time, secondary operations needed and associated costs, etc.).  This eliminates the need to be a seasoned veteran in order to create a quote.

Accessible: Web-based quoting is accessible by virtually anyone at any place.  From laptops to tablets and cellphones, quotes can be generated on any device. 

Fast & Accurate:  By eliminating multiple manual touch points a paperless web-based quoting greatly simplifies and speeds the process.  In a world where the fastest quote often wins, bids that have traditionally taken an hour or more to produce can be generated in minutes. 

Consistency: Your custom dashboard provides a common template for all who create quotes.  Tapping into actual costs uniformly ensures that all quotes, regardless of the experience of the salesman, are consistent and profitable.

Affordability:  Maintainability is a key advantage as updates are performed at a single location rather than multiple sources.  Cloud-based quoting is available as an affordable subscription service.

Democratize Quoting

Intelligent quoting software turns information into winning bids and maximum profits. Such software automates and standardizes the process to allowing anyone to generate fast and accurate quotes; and the best thing is that these easy-to-use quoting tools are available at a price point that is within reach of any steel service center or fabricator.

Don't Fear the Exotic

Most fabricators who avoid working with exotic metals do so out of fear or intimidation.  They are afraid of causing damage to their laser machine and intimidated at the thought of ruining expensive metal. Due to high temperatures required for heating and shaping of parts exotic metals are very costly to manufacture and process. When processing such expensive material every part, remnant, and scrap must be accounted for as well as material heat and lot numbers.  Questions such as: How many parts did we get out of the sheet? How much scrap? and How big are the remnants? must constantly be addressed.

Simply put, fabricators who avoid cutting exotic metals are concerned with losing money.  This fear is rooted in a lack of experience and exposure to the process. This is because few lasers, if any, are delivered equipped for cutting exotic metals. While they generally include standard cutting conditions for steel, aluminum, mild steel, and often galvanized metal, no laser comes with preloaded conditions for exotic metals. Consequently most fabricators have neither the experience nor the resources needed to cut exotic metals. 

The simple fact is that most business owners and laser operators over complicate the process.  When processing exotic metals on a laser the same variables that most experienced operators are familiar with still apply.  Focal position, nozzle centering, proper nozzle selection, nozzle gap, assist gas type and pressure, power, frequency, duty and feed rate all influence the piercing, cutting and cut quality of exotic metals just like they do their more common place counterparts.  Do variables like hardness, heat absorption, reflection, vaporization rate, etc. more directly influence laser cutting exotic metals?  Sure they do, but general speaking cutting speed is the variable that is most impacted. 

The key thing to remember whether you have a CO2 or Fiber laser is that you have a machine tool that is more than capable of processing nearly all of the aforementioned exotics.  A recommendation is to request a small sample piece from the customer to do some experimental cutting with.  This is a two-fold benefit; it gives you and your laser operators a chance to “test the waters” before you commit to the job and it should yield samples for your potential customer to inspect and test for quality and to observe any heat affects from the laser process.  Be prepared to return all of the remnants and any unsuccessful first attempts.

Exotic Metals

When hearing the term “exotic metals” one might be tempted to assume that we’re talking about artistic, delicate, or purely aesthetic applications.  We typically think of brass or copper in this way.  And while these metals are certainly prevalent in these circles, exotic metals are also common throughout industries that are anything but delicate. Exotic metals are important in applications where quality, durability and tight tolerance are absolutely critical.  These metals are a great fit for laser cutting as the parts are often produced more quickly compared to other cutting or machining processes. The laser process usually creates cleaner edges resulting in less slag, and straight non-tapered edges than one might see from plasma cutting for example.  This cut quality is vital in delivering the extremely high quality, performance, and structural integrity that the market expects.

Often used in aerospace, medical and other industries where quality and durability cannot be compromised, titanium is nearly as light as aluminum; yet stronger than steel. Because of its strength and weight advantages, titanium is key to industries such as aerospace and medical.  Due to its cost, titanium is not used very often in everyday applications. Similar to titanium, super alloys, such as Hastelloy, are desirable because of their strength, ability to tolerate extremely high temperatures, and resistance to corrosion. Like titanium these materials are often used in aerospace applications such as turbine engines.

Armor plate must perform in harsh yet equally demanding applications where failure is not an option. It’s hard to imagine anything more vital than the armor plating encasing a military vehicle. This exotic metal must have a precise fit while maintaining unsurpassed strength and durability.

Exotic metals are the material of choice when structural integrity, durability, clean parts, tight tolerances, and edge quality are non-negotiable. This helps ensure the best fit for welding operations and overall quality to operate in the manner in which they are intended. Whether for the aesthetics of stainless steel kitchen appliances or the critical performance of a jet engine, exotic metals have a special role and lasers have a unique role to play in the processing of those materials.

Metal Cutting Challenges: Part Geometry

A common pitfall is to assume that any part can be cut on any machine.  The truth is that some parts are simply not compatible with certain materials or machines. For example, some part geometries are affected more than others by the thermal process. Corners or smaller areas of a part absorb more heat, and consequently the probability of thermal runaways or violent reactions like blowouts increase.  In these instances waterjet cutting is a better option.

Generally speaking, the more complicated the part geometry, the more difficult it is to maintain constant cutting speeds. Often, speed and productivity are compromised when cutting shapes with varying curves and angles. It is generally more efficient to speed up a laser when cutting curves to prevent overheating the part and deteriorating edge quality. Pulsing the laser rather than using a continuous wave to pop or drill holes is one method that is used for avoiding thermal problems.

Metal Cutting Challenges: Coated Materials

What are the challenges and risks associated with laser processing coated materials? While it’s true that each presents unique challenges in their own rite, there is some common ground that many share.

Coatings

Often materials arrive with a surface protective coating. Examples may include a stainless steel appliance, a part designated for a medical or aerospace application, a decorative art piece, and so on. The material may be coated with a variety of finishes including paint, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Nitto, Laser Film, and so on.  To reduce the likelihood of scratches or other damage, these finishes are intended to remain on the materials during processing and shipping. It is therefore important to learn how to effectively laser cut coated materials while keeping the protective surface intact. The trick is to produce quality cuts without removing, scratching, melting or otherwise damaging the coating.

Coated Stainless Steel

When preparing to laser cut coated stainless steel, it’s important to select the proper assist gas. Nitrogen is generally the best choice.  Being an inert gas, nitrogen does not produce a chemical reaction thus making it the safest and most reliable choice. Avoid cutting with oxygen as it lacks the predictability of nitrogen.

While coated stainless steel is slightly easier to cut with a fiber rather than a CO2 laser, there’s really not much difference if both are set up properly. What is important, however, is the piercing conditions. When the incorrect pierce sub-routine is selected the finished part results can be poor and inconsistent.

Turning the assist gas on too fast / too high can cause bubbles which in turn will affect the height sensing of the laser head and throw the laser cutting off. Consequently, it’s vital to get pierce sub routines correct. Be sure to take the time to communicate with the machine manufacturer and run some cutting tests in order to get the optimum settings.  Some try to shortcut the process and pre-melt the coating. In doing this the laser head is generally positioned anywhere from 0.100” to 0.600” above the material and used to melt the coating prior to initiating a pierce point. While it’s true that most lasers come with this pre-melt functionality, this practice is not recommended. Pre-melting introduces an opportunity for excessive melting and creates a mess generating dust and debris which is bad for a fiber laser.  Take the time to set the machine up properly and make sure that you utilize a quality coating specifically made for laser applications and there’s no need for employing this risky tactic.

Removing Slag Build-Up

There are several companies that offer a motorized tool for removing slag build up from slats.  Some companies have moderate success in preventing slag build up by spraying the slats with a solution similar to anti-spatter for welding.  Perhaps the best, long term solution is to use copper slats.  While the upfront investment is significant, after 4 to 5 years, when it is time to replace them, you receive a good portion of your money back for the copper scrap.  Another cost saving tip is to make sure that you develop slats that are double-sided so that when the top side becomes too worn, the slat can simply be flipped over.  The reason why the overall height of the slats is so important is because this affects how high the material sits inside of the laser.  When the slats become too short, the laser will experience height sensor alarms when processing thin gauge material because the Z-axis travel is close to exceeding the soft-limits of the machine’s parameters.

Where's the ROI?

There’s a lot of hidden, and not so hidden, downtime associated with day-to-day metal fabrication.  Stop what you’re doing and take a look out on the shop floor. Is that laser waiting to be loaded, to have parts removed, for the operator to come back from a break or waiting for the next program or nest?

If that laser machine isn’t cutting then you’re losing revenue. In this business it’s all about beam-on time; and automation keeps that machine cutting. Automating a stand-alone laser with even a simple, entry-level load / unload system can increase a CO2 or Fiber laser’s productivity by at least 25%.  Most machines are now Factory 4.0 compliant and machine monitoring is a large portion of that initiative.  Monitoring machine cutting efficiency and breaking it down by day, week, month and even shift is a great way to assess your automation needs as well as your overall productivity.

And that’s just the beginning. The results are increased exponentially when a fully automated “lights out” operation is implemented leveraging automated nesting and scheduling software, material storage towers and river systems for tracking and storing different material types and thickness. In this scenario, high-volume fabricators have the ability for unattended overnight or weekend runs.  So in the morning there are 40 thousand, 60 thousand pounds of cut parts stacked up. The fabricator can bring in temporary workers to break out parts, allowing the skilled labor to concentrate on more complex tasks.

Automation goes a long way toward addressing the dilemma of every shop owner or production manager; finding and keeping skilled employees and achieving the largest rate of return on their efforts. Automation allows shops to reallocate human resources away from menial tasks to more productive duties thereby increasing the total production dollars generated per employee and per operation.

Preventing Slab Buildup

There are several companies that offer a motorized tool for removing slag build up from slats.  Some have moderate success in preventing slag build up by spraying the slats with a solution that is very similar to anti-spatter for welding.  However, the best, long term solution is to use copper slats.  While the upfront investment is significant, after 4 to 5 years, when it is time to replace them, you receive a good portion of your money back for the copper scrap. 

Another cost saving tip is to make sure that you develop slats that are double-sided so that when the top side becomes too worn, the slat can simply be flipped over.  The reason why the overall height of the slats is so important is because this affects how high the material sits inside of the laser.  When the slats become too short, the laser will experience height sensor alarms when processing thin gauge material because the Z-axis travel is close to exceeding the soft-limits of the machine’s parameters.

Laser Cutting: No Tipping

During the cutting process the laser head is traversing to its next cut often very fast and close to the material surface. If a piece of material has tipped up and is protruding above the surface area, a collision is likely to occur. In most instances, damage to the laser head is both considerable and costly.

Although tip-ups aren’t exclusive to steel and aluminum, it’s important to be aware of the damage they can do to a machine. Be especially vigilant when cutting thin metals as this is when tipping is most common.  Fortunately, however, most crashes are avoidable. With a preview of the nest, the operator can often times recognize where there is potential for an issue in order to pay extra attention when the machine is cutting in that area. This can include slowing the cutting process slightly. A few seconds lost in cutting speed is better than hours lost replacing a laser head.

In addition to reducing the cutting speed, part tip-ups can be combatted by implementing micro tabbing. Most laser programming software today offers an auto tabbing feature where one or more small tabs (typically about 0.020 in.) are placed in the profile of the part to secure the part to the sheet skeleton. Once the entire nest is complete and the skeleton is off-loaded, the parts can be easily released from the skeleton. With good quality, flat material and parts that are large enough to lay on two or three of the table grates, the need to tab parts is usually unnecessary. When in doubt, micro-tabbing is a smart approach to avoid laser head crashes, especially when lasers are automated and operating in a lights out environment.

Choose the Right Tool for the Job

Although lasers are versatile, there are instances when waterjet or plasma is a better option. Lasers are negatively affected by a number of factors including material thickness and quality, alloy type, heat conductivity, metallurgy, and even part geometry. Waterjet is better in some cases simply because it does not emit the high temperatures associated with lasers. Conversely, plasma or oxy-fuel is a better choice for thick parts where edge quality and taper are less important.

Today, many OEMs are introducing higher power lasers to help address thick cutting issues. For example, Mitsubishi now offers their fiber lasers in 4, 6 and 8-kW iterations with patented ZOOM head cutting technology. The ZOOM head is capable of manipulating not just the focal length, but also the SHAPE of the mode. In essence, the ZOOM head can transform the Beam Product Parameter (mode) from looking like a TEM00 mode on a CO2 laser to looking like a CO2 TEM01 mode.  The results are smaller, conical shaped mode for fast thin material cutting and doughnut shaped mode for better edge quality in thicker plate cutting. It’s like having the best of both worlds. 

With various power levels and technologies available, it’s key during the due diligence phase of a new fiber laser purchase to research and understand the differences and features of the cutting head when considering resonator wattage. When choosing a fiber machine, a cutting head capable of manipulating the beam product parameter is ideal.

Metal fabrication estimating & Cad Cam prediction for 2019

Brad Stropes
As manufacturing industry veteran, Brad Stropes has worked with manufacturers, large and small, throughout North America to help improve fabrication efficiency, productivity, and profitability. He rose through the ranks of a manufacturing software organization before accepting his current role of COO for SecturaSOFT, LLC. « Less

MCADCafe Industry Predictions for 2019 – SecturaSOFT

January 18th, 2019 by Brad Stropes

inShare

In 2017 and 2018 the biggest innovation I had seen was by far the amount of fiber lasers entering the industry.  In years past there was skepticism in our industry that fiber lasers wouldn’t take the place of C02.  However, this was proven wrong in these past few years.   Because of the speed of these new lasers; loading and unloading is now where sunk operational cost reside.

In 2019 and beyond, organizations will begin to utilize more automated load/unload solutions for parts and movement of parts throughout their facility.  It will be our job as software engineers to develop intelligent cost factors and solutions to guide such a transition.  When laser speed isn’t an issue, the speed of which parts move throughout the organization will be where shops start increasing profitability.  I believe the CAD/CAM and intelligent estimating solutions will need to develop intelligent cost calculations and route cost calculations to give clarity to the movement these parts.

Related posts:

Dictate Profitability with SecturaSOFT

Intelligent web/cloud-based quoting replaces guesswork and inaccurate data with the most accurate variables. Leveraging known variables such as up-to-the-minute material costs, labor rates, machine run-time, finishing operations and related information allows winning quotes can be generated in a matter of minutes. Additionally, the flexibility of such systems allows each company to customize quoting per its unique standards or requirements monitored and adjusted by management.

Some tried-and-true methods are worth hanging on to. But fabricators who continue to rely on manual (or Excel-based) quoting methods are quickly losing ground to those who are leveraging automated quoting tools.  Replacing dated information or best guesses with known variables is a competitive advantage for those with the ability to quickly pull such details together. 

Every manufacturing operation costs money. Capturing expenses allows actual numbers to be generated.  Known costs can then be marked-up to the competitive situation. Once run-times, operators needed and processing time is known, material costs can be added. Doing this accurately requires applying real part geometry against materials. Employing interactive tech tables to achieve accurate run times from cutting machines, or even welding, can save hundreds of man-hours each year.  Leveraging known pricing, run-time, and other production variables, web-based quoting allows us to dictate profitability – not hope for it.

Brunswick Steel: Democratizing Quoting and Winning Business

The lights are always on at this Winnipeg-based service center where equipment, technology and a skilled labor force are focused on meeting the high expectations and tight delivery schedules of a growing customer-base. With oxyfuel, hi-definition plasma, CO2 and fiber laser cutting capabilities (complete with automated material tower) Brunswick’s state-of-the-art manufacturing facility operates around the clock seven days a week.  And while automation was clearly being leveraged throughout the shop floor, the same could not be said of the company’s sales and estimating departments where manual quoting remained the norm.

“In our case job estimating relied almost solely on Excel spreadsheets,” explained Brunswick Steel Sales Manager, Dallas McInnes. “Our quoting process was complex, manually intensive and required a certain level of experience and expertise.  Consequently quotes were not being created in a timely or consistent manner.” 

For Brunswick Steel and a growing number of others throughout the industry, the answer to generating fast, winning and profitable quotes came in the form of a software program called SecturaFAB from SecturaSOFT.  Developed especially for the meatal fabrication industry, SecturaFAB accelerates quoting speed and accuracy by replacing unknown time and cost variables with up-to-the-minute information. Brunswick began using the quoting tool in 2017 and the results were immediate.

Automating Quoting

Automating, simplifying and standardizing the quoting process allows companies to reallocate resources as needed to aid the sales process. This might mean taking advantage of downtime of an employee from a different department to create quotes.  Brunswick Steel is doing just this by routinely tapping its entire sales and administrative staff to prepare quotes.

“Automation is the key,” said McInnes.  “In the past quoting was limited to a select few individuals; but SecturaFAB opens processing quotes up due to the software’s relative ease of use. Those with minimal experience may not have the true feel for factoring in all time and costs related to labor, material handling and other aspects of the job. Automated quoting allows us to confidently bid on more jobs while being assured of quote accuracy. Simply put, SecturaFAB takes a highly skilled task and reduces it to a task that others can confidently take on.”   

Brunswick began using SecturaFAB with four users.  Today, because of the software’s success, the company is extending use of the software throughout its sales staff. The results are a measurable increase in quote volume and accuracy. “At Brunswick we pride ourselves on exceeding the expectations of our customers,” concluded McInnes. “The automation and accuracy of SecturaFAB helps us to grow our business while remaining responsive to our customers.”

Setting the Production Pace with Automation

Machines are programmed to perform tasks.  They don’t take bathroom breaks, stop for lunch, or check their Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat profiles.  In a manually-driven shop, the laser finishes the job and sits idle waiting for workers to off-load cut parts, install new sheets of material, and initiate the cutting process.

At any given time there may be five to ten thousand pounds of raw materials and finished goods on the off-load cart or pallets waiting to be taken to a secondary operation. Even the fastest worker cannot keep pace with a fiber laser.  Consequently the machine can only work as fast as the worker allows; and every minute that a laser isn’t cutting is lost revenue. 

What’s the answer? Automation. When the machine is free to load, cut, unload at its own pace productivity increases exponentially. But don’t stop there… automation also applies to the quoting process. Contact us to see just how more effective and efficient your quoting process can be.

Laser Cutting: Assist Gas

In many instances, the laser's ability to cut can be further improved by selecting the proper assist gas. Oxygen assist gas serves two purposes: to assist in combustion, and to blow the debris or molten metal away from the kerf.  Nitrogen is an inert gas and it serves to discharge the molten metal away from the kerf.  When cutting with Nitrogen the energy from the laser is the only tool used in the thermal process of melting/cutting the material.  In addition to Nitrogen and Oxygen there are certain applications where Air, Argon and a blended mixture of N2 and O2 can achieve greater speeds and improved edge quality while simultaneously eliminating dross/slag. All things being equal… generally speaking compressed air produces faster cuts than nitrogen in mild steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. Significantly higher gains of 20% - 40% can be realized by blending N2 and O2.

Laser Head Crashing: No Tipping

During the cutting process the laser head is traversing to its next cut often very fast and close to the material surface. If a piece of material has tipped and is protruding above the surface area a collision is likely to occur. In most instances damage to the laser head is both considerable and costly.  Be especially vigilant when cutting thin metals as this is when tipping is most common. Fortunately most crashes are avoidable.  With a preview of the nest the operator can sometimes recognize where there is potential for an issue and make sure to pay extra attention when the machine is cutting in that area.  At the same time consider slowing the process slightly. A few seconds lost in cutting speed is better than hours lost replacing a laser head.

The best way to combat part tip-ups is by micro-tabbing.  Most laser programming software today offers an auto tabbing feature where one or more small tabs (typically about .020”) are placed in the profile of the part to secure the part to the sheet skeleton.  Once the entire nest is complete and the skeleton is off-loaded the parts are broken out of the skeleton.  If you have purchased good quality, flat material and the parts are large enough to lay on two or three of the table grates then the need to tab parts is usually unnecessary.  Suffice it to say, when in doubt tab; especially if your lasers are automated and operating in a “lights out” environment.

Laser Cutting Painted Materials

The next time you’re wandering the aisles in stores like Sears, Lowes, or the Home Depot take a close look at those stainless steel kitchen appliances. Chances are what you’re looking at is a faux stainless steel surface.  Pre-painted materials cost much less than true stainless steel making the finished product available to homeowners on a budget at an attractive price point. They carry names such as monochromatic stainless steel, black stainless steel, clean steel and finger print resistant stainless steel; just to name a few examples.  For these and other reasons, painted materials are growing in popularity.  OK so what are the challenges associated with laser processing these types of materials?

Pre-painted material generally comes in a thickness of anywhere from 18-24 gauge and is a common material in the home appliance, industrial refrigeration, and similar industries.  Those hoping to do business in this realm should certainly become familiar with the dos and don’ts of laser cutting material coated with paint.  While such materials may sometimes come with a PVC film, my experience is that the coating is often insufficiently tacky to adhere to the painted surface.  The likely result is instability during laser processing with, again, bubbling and/or melting likely to occur. To further compound the situation, painted material coated with film is generally a lesser grade and not conducive to pre-melting. It is therefore recommended to have your steel supplier provide laser-quality film. You may also elect to peel the film off then begin cutting taking care not to damage the painted surface.

I’ve found fiber lasers to be the best choice when processing painted materials. However it’s important to keep in mind that cutting such material at a rate that is too fast or too hot will likely create a burn mark on the surface of the material near the edge. Some lighter colors are more susceptible to showing burn marks than others and typically very light colors, especially bright white are not candidates for Fiber lasers. It is also possible that some colors may not cut at all due to how the wavelength of a fiber optic laser reacts to those colors.  It is always recommended to take the time to experiment and dial-in the optimum cutting condition before beginning a long run of laser cut parts.

Laser Cutting Coated Stainless Steel

When preparing to laser cut coated stainless steel, it’s first important to select the proper assist gas; and nitrogen is the best choice.  Being an inert gas, nitrogen does not produce a chemical reaction thus making it the safest and most reliable choice. Avoid cutting with oxygen as it lacks the predictability of nitrogen. There are too many instances of oxygen catching fire to the PVC and melting the coating to the metal.  

Generally speaking coated stainless steel is slightly easier to cut with a fiber rather than a CO2 laser, there’s really not much difference if both are set up properly. What is important, however, is the piercing conditions. When the incorrect pierce sub-routine is selected the finished part results can be poor and inconsistent.

Turning the assist gas on too fast / too high can cause bubbles which in turn will affect the height sensing of the laser head and throw the laser cutting off. Consequently, it’s vital to get pierce sub routines correct. Be sure to take the time to communicate with the machine manufacturer and run some cutting tests in order to get the optimum settings.  It is recommended that you set up a cutting condition library for PVC coated materials. This is a one-time step that’s well worth the effort. Do it once and you’re finished; from that point on it’s an automatic function.

Still some laser operators try to shortcut the process and pre-melt the coating. In doing this the laser head is generally positioned anywhere from 0.100” to 0.600” above the material and used to melt the coating prior to initiating a pierce point. While it’s true that most lasers come with this pre-melt functionality, its recommended to avoid this practice. Pre-melting introduces an opportunity for excessive melting and creates a mess generating dust and debris which is bad for a fiber laser.  Take the time to set the machine up properly and make sure that you utilize a quality coating specifically made for laser applications and there’s no need for employing this risky tactic.

Sometimes you may get a bad sheet or batch of metal from the customer or supplier where the PVC coating is not tacky/sticky enough. As mentioned earlier, this may cause the coating to lift or bubble when cutting.  In this instance you can peel the PVC off of the material prior to cutting. This might also be a last resort if you struggle with piercing or pre-melt.  Again, this isn’t recommended as it introduces an opportunity for damaging the metal. However, if you choose to do this and were able to navigate cutting without damaging the surface, be sure to prepare the cut surface prior to any secondary operations. There is a special tape that can be placed on the stainless steel or on your press brake punches and dies, in lieu of coating which protects the material from scratching or marring during bending and other secondary operations.