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Built to last

Even if your 2019 wish list includes a new laser, there might still be life – and profitability – left in your legacy machine

With the New Year comes new wants, new needs and a new budget. And if you’re lucky enough to have some new customers coming on board, then maybe a new laser machine is in the cards, as well.

While this is an exciting prospect, it doesn’t mean you have to kick your existing CO2 or fiber laser to the curb. Before pulling the plug on that legacy machine, remember: These machines are built to last so there still may be plenty of life in the old boy.

It’s 2019 – a fresh start to a new year. Are you moving ahead or falling behind? The slim margins are incredibly prescient for most any business, but none more so than manufacturers and fabricators competing in today’s metal cutting world of tight schedules and even tighter margins. So, while we would all like to have that sexy new piece of equipment on the shop floor, such a purchase might not be the best use of your investment dollars – at least not yet.

The good news is that the laser machine you bought and paid for years, maybe decades, ago is likely still capable of producing quality cuts; and every year of service you can squeeze from it contributes directly to the bottom line. The better news is that you aren’t losing ground to the competition by continuing to leverage its capabilities. In fact, you may even be able to get more out of that machine today than the day you purchased it.

Invest wisely

Any business owner or manager with budget authority should absolutely put money back into the business or department. When making capital improvements, scrutinize all areas and invest where it makes most sense and delivers the biggest return.

The shop floor is a great place to look. Add new forming, sawing or welding capabilities; purchase that ERP or automated job quoting system; upgrade your nesting program; buy new hand tools; and certainly invest in people with training, wage increases or other added benefits.

For some, the challenge is how to best put money back into the company without over-investing. Regardless of make or model, any piece of fabrication equipment is costly and it generally takes years to recoup the expense – even with today’s advanced fiber and CO2 laser machines.

Remember, however, that not every fabricator needs the capabilities of new cutting machines. Sometimes all you need are the basics of quality and reliability. Take a hard look at your business and the type of cutting you generally do. There are likely plenty of jobs to be run and money to be made by leveraging your legacy laser technology.


Old laser, new tricks

More often than not, it’s possible you’re not taking full advantage of your older laser. To determine whether that’s the case, ask yourself these questions: Have you upgraded your nesting or programming software to accelerate cutting and reduce scrap? Are you using the most effective assist gas for your specific applications? Is your operator trained to take full advantage of the machine’s features and maximize its performance?

One often-overlooked area to consider is the ability to process different types of material. Even older lasers are surprisingly versatile. For example, if you’ve only been processing 1/4-in. steel, expand your business by learning to cut stainless, thick plate, aluminum, bronze, nickel, coated materials, painted materials and any number of other material types.

But don’t be intimidated. These applications are relatively easy to learn and probably just require some trial and error or assistance from the machine manufacturer. The thing to remember whether you have a new or older model laser is that you have a machine tool capable of processing a variety of materials – whether it’s a CO2 or fiber. Contact your machine vendor with questions, and take the steps to become more versatile, efficient and proficient.

Solid machines

One machine tool supplier with a well-earned reputation for quality and endurance is Cincinnati Inc. (CI). The company has been manufacturing laser cutting systems since 1986 and is steadily gaining momentum as a serious player in the market. In 1996, CI began offering linear drive motors; and in 2010, the company rolled out its first line of fiber lasers, the CL-900.

At first glance, these lasers might look like any other. But that’s where the similarities end. CI lasers, like all of its machines, are built like a tank – built to last. Customers cut thick plate on a regular basis and have no concerns about part quality or tweaking the table.

In fact, fabricators of all types and sizes are quick to point out their durability. While many other laser OEMs have adopted the “stock car” mentality of hanging sheet metal on a tubular frame, CI lasers boast a solid 3/4-in. plate construction (and 1 1/4-in. end plate). The sturdy construction is especially beneficial when cutting thick plate or when holding tight tolerances with a precise linear motor drive system.

Furthermore, this stability translates directly into long life with lower maintenance. Over the years – as long as the machine stays on the shop floor – this offers significant savings. To provide a real-world scenario, Custom Fabricators Inc. (CFI), a long-time Midwestern CI job shop, explains how it benefits from CI machines.

Established in 1988 in Watertown, S.D., CFI is a full-service job shop offering laser cutting, punching, bending, sawing, stamping, shearing, rolling and a number of secondary operations, including sand blasting, bead blasting, welding and painting. As one of the region’s leading fabricators, the company serves customers throughout a variety of industries with large and small jobs alike.

With a quality conformance rate of more than 99 percent, customers have come to expect exceptional quality, outstanding service and on-time delivery. Needless to say, CFI leans heavily on the consistency and dependability of its fabrication equipment.

Laser cutters are the workhorses at CFI, accounting for the bulk of the company’s business. CFI’s introduction to CI began to take shape in the early 1990s with the purchase of a previously owned 1989 1.2-kW machine, and since then have included a number of CI lasers. Today, the company’s CO2 laser arsenal includes a 2 kW from 1997, a 2.5 kW from 1998, a 3 kW from 2000, a 3.3 kW from 2004 and a 4 kW from 2015. For CFI, the lasers offer a number of long-term advantages.

“The fact that CI machines are manufactured in the USA was an important factor in our purchase decision,” explains Colton Ksenych, vice president at CFI. “But even more important was the company’s reputation. Our customers place a premium on quality and service, so naturally, we look for the same in companies we purchase equipment from. In CI, we found a partner that offers a machine we can depend on to help us meet the expectations of our growing customer base.”


Ample assignments

With a variety of cutting options, CFI assigns jobs to its line of lasers based on material type and thickness. Heavier metals are cut on the 2-kW and newer machines while light metals are processed on the other older models. Because of these options, the company has designated the senior member of its equipment lineup, the 1.2-kW laser, for cutting plastics.

“We are fortunate to have the luxury to maximize a number of CI machines to take full advantage of the capabilities of each,” says Roger Oleson, plant manager at CFI. “We would be perfectly comfortable processing metal on our older machine, and it is certainly capable of producing quality parts. However, the legacy machine just isn’t as fast in comparison to our newer CI models. It makes sense to assign each machine to the job types for which they are best suited.”

So what does the future hold for CFI? Will this be the year the oldest CI laser is retired?

“We, of course, would like to replace one or more of our older lasers, if not this year then next,” offers CFI general manager, Javon Heathcote. But perhaps not surprisingly, the original system is not one of those earmarked for replacement. “The plan is to phase out one or more of our earlier systems, but we intend to continue to leverage the oldest machine.”

Like other CI lasers, that system offers the advantages of cut quality, dependability and consistency, and is easy to operate and program. Part of the reason it’s slated to stay on the shop floor is due to the care the company has taken with it.

“We’ve naturally replaced a few parts along the way and upgraded software over the years, but the operating system has never changed and it’s still going strong,” Heathcote concludes.

Clearly, CI machines are built to last, and there’s no reason to believe that fabricators like CFI can’t continue to expect the same level of performance to which they’ve become accustomed. As the company looks to invest in new cutting machines, quality and reliability will continue to be driving factors in those new equipment decisions.

Consider this

While older machines keep chugging along, there are a few things that shop owners must take into consideration. Replacement parts may become harder to find, and regular maintenance will play an increasingly important role. Still, with a rock-bottom cost of ownership, low overhead and reliability, these machines radiate profitability.

Remember, in this industry there’s always a place for quality and value. If you’re a fabricator where quality is important and you have a modest budget, a manageable number of customers and jobs, and speed isn’t mission critical, then don’t be too quick to pull the trigger on an expensive machine offering more than you need.

But, when the day comes and you’re ready for a new laser, think quality and longevity when you buy and chances are your cutting machine will treat you as well as that faithful old pickup truck.

Cincinnati Inc.
Custom Fabricators Inc.

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