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A Passion For Products

Lights-out laser automation sets the pace for higher production

Passion, it’s what sets one company apart from another and leads to great products, ideas and going the extra mile to deliver quality parts.

At Midland Metal Products, the company’s founders, and now the fourth generation owners, exude it.

Midland Metal Products has been around for 90 years, mentions B.J McDonald, facilities manager. “The business was started by my great-grandfather, the Zidek family, in New York City. He was a handyman doing metal fabrication. Later the company relocated to Chicago, producing wire-based products using a few spot welders and manual wire benders. Slowly they integrated sheet-metal products that we would consider commodities today, such as baskets, lampshade frames and fan guards.”

In time the company refocused and developed a niche market in point-of-purchase display systems and changed the name to Midland Metal Products.

Midland started producing displays in the 1920s when it supplied potato-chip-clip racks to the Jay’s Company of Chicago. “We did bubblegum and check-out display racks until about the 1980s,” says McDonald.

By convincing R. J. Reynolds that the company could produce the necessary quantities of overhead cigarette merchandisers, Midland grew exponentially.

While producing these merchandisers, they had to develop expertise in other systems, such as welding, punching and working with tubing. Knowing that they couldn’t do this in a relatively small area, the company moved in 1984 into its current 110,000-sq.-ft. location with approximately 75 full-time employees. When display production increases, they add contract employees to fill the gap.

Keeping Pace

“Over the years we started losing product production because of our delivery times as the technology was changing and we weren’t keeping up,” remarks McDonald.

“This is when we purchased CNC equipment and replaced OBI-punch presses with turret-punch presses. We have a Euromac and Finn Power turret-punch press. This allowed us to meet our customer expectations that were really about delivery more than anything. We find that product focus is on fast turnaround then price while quality is always expected.”

In 2005, the company decided to buy its first laser system. McDonald adds, “What we wanted to do with it was to incorporate some lean manufacturing aspects and the possibility to help with our ROI by using the equipment for lights-out manufacturing. Therefore, we knew we also needed a serious material handling system. We purchased the laser about six months prior to ordering the material handling system. The key component to this system was Cincinnati Inc.’s scheduling software for its laser system. And then two years ago, we purchased a second Cincinnati laser.”

Midland also purchased an Altamar five-axis tube laser. Along with these equipment purchases, McDonald notes that the company was moving away from pen and paper engineering to using CAD/CAM software along with an ERP software to help run the entire business. The CAD/CAM software drives the design and manufacturing portion of Midland’s business.

Why a Laser System?

Although the company could do most of its products using the turret-punch presses (it also ended up replacing about 30 OBI-punch presses), McDonald says that for higher sheet metal cutting capacity, a laser was the only way to go. It also gave the company the ability to go lights-out.

“If we were going to replace an older method for creating a part in sheet metal, and we also needed huge amounts of capacity, then extending a shift into a second or third one to do it on Saturday and Sunday obviously helps and also directly affects and shortens our ROI. This drove us to purchasing a material handling system, because if we didn’t, we would have needed to look at other labor-intensive material handling technologies like forklifts and operator-controlled material handling. The automated material handling system looked way better on our ROI spreadsheet,” remarks McDonald.

Midland’s second laser was planned from the start, he notes. When the company installed its material handling system Midland made space available for a second laser when the first one was installed. Cincinnati’s material handling equipment at the time could handle two lasers.

“We found that there were other laser manufacturers that had material handling, but they couldn’t manage two separate lasers,” remarks McDonald. “This was also another purchasing consideration, that Cincinnati could control more than one laser and add capacity to it when needed. We knew we were also going to get current technology.”

McDonald says that although Midland looked at many different manufacturers when the company was reviewing laser systems, Cincinnati worked closely with them to develop the scheduling software for production that was vital to doing lights-out manufacturing.

Cincinnati Inc.’s material handling system was developed specifically for its lasers. It uses a transfer cart that’s somewhat like a trolley on rails that moves adjacent to the tower. The system has a central elevator that can pay off material to two different storage towers.

 “We looked at this configuration and said that if it can travel one way, couldn’t it also travel in another direction? This would give us a mirror-image-unload station. By moving our Finn Power turret-punch press, the material handling system could share inventory with it. This gives us a single location of inventory that ties in with our ERP and MRP systems to control our on-hand inventory,” says McDonald.

This material handling system allows Midland to move raw material to the turret-punch press or the lasers and take punched or cut parts and place them in an empty drawer in the system. This allows operators to either store them or save them for stock.

If the company needs a different shake-and-break location after the laser cuts the material, the storage system will allow it to change this location to another adjacent table at the lasers. They can move raw parts around in the system and to a number of different locations along with moving cut parts.

The material handing system has 28 drawers and can carry 6,000 pounds of steel per drawer with the largest sheet being 5 ft. by 10 ft. It can also manage smaller sheets.

Midland primarily uses from 22-gauge steel up to 1.25 in., but what’s typical is 22 to 11 gauge along with some 0.187 in., 0.250 in. and 0.5 in. material thicknesses. But their sweet spot is 16- and 18-gauge material.

Running lights out

McDonald says that they primarily run 24/7 with the laser system with downtime for preventative maintenance. This isn’t the easiest thing to do, as different material thicknesses can demand that an operator change nozzles and/or lenses for different focal lengths or change assist gases. But McDonald developed a way to get around this.

To get the best cutting with the least cost, McDonald says Midland primarily uses filtered shop air for cutting.

“Because our primary range of metal thicknesses is from 22 to 11 gauges, with a good portion of this being 16- and 18-gauge materials, both of our lasers employ shop air for assist gas. Obviously this is important to lights-out cutting. We don’t need someone at the laser worrying about changing gas tanks or having a bulk-tank system available. We simply make shop air with an oil-less scroll-type air compressor. The air is dry and oil free to begin with, and we’re chilling it down below its dew point along with stripping any particulate or hydrocarbons from the air using a number of different filtration devices. We’re making this air at pennies to the dollar compared to oxygen and nitrogen that are far more expensive.

“In terms of being successful with the lights-out operation, we don’t have to worry about what parts we can’t cut, because the system simply doesn’t care. We don’t have to worry about the laser’s focal length, because we are using autofocus heads that continuously focus to establish the correct and most efficient beam,” he says.

For the nozzles and lenses, Midland has established different cutting parameters than the ones that the company was given by Cincinnati and chose a suitable lens and nozzle that gives good cutting on the widest gamut of material thicknesses. On the Cincinnati CL 840 laser, Midland is using a 5-in.-focal-length lens. This lens will provide good cutting from 22 to 11-gauge material thicknesses.

Operators don’t have to concern themselves with a lens or nozzle change until they get to 0.187-in.-thick material. On the Cincinnati CL 707 laser, Midland is using a 7.5-focal-length lens. Plus the company adjusted its cutting parameters, so operators don’t have to perform a lens or nozzle change from 22 to 11-gauge material thicknesses.

McDonald also mentions that the shop air gives Midland an edge quality that paint will adhere to. There’s no need to do secondary operations to prep the materials for painting.

Midland still does all the preventative maintenance tests to ensure it’s getting the proper cut. The first thing an operator does in the morning is a lens cleaning routine. When the dayshift operator goes home, he’ll perform a simple and quick lens and nozzle check and cleaning.

Cut parts still in the skeleton can be stored during the lights-out function until an operator is available. They can store up to 9 in. of stacked parts that could equate up to 9,000 to 10,000 pounds of parts, says McDonald. But with fast sheet cutting times, they can quickly fill up the unload station. However, the system knows this and discerns that the stack for the unload station has gotten too high. Then an alternative location to stack the parts is chosen.

“Our ERP system helps keep track of all this,” mentions McDonald. “But it’s typically handled by the scheduler system software that’s part of the Cincinnati material handling system.”

With its new CNC equipment, lights-out manufacturing capability and a desire to produce quality products with a fast turnaround, the company’s owners’ passion has led to today’s success.

Cincinnati Inc.
Midland Metal Products