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An Iowa-based manufacturer improves throughput and cut quality with fiber lasers

Demco Products is a family-owned, third-generation agricultural product manufacturer that makes a variety of tools and vehicles for farmers, such as this grain cart, which brings corn from a combine to a wagon or truck at the end of the field.

Demco Products, a family-owned business in its third generation, has roots going back to 1950. The family has witnessed many advancements over the years and recently has jumped from CO2 to fiber lasers, and the benefits have been exceptional.Located in the small town of Boyden in Northwest Iowa, the company strives to provide the most reliable, safest and performance-driven products in agriculture, semi-trailers, RV towing and trailer components. Kevin Ten Haken, executive vice president at Demco, says getting to third-generation operating status is not an easy achievement.

“There is a tendency with family-owned companies where the first generation makes the business their passion, and then the second generation buys in, but often, it doesn’t work,” Ten Haken says. “And by the third generation, the company is likely to not be sustained. We are breaking the mold. We are the exception to the rule.”

Operating in a vertically integrated manufacturing environment, Demco does everything from cutting and bending to machining and welding, and they also utilize liquid and powder paint systems for all their products.

Diversified approach

After years of leveraging CO2 lasers, the team at Demco decided to invest in two Mazak Optiplex 3015 8-kW fiber laser machines to increase throughput and broaden cutting capabilities.

The company got its start in 1950 producing fertilizer application equipment. By the early 1980s, Demco was manufacturing sprayers, fuel tanks, fertilizer attachments and pumps. But when the farm crisis hit, the family knew it was time to diversify, and a new product emerged to do just that.

“A local farmer that came with an idea,” Ten Haken says. “The idea was a two-wheel trailer used for towing vehicles, which was called the KarKaddy. It was good because the agriculture industry was a train wreck. It was a life saver for the company.”

The focus for Demco today is still on diversification, especially given that the agriculture industry is often counter cyclical to the economy. Not only does Demco manufacture their own products through research and development, but they also expand operations through acquisitions.

A good example of Demco’s commitment to diversification took place in 2000 when the company purchased Maurer Mfg. in Spencer, Iowa. The company manufactured semitrailers, combine extensions and combine trailers. And then, in 2017, Demco purchased Circle R, which is a side dump line of trailers. In 2018, Demco purchased SMI, a company that manufactured supplemental towing and rigging systems for cars. Presently, Demco’s products range from agriculture and semi-trailers to RV towing and trailer components.

“We have diversified into trailer products as a contract manufacturer producing towing equipment,” Ten Haken says. “We are the manufacturer behind the Penske and Budget trailers.”

Diversification has created the biggest changes for Demco over the years, organically and through acquisitions. Diversification has also meant opportunities for technology advancements, which led to an upgrade in laser cutting equipment.

Laser focused

Since 2000, Demco had used Mazak CO2 laser cutting equipment, beginning with its Super Turbo-X Super Charged 2.5-kW CO2 laser with FMS automation. Four years later, the company added a 2.5-kW Super Turbo-X 510 Mk2, and in 2011, a 4-kW Super Turbo-X 510 Mk3 was acquired.

Ten Haken says the first Mazak units had a 20-year life cycle with well over 100,000 hours. This was a testament to the high quality of the machines and the care taken by Demco. The company never had to replace a resonator in the machines.

When the farm crisis hit, Demco knew it was time to diversify, which led to the launch of the KarKaddy shown here.

“We don’t run the machines past their intended speed and throughput,” he says. “We also did regular maintenance to get that much life out of them.”

When Demco did decide to advance the laser cutting department, the main goal was to increase throughput. Ten Haken and his team knew fiber laser technology could help them reach their higher throughput goals. At the time, Demco was cutting two shifts and loading up on the weekends.

“When Monday morning came,” Ten Haken says, “there was a lot to offload and we had to separate parts and feed them to the press brakes. We felt it was better to get the throughput to cut as much as possible during the first shift throughout the course of the week instead of utilizing slower machines with limited throughput.”

Demco works with metal that ranges in thickness from 14-gauge up to 5/8-in. and 3/4-in. plate. But the bulk of the work is on 7-gauge and 1/4-in. plate. In doing research, the team realized the higher wattage fiber lasers could provide faster cutting speeds and put them in a position to reach their throughput goals.

With higher power fiber lasers, not only is there increased throughput, but it also allows for an increased cutting range through the use of nitrogen as an assist gas. In light-gauge material, nitrogen plays the role of shielding gas to stop the burning process and allow the laser to vaporize the material, which is something on which Ten Haken wanted to capitalize.

“Cutting with nitrogen on the small gauges allows us to minimize an oxide layer on the cut parts,” he says. “Using nitrogen allows us to skip a step; we don’t have to remove the oxide layer in preparation for painting.”

Choosing a partner

Although the company is a long-time Mazak user, Ten Haken felt it was important to do due diligence researching other brands. The team looked at Mazak and a competitor that was supported by a local dealer. A price comparison showed that initially, the cost would be lower with the competitor.

“But we weren’t satisfied with it,” Ten Haken says. “The service support wasn’t going to be as great, and the chassis wasn’t as robust and heavy as on the Mazak machine. Another big factor for us was the 20-year track record we had with Mazak; we knew what to expect and we did not want to discount that.”

The team finally determined that two Mazak Optiplex 3015 8-kW fiber laser machines would suffice to advance operations.

“The two machines being the same and located next to each other meant the same cut conditions, same parameters, same repairs and smaller learning curve,” Ten Haken notes.

Enter automation

The decision to implement an automation solution dealt more complexities than the decision to upgrade machines. Ten Haken knew automation wasn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, which ultimately led to a custom laser automation system, a Mazak MST 3015 Reverse Flow with a 6-shelf tower and over/under unload carts.

Watch the video to see a Mazak Optiplex 3015 8-kW fiber laser machine in action.

“We had a challenge with the automation layout,” Ten Haken explains. “Originally, we wanted the system to go into the existing space where the previous automation was located. But, it’s hard to stop production, remove the existing system, put in the new system and then start running again. Instead, we found a new location, which required some remodeling.”

The automation system’s height forced the placement to be in an adjacent room with a wall removed. The fiber lasers were placed in a room with a lower ceiling height. Despite being in different rooms, the location worked out as the automation loading area is closer to the where the sheet metal is offloaded.

Ten Haken says the over/under unload cart arrangement created a buffer because previously, operators dropped processed parts on a scissor lift. Now, they can shuttle through the offload, pulling parts off secondarily. The over/under unload carts allow for finished parts to be easily accessed, taken to the laser cutter and then moved to the next step downstream.

Exceeds expectations

Since implementing the two Optiplex 8-kW fiber lasers and the MST automation solution, Demco has experienced a variety of operational improvements.

“Speed of throughput is evident,” Ten Haken says. “Compared to 2.5-kW and 4-kW CO2 lasers, even compared to a 4-kW fiber laser, an 8-kW fiber laser offers a dramatic increase in cutting speed.”

He adds that the cutting speed is most impactful in mid-range material, specifically 1/8-in. to 1/2-in., using air or nitrogen. Another major improvement with the 8-kW fiber laser is faster piercing times, which contributes to overall faster nesting cycle times.

“The volume we cut on our second shift has greatly diminished,” Ten Haken says. “We now have no cutting after hours or on weekends. We went from three machines to two and achieved substantially greater throughput. Also, we have the capacity to handle increases in production in the future.”

The offloading process has also improved, and Demco has reduced operational hours. Another improvement is that with a higher power fiber laser, the part edge quality is visibly smoother and cleaner.

Tim Tapper, applications manager at Mazak, says applications with longer run times will take advantage of the faster cut rates achieved with high-power fiber lasers. This includes applications where parts have numerous holes or are very detailed, which requires a great deal of piercing. Thicker aluminum parts are also an ideal material for high-power fiber lasers.

For Demco, switching from CO2 to fiber lasers also came with energy savings and reduced consumables. The dual high-power fiber lasers and custom automation system improved Demco’s operations in multiple ways, most specifically in saving time and money. Furthermore, Ten Haken says there is enough automation baked into the laser that “it lends itself to not need to be babysat or tweaked manually.”

Ease of use is also important, and with Mazak’s Intelligent Functions, Demco was able to take advantage of intelligent setup, monitoring and cutting functions. The automated intelligent setup functions offer a variety of operations to improve ease of operation and machine efficiency.

A final aspect of improvement Demco has witnessed with the fiber lasers compared to CO2 lasers is the overall expectation and requirements to maintain them for the future. Ten Haken notes it took much more expertise to maintain and operate the prior machines.

Demco Products

Mazak Optonics Corp.

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