Automation is becoming increasingly common for metal fabrication shops of all types and sizes. Individual reasons companies turn to automation often vary, but ultimately they come down to one thing—increasing capacity, accelerating the speed of production, and boosting productivity to meet growing demand.
We’ve summarized their findings here for you:
1. Is Automating Your Laser Cutting the Right Choice?
The key here is to think about both your short- and long-term needs. Assess the materials you work most often (the type, thickness, etc.), and then consider your processing time (remembering to factor in the age of the laser cutter you’re using).
Three of the benefits associated with automated laser cutting are:
- Speed: Loading materials by hand takes on average 35% longer than with an automatic setup.
- Consistency: Automated laser cutters are engineered to perform precisely and get everything—time between cycles, load and unload times—down to an exact science.
- Capacity: Automation enables you to use the laser cutters you have to their fullest before adding additional machines to your lineup to meet increased capacity and demand.
This is all part of lean manufacturing—reducing rework, limiting excess inventory, and making workflows more predictable.
2. What Type of Automation Will Be Best for You?
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to automation,” says Naoko McIntosh, an Automation Specialist with Mazak Optonics Corp. “Every customer is different and we work to serve each customer as a unique project.”
There are two principle approaches to (or types of) automation:
- A Load/Unload System: Adding this type of system to existing or new machines will enable them to run unattended for longer amounts of time (up to 12 hours per day) and increase productivity by 2.8 times. It includes single load and separate unload tables, restricting you to one material type/thickness at a time and making it ideal for batch productions with fewer material changes.
- A Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS): An FMS makes it possible to run variety of material types and thicknesses without any assistance from an operator. An FMS is architected with multiple storage shelves that let you load materials into one or more laser cutting machines. FMSs typically deliver a beam on-time of roughly 92% and 14.7 hours of cutting per day (one manned shift, one unmanned). They’re ideal for small batch productions and frequent material changes.
Taking these questions into account will help you determine if a modular solution (which enable future growth) or a compact system for one machine will be best.
3. What Should Your Initial Configuration Look Like?
The five questions you need to ask yourself are:
- What type of material storage will you need?
There is variation here. Simpler systems (like the Load/Unload System) will use a single table. More complex ones like an FMS enable you to load a range of materials into different shelves.
- How many machines will be included in a cell?
If you’re looking for a system that will work with the laser cutters you already have, a compact solution might be ideal for you. If future growth will compel you to add more machines to your lineup, a modular solution that can grow with you will be the more logical option.
Remember that you always want to design your system a little bit over capacity, whether it’s compact or modular, especially if you’re forecasting dramatic expansion. You don’t want to go overboard, though, as that will tie up too much operating capital.
- What do you need to consider for your material transfer system?
The two main considerations are:
- The maximum weight of the sheets to be automated. Most systems have a maximum capacity of 1” sheet of mild steel. Systems can be designed to run single sheets without using a transverser, giving you enhanced flexibility.
- If you need parts sorted automatically. Some systems today can be built to separate cut parts from the skeleton, depositing them on a specific offload table or in a bin (depending on your needs).
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- How would you like to control your automation system?
Load/Unload Systems are typically simpler, using a basic Cell Controller to load programs sequentially onto your machine. An FMS requires a more sophisticated system (a Management Line Controller) that can prioritize tasks, manage inventories, provide data about what was cut and when, and more.
- What type of material unloading system will you need?
You have a number of options to consider here including fixed tables, scissor-lift tables, multiple offload tables (to stack like parts), rail systems, and conveyors.
4. What Challenges Might You Face in Implementing Automated Laser Cutting?
Automation can have a profound impact on your shop, which is why it’s important to consider the implications and potential challenges:
- Labour: Automation can be a double-edged sword in the sense that you’ll require highly skilled operators to oversee production, but you’ll need fewer of them.
- Morale: Ensuring your team supports the transition to automation will help make it a greater success in the long run.
- Effects on Other Machines: If laser cutting has been a bottleneck for you, you need to make sure that operators and machines downstream (bending, welding, etc.) are prepared to handle production increases when your automated laser cutter is fully functional.
Ultimately, the gains that come from automated laser cutting will vastly outweigh any potential challenges. In making the move to automation, you need to make sure you’re choosing the right laser cutting machine and have the right partner by your side to make implementation a triumph.
Leading-Edge Automated Laser Cutter Solutions from Mazak Optonics
Mazak understands the benefits that an automated laser cutting solution can bring to companies, expanding capacity by up to 50% and letting you use your machine to its fullest with or without an operator present.
- The Max Space Saver is ideal in settings with limited floor space. The Max Space Saver has a small footprint and stacks vertically, maximizing the room available.
- The Compact Expandable is made for shops that want to start automating their laser cutting processes now and plan to add another machine at a later date. It also stacks vertically, making it well suited for companies with a limited amount of physical room to grow.
- The Linear Expandable is designed for companies who have the floor space to automate horizontally and want to increase capacity (another machine, tower, etc.) down the road.
- The High Capacity solution is Mazak’s ultimate all-in-one system, combining material storage with the ability to move materials along the line to your laser cutters.
Finding the right partner, someone who is ready to work with you and understand your needs, is crucial when it comes to implementing an automated laser cutting system that fits your unique needs.
Do you want to discuss how an automated laser cutting solution from Mazak Optonics can work for your application? Contact the experts at Westway today!
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