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More Parts with Less Power

Wisconsin manufacturer hits a home run with fiber lasers from Mitsubishi

The part shown was made on Robbins Mfg.’s new fiber laser and is used on a piece of equipment used in the construction industry.

When opportunity knocked, Greg and Jan Robbins were ready. As the owners of the fabrication company, Robbins Mfg. Inc., it’s their job to find ways to increase productivity and cut costs. That opportunity recently presented itself in the form of two new fiber lasers from MC Machinery.

Robbins Mfg. serves a wide variety of customers. Its Fall River and Columbus, Wis., facilities produce components for recreational vehicles, construction and agricultural equipment, and consumer and storage products. With 250,000 sq. ft. of production space and an array of fabrication equipment, including CNC press brakes, punches, automated laser cutting systems, robotic welders and a 21,000 pound-per-hour powder-coat line, there’s little this fabricator can’t handle.

Chief among these machines are its CNC lasers. All but one of Robbins Mfg.’s seven Mitsubishi machines are configured two-machine cells – each pair of lasers is served by a 12-shelf Auto-Flex MSCIII automated material stacker. These Flexible Manufacturing Systems (FMS) operate around the clock, seven days a week.

Despite his shop’s already impressive capabilities, Greg Robbins is always on the lookout for ways to increase output. Since adding more hours to each day was impossible, he and his wife had a decision to make. They could invest in an additional machine – and possibly expand the facility to accommodate it – or upgrade their existing equipment.

 

Powerful partnerships

So, Greg Robbins called Jeff Lampe, owner of Minneapolis-based Mitsubishi distributor, Advanced Manufacturing Solutions Inc. Five years earlier, the two had agreed on a laser buy-back program, where Robbins Mfg. could upgrade its Mitsubishi machines without the hassle or expense of new automation.

Not only does this keep the company up to date on laser technology, but it also minimizes downtime. Jim Mobry, the plant manager at Robbins Mfg., described the relationship with Lampe and MC Machinery as more of a partnership than as a buyer working with a vendor. He also described Lampe as more of a hands-on guy than just your average salesperson.

In the end, Lampe would play an integral role for the company when making purchasing decisions. According to Mobry, those decisions would bring Robbins Mfg. to the forefront of cutting technologies while also making the most of the company’s preexisting equipment.

“The MSCIII material stackers we purchased with the original equipment were readily adaptable to the new fiber machines,” Robbins explains. “They are modular and expandable and more than able to keep up with the increased output of the two machines. Not having to replace the automation during the machine upgrade meant weeks of additional production.”

Lampe agrees. “That’s the beauty of this program. By utilizing the existing material-handling system, I can pull one laser out and put a new one in its place in less than a week,” he says. “This sidesteps the horrendous downtime that often occurs whenever a new system is installed. Keeping this disruption to a minimum is very important to most of my customers, and Robbins Mfg. was no exception.”

 

Reinventing the industry with fiber

The conversation with Lampe turned out to be a profitable phone call for Greg Robbins. Within two months of placing his order, the oldest machines – a pair of NX 6,000-W CO2 lasers – were part of Mitsubishi’s Encore used-machinery inventory, and two 60-in.-by-120-in. NXF 4,000-W fiber lasers had been brought in to replace them. Robbins Mfg. and its employees quickly discovered just how far laser technology has come in the past five years.

Laser operator Jon Stenzel says the new lasers are two to three times faster than the old machines. “We were doing a seven-sheet nest of 16-gauge mild steel that took 96 minutes on the CO2 lasers,” he explains. “The new machines do it in 37 minutes. And our cutting speed on .-in.-thick aluminum tread plate went from 18 ipm to more than 100. We’re like kids in a candy store.”

These are impressive figures, but Greg Robbins offers one caveat: In material 3/16 in. and below, it’s clear that fiber lasers blow away their competition. At 1/4 in. or so, fiber is comparable to CO2 in both edge quality and cutting speed. Above that, however, CO2 lasers still hold the lead in terms of productivity.

“There’s a definite place for CO2 lasers,” he says. “For anyone that cuts a lot of thicker material, such as parts for agricultural equipment and heavy trucks, fiber is not a great fit.” Despite this, Lampe says fiber is reinventing the industry. “This is the hottest thing since lasers first came out. It means a tectonic shift for sheet metal fabricators.”

There are several reasons for his enthusiasm. Compared to CO2, fiber lasers don’t require any warm up. “It’s like turning on a TV,” he says. Since Robbins Mfg. is running non-stop, this factor offers little benefit for them, but in shops that run one or two shifts per day, this can mean several hours of additional production time each week.

And fiber lasers require little to no maintenance. For example, there are no optics to clean or replace as with a CO2 laser. Nor is there any need for gas to recharge the resonator, something that consumed half an hour each day of shop time. For the two NXF lasers, this means another 180 hours of cutting per year compared to their CO2 cousins, or roughly $18,000 per machine.

 

When Robbins Mfg. introduced its two new fiber lasers to the shop room floor, laser operator Jon Stenzel said they performed up to three times faster than the old machines.

Off-the-chart benefits

One of the biggest benefits to the new equipment came as a welcome surprise: The local power company offered Robbins Mfg. a $42,000 incentive on its electric bill to take the old machines off the grid. That’s because fiber lasers are more efficient than their CO2 counterparts. And while these results are not typical, Greg Robbins is looking forward to a monthly electricity savings of $5,500 per machine.

“Everyone knows that CO2 sucks up a lot of power, but it wasn’t until we started looking at the electrical requirements for the new machines that everyone realized the savings would be off the charts,” he explains. “Fiber technology is growing by leaps and bounds, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”

Huge energy savings, reduced maintenance, minimal downtime and improved productivity: These are just a few of the benefits Robbins Mfg. has realized as a result of its investment in fiber lasers.

“The new machines are basically paying for themselves,” says Robbins. “We’re getting more product out the door for less money. All around it’s a big win.”

 

Robbins Mfg.’s two new fiber lasers are easy to spot – even in the company’s sprawling 250,000 sq. ft. of production space.

Business intelligence

For Mobry – and really anyone in his position – the energy savings, reduced maintenance, minimal downtime and improved productivity are game-changing benefits. He explains, however, that there’s even more to the story.

“MC Machinery has been a wonderful partner,” he says. “They don’t just sell us the machines or service the machines, they’re an asset. Part of that has to do with information that they share with us.”

As an example, Mobry describes MC Machinery’s service calls as anything but routine. “Let’s say a service guy shows up to look at a piece of equipment. You would think that he would just be interested in that particular piece of equipment, but, in fact, he looks at everything. All of the different pieces of equipment all work together. No matter the extra time it takes, they have a vested interest in our success.”

The same type of time commitment came when Robbins Mfg. was working to optimize their nesting software. Mobry says that it might have been in the laser manufacturer’s best interest to come up with their own proprietary software to sell to them. But instead, MC Machinery worked closely with Ncell, an outside maker of automation software, to find the best nests for Robbins Mfg.

“We’re so optimized now,” says Mobry, “that we can’t write a program by hand that Ncell can’t do automatically. As brilliant as the folks are at Ncell, however, our level of optimization never would have happened had MC Machinery not been so open about their equipment. It was heartwarming to me – it was giving us all of the advantages to be competitive without all of the friction and legwork.”

Being able to do accurate cost analysis was another benefit that came from the business intelligence gathered from both Ncell and MC Machinery. Having that data and being able to compile it in an organized fashion can truly give a business a leg up. Add that to the addition of the new fiber lasers and it is no surprise to hear that Robbins Mfg.’s business is booming more than it ever has in the past.

When comparing fiber and CO2 lasers, however, the deciding factor will always be the application. Therefore, it’s recommended that a business owner consult with an expert to decide if fiber or CO2 is the best fit. And if that expert is a partner as opposed to a mere vendor, the final decision could be even better.

MC Machinery

Ncell