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Laser Maintenance – Should You Mix and Match

I always tell customers that once you purchase a laser, a couple things will happen very quickly.

First, you’ll forget how you processed parts in the past. Once you get comfortable with your new laser, you’ll find that programming and setting-up to process parts are so easy that you’ll quickly start moving all your parts through the laser. It will eliminate lead-in times for purchasing tooling and speed up prototyping.

Then the second phase occurs. You start scheduling more work on the machine and quickly run out of capacity, or your delivery dates begin to stretch out. Because setup and processing are so easy, you’ll have eliminated the old way or older machines that you used in the past to manufacture parts.

A second new laser

Your next step is to get a second laser. But now you need to ask yourself a few very important questions that will affect the future direction of your business. Do you purchase the same type of laser from the manufacturer, or do you mix and match lasers and purchase from another one? At this point you could be thinking about whether your first machine has been reliable and if the manufacturer has been responsive to your needs and service requirements. We can really argue the case for both scenarios of remaining brand-loyal or mixing and matching manufacturers. The choice really relies in your own answers to the questions below.

Brand loyalty arguments:
Setting up your first laser required software to program your parts to process on the CNC laser. Usually, you purchase the manufacturer’s software for the laser, and it only runs their machines. If you purchase a second laser from the same manufacturer, you won’t have to purchase new software and have a second software package to learn and support. (Editor’s note: You can purchase third-party software to avoid this problem and use it for multiple machines when you buy a new or used laser or add another machine.)

Every year, manufacturers update their software, and you pay a maintenance fee to stay current with it. Two different software packages will double the renewal costs every year. Furthermore, you’ll have to spend time training for both software packages again, adding to your expenses.

Scheduling for two different machines might prove challenging. You need to plan ahead starting with the quoted part. You’ll have to decide which machine will get the part processed more efficiently.

Also, different machines will have different profit capabilities based on cycle times and associated costs.

If production gets interrupted by having a machine break down or become back logged, then reprogramming parts will occur, causing more labor and time to move parts off one machine and onto another.

Your first machine required training time for your operators and maintenance personnel. Then there was the dreaded learning curve as personnel learned the most effective methods to maximize production.

Everyone stocks basic consumables for their machines such as cutting lenses and cutting tips. Purchasing the same brand will reduce the amount of consumables required for inventory.

The same holds true for spare parts. The same machine will reduce redundant parts you need to store, and we know that laser parts aren’t inexpensive.

With your first machine, you really started to build a relationship with the manufacturer, learning what support you can expect after the sale. Maintenance personnel finally got comfortable with prints and dealing with the manufacturer’s technicians.

Your salesmen will develop a relationship with office personnel, because they also know that once you get a laser, chances are very good that you will purchase more equipment in the future.

Selling a laser to a customer the first time is the hardest sell for a salesperson. Service and factory response will generally sell the second machine.

Depending on how much forethought was placed on the first machine, you might have a material handling system that will support more than one laser. Changing brands might take away this flexibility.

Ultimately by purchasing the same brand, you normally just double production capabilities.

Mix and Match argument:

The choices are exciting if you mix and match lasers. You have the opportunity to look at your business and decide if you want to add different laser capabilities that perhaps your first machine doesn’t have.

Maybe your second machine will have a faster drive system to reduce part-cycle time. Or you could add more wattage and expand the type of materials or thicknesses processed. You might want to target a particular industry that you can’t serve with your current equipment.

Each manufacturer has pros and cons for their machines. When the company decided to build a machine, they made choices based on their marketing plan to maximize sales. An example of this scenario would be a manufacturer who chooses linear drives for greater accuracy at higher cutting speeds.

Normally, because of their speed, linear drives are associated with thin-sheet-metal parts. Linear drives do have an advantage on thicker materials, but the return on investment is greatly reduced, because a ball screw or rack-and-pinion drive system is cheaper to build, is adequate for productive part cutting and will lower the machine’s price.

Higher powered lasers have an advantage on very thin material and are excellent when material thickness capacity needs to expand. However, this will add cost to the overall price of a new laser. Also, for a buyer it will add an extra charge per hour to maintain a higher-powered laser versus a lower-powered one.

Compared to lower wattage machines, the optics for higher-power lasers will not hold up as long. Electrical requirements are higher, too, and, in general, higher wattage does not add a linear increase in per-hour costs. They could be more exponential.

By offering versatility, a new laser will often give a job shop a competitive advantage. It could now offer its customers a complete processing package.

Ultimately, by pursuing this option, the skill level in the plant will need to increase, as operators need to learn a second machine. If labor turnover is a problem, it will add ongoing training costs. However, if you run a job shop, more training could have a positive effect on your business capabilities. It could help your operators run the laser(s) efficiently.

So when comparing lasers, look at which machine will give you the advantage you need to stay competitive in your market. Also, some manufacturers might offer a discounted price to get their foot in your door.