Automation Automation

The right fit

Automation isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution due to shop floor constraints, but solutions are available for individual needs

by Kaylee Swearingen, marketing specialist, Mazak Optonics Corp.




Automation systems provide the ability to reach capacity through lights-out operation without the burden of adding manpower. They also make one-piece flow more practical while improving short-run efficiencies that reduce non value-added fabricating time. For laser operations, automation also offers increased beam on time, which increases the time that the laser is actually cutting, meaning throughput increases, as well.


“With standalone shuttle tables, the beam on time is 52 percent,” says Adam Smelewski, national sales manager at Mazak Optonics Corp. “By advancing to a load/unload system, however, the time increases to 75 percent. With a flexible manufacturing system (FMS), it grows to 92 percent beam on time.”


But automation is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The key concerns when implementing automation are floor space, ceiling height, material flow, overall cycle time, and accessibility to the machine and finished parts. These constraints can leave fabricators trapped by the restrictions of the automation system but, fortunately, solutions are available.


A conveyor enables reverse flow of parts back to the laser operator.



Optimal footprints

Typically, a laser cutter is not the first piece of machinery that goes onto the shop floor. Quite frequently, the laser, or the addition of automation, is restricted to fitting into existing floor space. This situation can vary depending on the shop’s floorplan.


A common setup involves a laser that is placed in a corner or against a wall, which requires material loading and unloading to take place in the same location. Another situation where floor space restrictions are an issue is when an automation system only has room to fit behind the pallet, laterally, instead of horizontally next to the pallet. Furthermore, the laser and automation could be next to an aisle way, leaving no room to go sideways.   


For fabricators who know these floor plan issues all too well, automation equipment is available in a variety of different shapes and sizes to fit almost any footprint.


As one example, Mazak offers its Quick Cell for corner locations or other wall constraints, which offers the ability to have the loading and unloading coming from the same side of the machine. Furthermore, Mazak’s Lateral Compact system has a more linear footprint, allowing it to fit along an aisle or in other narrow workspaces. 




Going vertical

Unfortunately, floor space isn’t the only space restriction that fabricators have to deal with. Ceiling height is another situation that could inspire fabricators to get creative with their limited space. In some instances, making the most of overhead space is critical.


Automation can have more than one purpose. At times, it’s specifically used for loading and unloading, but when a tower is in place, automation can also be used for storage or even just to get material off the floor. Being able to maximize ceiling height allows more material organization.   


“When you are trying to maximize ceiling height, Mazak’s Laser Flex solution is a good option to consider,” Smelewski explains. “It offers the most shelves per foot of ceiling space.”


The Laser Flex can also be customized according to customer needs. Customization is available for material stack height and number of shelves all with the same goal: to make the most of the available vertical space.


The Mazak OptiPlex DDL is outfitted with a Laser Flex automation system as well as a conveyor, offering operators easy material handling.



Feeling the flow

Beyond machine loading and unloading and storage, automation can also facilitate the way in which material is delivered to downstream operations. For some jobs, raw material is put into the machine and processed, then the part is taken off and shipped to the customer. But there are many cases when parts flow through the entire factory floor – from the laser then off to secondary processes, such as bending, welding or finishing.


Once the material is cut, there are a few different scenarios to accommodate for. First, a laser operator might be sorting cut parts and sending them to a secondary operation. Second, an operator could be running multiple machines where cut parts are sent to a different station for someone else to sort. Unsurprisingly, the flow of the fabrication shop can impact how the automation is formatted.


Just as needs can vary, so do solutions. A fabricator could set up automation with a reverse flow where a conveyor sends processed material back to the front of the machine. For pass-through operations, automation could come in the form of carts or conveyors that send parts to the back end or the side of the machine.




Need for speed

Another consideration is the speed of the laser. With fiber lasers speeding up the cutting process, automation should not be the bottleneck. Fiber lasers can cut anywhere from two, three and even up to 10 times faster than CO2 machines, and direct diode lasers (DDL) are cutting at even faster rates.


“Since the inception of fiber and DDL lasers, ensuring that automation can keep up has been a major concern,” Smelewski says. “Nesting times are going way down with the speed of these lasers – and even more so with how fast the power levels of fiber and DDL lasers are progressing. Having a faster automation cycle time means more beam on time for the laser. Mazak offers multiple automation solutions that are all under 60 sec.”



Uninterrupted accessibility

Being able to get finished parts off of a machine and out of the automation cell is another situation that could be a priority. Quick manual access to a completed nest means getting processed goods off to the next process sooner without disrupting the cutting process as it continues.


This is a common occurrence with job shops that receive a hot job and need to break in between automated runs. Getting material on the machine, processed and taken off as quickly as possible can be a major challenge for shops.


The solution, without slowing down the laser, is to add conveyors or carts to the automation system to get the processed parts off the machine quickly without interfering with the cutting. This is because they are outside of the automation’s safety zone so sorting through parts and skeletons can be completed while the laser and automation continue to work.



Customized conclusion 

Clearly, every fabrication facility has different needs and challenges. Understanding those different requirements is key for automation system builders.


“Listening to the concerns and knowing that each project is unique helps Mazak customize automation solutions to best fit customer needs,” explains Naoko McIntosh, automation specialist at Mazak. “The fabrication market has tremendous diversity for such a niche industry. Knowing that, Mazak takes a partnership approach to create an ideal automation system that best suits each individual scenario.”


Being able to create an automation solution that works best for the customer’s workflow will, ultimately, return the best results. Therefore, Mazak offers configuration possibilities through its extensive and customizable automation solutions. No matter the automation OEM, make sure that the system fits the requirements and is able to keep up with the pace of fiber laser cutting machines.


Mazak Optonics Corp.

Increase the pace

Laser automation: The answer to setting your cutting pace

by Robert Farrell, president, Farrell MarCom Services LLC




In addition to serving as president of Advanced Technology Sales & Service, Patrick Medlin is a manufacturing strategy consultant. He’s been featured in Shop Floor Lasers in past issues and knowing his vast experience working with fabricators and manufacturers to define and execute plans built upon the principles of lean manufacturing, we checked back in with him for his thoughts on automation.


To this end, automating laser cutting operations can significantly increase throughput and pay big dividends for fabricators of all sizes.


SFL: The word automation gets tossed around a lot these days. Let’s begin by defining exactly what is meant by automation.


Medlin: Depending on one’s perspective, automation can take a number of different forms and meanings. For some, it might be the ability to incorporate sophisticated nesting and production management software into a company’s operations. It can also mean the freedom to move away from spreadsheets to an advanced quoting system.


For our purposes, let’s focus on the automation of necessary but menial and repetitive tasks such as searching up programs and conditions, loading raw material and unloading finished parts, and other steps that are best performed by the laser itself.


Today, there’s a laser machine that fits the needs and budget for virtually every fabricator. While lasers are quickly becoming the industry workhorse, automation allows companies to better leverage laser speed and versatility to maximize that investment more fully. 




Does the type of laser matter when investing in automation?


Automation is all about maximizing the capabilities of a particular machine. For example, if you were to automate the pallet changing capabilities to a CO2 laser, you would be pretty happy with the increased throughput. Do the same for a fiber laser and you’ll see an increase of 50 percent to 300 percent beyond the automated CO2, depending on the type and thickness of materials being processed.


Simply put, fiber lasers – with their superior speed and versatility – have a greater productivity potential. But regardless of the type of laser or the volume of cutting, automating these machines, even at basic levels, can have a measurable impact on the bottom line.


Should smaller shops invest in automation?


Not all should. Many smaller shops don’t want to spend the money for automation or, more likely, cannot afford to spend the money. Others may not have room on the shop floor for automation, and still others may not yet have enough total volume of work to justify automation.


For everyone else, however, there is a simple rule of thumb to go by: If you purchased a laser machine to make money, then it needs to be automated. It’s all about maximizing the machine you have, and even a modest amount of automation will pay for itself.


Where is the ROI found with automation?


There’s a lot of hidden and not so hidden downtime associated with metal fabrication. So much so that I invite any production manager or shop owner to take a random look out on their shop floor and take note of what they see. Is that laser waiting to be loaded, to have parts removed, for the operator to come back from a break or for the next program or nest?


If that laser machine isn’t cutting, then you’re losing revenue. In this business, it’s all about beam-on time, and automation keeps that machine cutting. Therefore, automating a standalone laser even with a simple, entry-level load/unload system can increase a CO2 or fiber laser’s productivity by at least 25 percent.


Most machines are now Industry 4.0 compliant and machine monitoring is a large portion of that initiative. Monitoring machine cutting efficiency and breaking it down by day, week, month and even shift is a great way to assess your automation needs as well as your overall productivity.


But that’s just the beginning. The results are increased exponentially when a fully automated lights-out operation is implemented, leveraging automated nesting and schedule software, material storage towers and river systems for tracking and storing different material types and thickness.


In this case, high-volume fabricators have the ability for unattended overnight or weekend runs, leaving say 60,000 lbs. of cut parts stacked up for the morning shift. The fabricator can bring in temporary workers to break out parts, allowing the skilled labor to concentrate on more complex tasks.


Automation also goes a long way toward addressing every shop owner’s dilemma: finding and keeping skilled employees and achieving the largest rate of return on their efforts. Automation allows shops to reallocate human resources away from menial tasks to more productive duties, thereby increasing the total production dollars generated per employee and per operation.



Fiber laser with integrated loading and unloading



How can automation impact other areas of the business?


Leverage your resources - that’s the name of the game. Let your people and machines contribute where they will have the biggest impact. When you allow your laser to set the productivity pace, you can put your skilled labor to work on billable, value-added tasks, such as engineering, forming, welding, finishing, scheduling, production planning, marketing, process improvements, sales support and so on.


What do you mean by setting the production pace?


Machines are programmed to perform tasks. They don’t take bathroom breaks, stop for lunch or check their Facebook page. In a manually driven shop, the laser finishes the job and sits idle waiting for workers to offload cut parts, install new sheets of material and initiate the cutting process.


At any given time, there may be 5,000 lbs. to 10,000 lbs. of raw materials and finished goods on the offload cart or on pallets waiting to be taken to a secondary operation. Even the fastest worker cannot keep pace with a fiber laser. Consequently, the machine can only work as fast as the worker allows, and every minute that a laser isn’t cutting is lost revenue.


This is why automation is needed. When the machine is free to load, cut and unload at its own pace, productivity increases exponentially.


What about lower volume fabricators?


Some smaller fabricators may be intimidated by the word automation. Don’t think because you have a lower volume of parts that you’re not a candidate for automation. Many of our laser cutting customers probably average a batch size of 25 to 50 pieces per order. Even at these lower volumes, many are seeing 80 to 90 percent improvement, which is double the throughput, by automating their laser cutting.


What would you say to someone who might be contemplating automating their laser operation?


Take a minute to observe that laser out on the shop floor – the one you spent a nice chunk of change on to bring in some new business. How long does it take the operator to clear the cut parts, polish off that bottle of Mountain Dew and then begin loading material for the next job run?


If your goal is to maximize your laser investment the answer is: too long. Remember, it’s all about beam-on time, allowing the machine to set the pace and maximizing your resources.


If the bottleneck is in programming and scheduling, where the operators are waiting for the next job to be programmed, then investing in automated nesting and scheduling software is an inexpensive way to increase throughput on a standalone machine.


If a machine is sitting idle because it is waiting on raw material or waiting for finished parts to be unloaded then automating the load/unload process is what they should be looking to do. Fortunately, there is an array of inexpensive entry-level automation options to choose from.


With most laser manufacturers, you can start small and then grow the system as your business grows. In short, most of today’s automation is modular.

Heavy duty

New cutting head technology and a material handling tower facilitate heavy-gauge cutting to support customer demands

by Abbe Miller, editor-in-chief





When Jake Wieler and Pedro Dyck started Custom Quality Mfg. (CQM) in 2006 as a fabrication company, the two partners served as the owners, machine operators, sales managers and everything in between. They handled all aspects of the operation from start to finish in their 2,500-sq.-ft. facility with nothing more than a couple of welders and a press brake.


“I had been working in the metals fabricating industry for 10 years prior to opening CQM,” Wieler says. “Starting a business was something that I always wanted to do – and metal fabrication was all I really knew. So, Pedro and I did what we needed to do to run the business as well the shop floor.”




In the years since Wieler and Dyck started CQM, the Aylmer, Ontario-based business has seen exponential growth. For starters, it’s gone from just the two owners to 25 employees. It’s also grown from that handful of welders and a press brake to start-to-finish manufacturing, everything from design all the way through coating.


Located in the hub of Ontario’s industrial heartland, CQM focuses on providing exceptional products, service and support to its customers. The shop offers laser cutting, forming, blasting, welding and paint finishing services and focuses on the agriculture, automotive and general industrial industry. In addition to producing its own products – CQM manufactures box plows for applications such as snow removal. The bulk of the company’s work is custom.


The combination of the company’s growth and goals led CQM to purchase new reliable machinery, including a Mitsubishi eX-F 8-kW fiber laser equipped with the Mitsubishi Zoom cutting head in June 2016 and, later, a 12-shelf automated material handling tower.


Pedro Dyck, vice president (left), and Jake Wieler, president (right), installed their new Mitsubishi eX-F 8-kW fiber laser equipped with the Mitsubishi Zoom cutting head and a 12-shelf automated material handling tower to enhance their competitive advantage.



Diving into fiber

The company had explored fiber laser technology for the shop, but didn't feel it was a good fit for its short-run custom fabrication operation. The speed at which a fiber laser could operate appealed to CQM, but Wieler and Dyck couldn't justify the cost.


“We go from thin gauge all the way to 1 in. on any given day,” Wieler says. “Fiber is great on light-gauge material, but we do heavy gauge, as well, so up until Mitsubishi introduced the Zoom head, it just didn’t make sense for us.”


Coincidentally, as the technology of the Zoom head was being introduced, CQM’s customer base was growing at a rapid pace. This combination of events propelled Wieler and Dyck to rethink their decision on investing in fiber. So, the company purchased the eX-F machine from MC Machinery's local distributor, Fabricating Machinery Solutions. Since then, it has been full steam ahead.


Mitsubishi’s advanced fiber laser technology allows fabricators to cut high-quality thick and thin materials quickly. Equipped with the Zoom head, an all-in-one design that includes an autofocus focal range from 3.75 in. to 10 in., HPP pierce technology and collision protection, CQM’s new machine could handle its full range of work.


"We’ve been cutting a lot of 3/4-in., 5/8-in. and 1/2-in. material," Wieler says. "With the Zoom cutting head, we have a big advantage. It used to take us 15 to 20 sec. to pierce a 1-in. plate. Now we're piercing it in 2 sec. It’s valuable to note that the quality is the same if not better than with our CO2 lasers."


CQM is still running those two CO2 lasers, which it had prior to the eX-F machine, and there is plenty of work for all three machines. Higher volume runs are done on the fiber laser – in part due to the speed, but also because of the tower and automation that the company invested in. Any other odds and ends are processed on the two CO2 machines.





Automation advantages

Part of the process of investing in a high-speed laser is recognizing the potential bottlenecks that it can introduce to downstream operations that can’t keep up. Recognizing this, Wieler chose to invest in automation.


"It didn't make sense to have a standalone high-speed fiber machine like this because it would simply sit idle,” Wieler says. “With the addition of the SmartFlex Rapid Tower, we’re impressed with what we can run through our system. Before automation, we ran 60 to 70 sheets through with a 2-min. cycle time. That didn’t give us enough time to clear the tables fast enough, but we no longer have that problem.”


But that’s just part of the approach Wieler took to combat downstream issues. In addition to investing in the SmartFlex Rapid Tower, he also hired additional employees to help sort parts and keep the flow moving. And the flexibility of the tower will usher in plenty of expansion opportunities in the future.


When CQM initially installed its new fiber laser and tower, it was done with the intention of placing another fiber laser under the tower in the future. And the SmartFlex Rapid was designed for just that. Versatile and expandable, configuration options are wide. Up to 20 shelves can be added to one tower for a total of 120,000 lbs. of material capacity.


"Even as we were installing the fiber, we were keeping in mind that we would want to add a second laser under the tower so that it could feed two machines,” Wieler says. “We want to gain experience working the fiber laser and then we will discuss the decision of purchasing a second Mitsubishi fiber machine.”





Positioned for expansion

What started as a 2,500-sq.-ft. facility with a couple of welders and a press brake has grown to become a one-stop metal fabricating shop producing custom parts out of a 40,000-sq.-ft. facility.


“When it comes to heavier gauge materials, the end products vary,” Wieler says. “As an example, we have a trucking company as a customer that we do a fair amount of 1-in. work for producing heavy-duty hitches that they put on their trucks. A lot of that work is custom based.”


With the new capabilities the fiber laser brings, Wieler is hoping to expand on the industries and customers the company serves. Since bringing the fiber laser on board, that end goal is in clear sight.


“When we only had the CO2 machines, we struggled to compete with other companies in the area,” he explains. “Now, however, our cutting speeds are better and especially our pierce times. Having the ability to be more competitive on heavier gauges is what we’ve been striving for.”


The ease of use of the new fiber laser is definitely helping to ramp up the company’s competitiveness.


“There was a little bit of a learning curve getting into the fiber technology,” Wieler says. “But once you’ve dialed in the conditions, such as pierce conditions and the focus beam, you can just put the material on the machine and run with it. In the long run, it’ll be easier to run the fiber than the CO2 machines because we don’t have to worry about dealing with so many variables or losing power depending on where the optics are.”


Custom Quality Mfg.

MC Machinery Systems Inc.

Lighting it up

A lighting fixture manufacturer faces a brighter future after investing in an automated laser/punch combo system

by Kip Hanson, senior editor




Whether you’re browsing the fishing tackle aisle or picking out fruit at the corner grocery, you’re sure to appreciate a well-lit store. Chances are good that you can thank Bill Shapiro for that. He’s the owner of Los Angeles Lighting Mfg. Co., which manufactures commercial and industrial lighting fixtures for schools, office buildings, auto dealerships and just about anywhere that recessed and surface-mount LED or fluorescent lighting is needed.


Shapiro says lighting fixture manufacturing is basically like any other kind of sheet metal fabrication. His shop punches, forms, welds and assembles various light-gauge flat or pre-painted steel into several hundred or so standard products as well as an “infinite number” of others.


“We're not a job shop, but we do produce a huge variety of non-standard and custom products for our customers,” Shapiro says. “It’s tough to compete with the big boys in this market, and you certainly can’t compete with Chinese imports, so we’ve built our business on lower volume work, which requires flexible and efficient operations on the shop floor.”


Amada’s LC 2515 C1-AJ laser/punch combo machine offers a 49-tool multi-purpose turret and 2-kW fiber laser.



Ten-second parts

Like many manufacturers in California, he’ll tell you the business climate there is difficult. Wages and tax rates are high, environmental and safety regulations are stifling, and most if not all of the high-volume manufacturers have moved out of the state or out of the country because of it. Rather than leave, however, Shapiro’s response has been to automate wherever possible, mitigating at least some of the burden placed on him by the government policies he must adhere to.


The most recent example of this is LA Lighting’s investment in an LC 2515 C1 AJ punch/fiber laser combo and ASR 3015N TK material handling system from Amada America Inc. Punching and combination machine product manager Timothy Brady explains that, aside from robust fiber laser and punch capabilities, the system offers six-, eight- or even 10-shelf material storage, individual sheet or pallet loading and unloading, and advanced parts picking.


Amada’s redesigned ASR 3015N TK material handling unit has two independent arms equipped with suction cups for loading and unloading of parts and raw material.



“That’s one very powerful aspect of this new system,” he says. “Instead of the traditional, labor-intensive process where an operator must shake a micro-tabbed sheet, pick, sort and stack parts, then haul off the remaining skeleton, the ASR 3015N TK is entirely automated. The parts can be dropped into bins, sent to a conveyor, or stacked on pallets and placed back on the tower – or towers. It’s an excellent solution for just-in-time manufacturers that want to reduce labor costs and part lead times because there’s no more waiting for the entire sheet to be finished – literally, within 10 sec. after a part’s been cut, it’s available for the next process.”


The employees at LA Lighting have found that laser cut parts are easier to assemble.



Out with the old

Another differentiator is the ability to pick individual sheets of material from the tower, Brady explains. Shops can run one or two sheets of a certain type of material and then one or two sheets of a different material and so on.


“Compared to some of the older styles of automation, where you’d have to pull the entire pallet down, we can now save several minutes every time new material is needed,” he says.


Faster, more automated material handling is an advantage, but Shapiro notes the biggest benefit has come from the laser/punch combo itself.


“We’ve already sold one of our shears along with a punch press, and a handful of the other machines are either running at 50 percent or are pretty much idle,” he says. “In all, I’d say the new system is doing the work of seven machines.”


Aside from eliminating some of its legacy equipment, LA Lighting’s legacy processes are changing, as well. Parts nesting has become far more effective, and the shop is able to mix and match components for different lighting fixtures more easily.


“It allows us to better utilize the entire sheet,” Shapiro says. “And, of course, since we have the laser and punch in a single machine, there are fewer operations – it takes the sheet off the rack, punches it, laser cuts it, then drops the parts into a bin or on the shelf, ready for assembly or the press brake. It’s much easier now.”


LA Lighting has been using CNC turret machines to punch out lighting fixture parts since 1988, but this is its first laser. It’s also the company’s first fully automated material handling system. Shapiro purchased the LC 2515 C1 AJ and ASR 3015N TK in the fall of 2016. He says he kicked the tires on competing machines, but decided on Amada because of its local support and good reputation. He considered adding a second stocking tower so that he could run weekends unattended but has found that, given his workload and product mix, a single tower has been “just fine.” Looking back, there’s nothing he would have done differently. 




Figuring ROI

It’s difficult for Shapiro to put his finger on an exact return on investment figure, however. Compared to some of his previous standalone CNC machines, where “you put them on the floor and they start making money,” the combo machine with its 2-kW fiber laser, 49-station turret, multiple tapping and die lift stations, and integrated material handling is obviously a far more complex yet capable addition to the shop floor, one that’s value must be measured on less tangible factors than labor cost reduction.


“By the time you consider wages and benefits for, let’s say six people, and compare that to the overall – and significant – cost of the combo machine, it’s pretty much a break even,” he says. “But what we’ve really noticed is a great improvement in part quality and having the ability to do things we otherwise wouldn't be able to do. That was a pleasant surprise.”


Some of those things include smooth, radiused, laser cut corners (the punch leaves them sharp) and shapes that were previously impossible to cut, neatly stacked parts that are easier to handle, as well as parts that are more accurate and square, with clean edges that “assemble better, weld better and bend better.”


Another surprise was the system’s ease of use, which despite its technological complexity, wasn’t all that difficult to learn. Shapiro sent two of his 55 employees to training at Amada’s Buena Park, Calif., facility, who have since taught their coworkers how to program and operate the machine.


“We have some pretty bright people here, and they tell me the programming isn’t all that different than a regular turret punch press,” he says.


LA Lighting opted for a single tower on its punch/laser combo, but multiple shelf and tower configurations are available from Amada.



Keep it clean

That said, Shapiro does offer a few things that fall into the “lessons learned” category. He notes that proper gas and optics management are critical aspects of laser operation, especially when cutting pre-painted steel. He also suggests adhering to a strict maintenance routine, cleaning the machine even more often than is recommended by the factory.


“You have to treat it right,” Shapiro says. “It's a very sophisticated piece of equipment with a lot of sensors on it. If some of those become dirty, then the machine might stop unexpectedly. In a perfectly clean environment, I’m sure there wouldn’t be any problems, but our shop can get a little dirty at times. So we just do the maintenance a bit more often than the schedule calls for, and we haven’t had any problems.”


Smooth edges, rounded corners, and shapes that were previously impossible to cut are just a few of the advantages of the new Amada.



Another consideration is raw material quality. Wavy steel and edge burrs can cause the LC 2515 C1 AJ – or any piece of unattended machinery – to stop the cycle to avoid a crash.


“When you run lights out, the steel has to be good,” Shapiro says. “The machine will make three attempts, and if the clamps don't fit right or it can’t pick up a part, for example, it’ll stop and alert the operator that something’s wrong. Earlier this week, we ran 250 fixture housings at night without a hitch, but then last night the machine sensed a problem with the sheet and stopped. It’s not the fault of the machine. It's just that the material and the program have to be right for everything to work properly.”


Still, Shapiro’s not complaining. He’ll take the “free” night shift production whenever possible, and he enjoys the greater part quality and flexibility the LC 2515 C1 AJ has brought to his company.


“It's been exceedingly helpful,” he says. “We have fewer people on the floor. The parts are nice and clean when we take them to the press brake, and since there are fewer operations, we have less work in process. That’s a huge advantage. And it's quick. Once the machine has been programmed and the shelves loaded with material, you just push a button and the rest happens automatically. I don't get to run machines any more, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.”


Amada America Inc.

Los Angeles Lighting Mfg. Co.

Tower of power

How the biggest supplier of pharmacy merchandising display systems got even bigger with a pair of CO2 lasers and a sky-high material handling tower

by Abbe Miller, editor-in-chief




Whether you’re in need of a tube of toothpaste or a bottle of pain reliever, any corner pharmacy will have you covered – and then some. Deciding what to toss into the shopping basket often comes down to brand loyalty, but it can also depend on the price of the product or its ingredients. There’s a lot to consider before tossing that product into the shopping basket. 


Beyond price and other subjective factors, a planogram might also influence what a consumer chooses to buy. For anyone not immersed in the world of retail sales, a planogram is a diagram of shelf space that indicates where retailers will place a product to maximize sales. Because the allocation of space is sales-data driven, the arrangement of products can be subject to change as seasons come and go, as an assortment mix is updated, and as higher or lower product sales dictate. To say the least, a retail outlet, like the corner pharmacy, is constantly moving products around to increase sales.


To adhere to the planogram strategy, the shelving components themselves take a bit of a beating. When the product arrangement has to change, often the arrangement of the shelves must change with it. Therefore, the shelves need to be easy to move and sturdy. Boasting these characteristics, the Uniweb shelving solution has seen widespread adoption from retail giants like Costco, Albertsons Safeway and CVS.


The Uniweb slat wall, constructed of 24-gauge cold-rolled steel, features long, horizontal channels or lips that accommodate the various accessories that will be affixed to a wall, such as shelving, gondolas, displays and hooks.



Ideas come to life

Uniweb Inc. opened its doors in 1970 after its founder, Karl Weber, came up with the revolutionary shelving solution, which became the company’s mainstay product: the Uniweb slat wall. Like many great ideas, Weber’s slat wall started as nothing more than a sketch on a paper napkin. After turning his sketch into a tangible product, additional products, like the shelves and cabinets that lock into the slat wall system were also developed. 


The slat wall, which is constructed of 24-gauge cold-rolled steel, serves as the backbone for a pharmacy’s and retailers’ ever-changing merchandising display needs. It’s best described as a display panel with long, horizontal channels or lips that accommodates the various accessories that will be affixed to a wall, such as shelving, gondolas, displays and hooks. Because the channels are only 1-in. apart, shelving can be placed as needed, no matter the height of the products.


Prior to the Uniweb invention, retailers used pegged or press-board type walls where they would attach hooks to hang their products. This, however, wasn’t sufficient. Products didn’t always hang securely and the press-board walls were prone to deterioration. Using steel inherently solved some of those issues. 


Starting with cold-rolled steel, Uniweb roll forms material down to 6-in. strips through a unique roll former developed specifically for the slat wall design. In addition to producing the slat walls, Uniweb also produces more than 17,000 part numbers and custom work, fabricating accessories like the cabinets and shelving. On average, the company processes more than 7 million lbs. of steel coil annually to produce the walls and flat sheet stock to produce the accessories.


To fabricate the flat sheet stock, Uniweb relies on two Bystronic laser cutters and a stories-tall material handling system – the largest Bystronic material handling installation in North America.



To produce its slat wall product as well as the accessories that go along with it, the company processes more than 7 million lbs. of steel coil annually.



Sky-high productivity

In the midst of Uniweb’s sprawling 186,000-sq.-ft. facility, the 48-shelf ByCell material handling tower nearly touches the ceiling. It’s flanked by two BySpeed 3015 4.4-kW CO2 lasers, which are typically cutting 24-gauge up to 1/2-in. mild steel sheet to process into the various accessories that integrate into the slat wall systems. Uniweb introduced its first laser in 2010, followed by the second laser in late 2012 and the tower a few months later in 2013.


Both of Uniweb’s laser cutters are directly connected to the tower through Bystronic’s Extended system, enabling communication to and from the equipment. With its 48 shelves, the ByCell is able to store massive amounts of raw material as well as cut parts. Because of the sophisticated connection between each laser and the tower, cut parts can be stored in the tower or immediately moved to secondary processes, like bending, welding and powder coating.


Before introducing the ByCell, Uniweb’s beam on-time efficiency was phenomenal compared to most, but lights-out laser cutting wasn’t a possibility. Since 2013, however, the sophistication of the equipment’s monitoring system has allowed for lights-out production in a way that allows the team at Uniweb to relax at home, knowing that the lasers are continually working without issues.


“It's allowed us that luxury of running overnight without having a single human being on-site,” says Brian Skvarca, vice president of manufacturing at Uniweb. “With the automation, we can maintain a lot of steel in our storage tower so we can have it readily available to turn things around quickly. From the time an order’s put on the floor, it's often cut and bent within two days.”


To date, Uniweb’s longest cut run time was 72 hours for both laser cutters non-stop. And that was with only one operator overseeing the lasers during his eight-hour shifts in addition to running unmanned throughout the night. Each morning during that three-day nonstop run, staff would come in to find the lasers still plugging away.


Before the introductions of the two laser cutters and material handling tower, operations at Uniweb were vastly different. Thanks to the lasers, Uniweb was able to produce products from start to finish in-house. And thanks to the ByCell, Uniweb was able to place an even greater commitment on inventory control.


“We inventory a vast variety of gauge material and because we have the ability to store it and have access to it immediately, unlike anyone else, we can just push a button and we have it on the laser,” says Skvarca. He continues saying that the first laser cutter itself was a game-changer, with its “biggest selling point of being able to bring more production in-house.”   



A 48-shelf ByCell material handling tower from Bystronic was installed in 2013 at Uniweb’s 186,000-sq.-ft. facility.



Full control 

“Everything was outsourced from China back then, and, therefore, it was very limited in terms of design,” Skvarca explains. “When we used to buy from China, you could get any color you wanted, as long as it was white. Lead times were also difficult, meaning we were looking at two or three months to get a large order. Another bonus is that now we’re also able to better manage quality control.”


The laser also inspired Uniweb to re-engineer its products, giving the company full control of product design and order turnover. These changes eventually ushered in a new type of relationship with the vendor that Uniweb had relied on in the past.


“After we increased our production capabilities with the lasers, we started supplying our previous vendor in China with all of its U.S. supply cabinets,” Skvarca says. “It was an interesting role reversal.”


Since then, Uniweb has continually added more technology to its manufacturing scope. Over the years, the face of manufacturing at Uniweb has totally changed.


“The most impressive part for people who are re-engaging with Uniweb is gaining a different perspective once they tour our facility,” he says. “The initial thought is that Uniweb is just a family-owned, small manufacturing company. So, what can they really do? Then when they see what we have now, that we’re running out of a massive facility, doing everything from laser cutting, roll forming and powder coating all the way through specialty packaging, their perspective changes dramatically.”


Skvarca says much of the change within the company comes down to the acquisition of the laser cutters.


“We would not be where we are today, in my opinion, without the lasers,” he says. “The decision to invest in laser technology inspired more change within the company. With their introduction, the manufacturing of the product dramatically changed and, therefore, the overall business changed.”



In addition to Uniweb’s slat wall product, the company also produces more than 17,000 part numbers and custom work, such as cabinets and shelving.



Room to move

Like the pharmacies and other retailers that rely on the slat wall solution, Uniweb also needs to have flexibility in its facility. To accommodate shifts in production, its equipment also needs to move. 


There are a few pieces of equipment that aren’t going to move, however. And the lasers are the best example of that. Everything else is soft plumbed so other than the key equipment, everything can be unplugged, unbolted and moved.


“We developed a unique system in the shop where we move a lot of equipment on a frequent basis,” says Skvarca. “We adapt to the different product lines that we do, so we’ll move quite a bit of machinery every couple years. The layout and, therefore, the overall dynamic of the shop will change.”


Uniweb prides itself on its ability to fill orders quickly and therefore, to be known as a just-in-time provider.


“When you look at the big picture of a manufacturing process and you talk about a big roll out with a customer, the ability to react quickly has put us ahead of the competition,” says Cindy Davidson, president at Uniweb. “A lot of it is due to the way that we’ve integrated the lasers, the system that feeds them, and the off-loading and additional processes we’ve put in place as a result of the lasers.”


Davidson also says that Uniweb’s operation philosophies in the front office have evolved since adopting the lasers and tower. The more modern the equipment and its controls are, the easier it is for the operators to make decisions in real time on the manufacturing floor.


“Those decisions can start on the floor now instead of in the office environment,” she says. “We’ve empowered the individuals on the floor to do that, which has paid off greatly, particularly with reducing scrap. The utilization of material is one of the largest paybacks that you really don’t factor in because you’re pricing the material as if you don’t have the storage capacity that we do with the ByCell.”


Skvarca builds on that concept saying, “There are a lot of ways to come up with new ideas, but we always like working around people with ideas. If someone on the shop floor has a great idea, we collaborate with them and make that idea work.”


Bystronic Inc.

Uniweb Inc.

Beyond automation

When automation and Industry 4.0 unite, manufacturers gain competitiveness while opening the door to even greater possibilities

by Tobias Reuther, manager automation group, Trumpf Inc.




The fabrication industry is facing increasing cost pressure, especially with labor costs and difficulties in finding qualified personnel. On top of that, ergonomic factors are playing an increasingly important role in today’s manufacturing environment. To remain competitive, automation has become a necessity.


Automation solutions ensure lean direct processes, but beyond the physical automation systems and devices – and maybe even more importantly – there are additional leverages to boost productivity and avoid waste in today’s indirect processes. These technologies provide for smart connections and real-time, touchless information exchanges between systems. Creating a bigger picture of the manufacturing environment, they also open the door to new possibilities.


It’s important for manufacturers to be able to invest in automation in phases, such as purchasing a machine in phase one and adding loading and unloading capabilities in phase two.



Lean direct processes

The ultimate goal with automation systems is to maximize uptime. Money is earned by adding value and that is only achieved when the laser beam is on, the punch head is in contact with the sheet or the press brake is completing a bend. Automation increases the productive time of the machine and subsequently, fabricators increase their capacity while reducing the hourly cost of machine processing.


When the fixed costs (i.e., the machine investment, reflected in depreciation) can be distributed across a larger number of hours or parts, manufacturers also gain the freedom to be more competitive in pricing or to increase their margins. In many cases, having the right setup of machines and automation can even significantly reduce the number of overall machines required to achieve the same or even higher output. This is a common goal for people with commercial and technical responsibilities and can be achieved, for example, by suddenly running 24/7 production instead of two shifts on weekdays with only unattended overnight runs.


A second major goal of automation is to increase flexibility. The trend of smaller batch sizes has made this more challenging. Machines need to process a larger variety of parts in a given period of time – and often a wider range of material types, as well. Maintaining stock is not ideal as it negatively impacts the work in progress. It also increases capital lockup and the risk that those finished parts never sell.


Achieving higher flexibility means dealing with high variety and low volumes. Quick changes on the parts end require quick changes on the raw material end – and this is the ideal situation for automation and storage systems. The fewer the manual interactions with the part, the easier it becomes to achieve low costs per part.


While the machine is producing job A, the automation prepares the material for job B. It also stores unused raw material from job A, thereby increasing machine uptime and productivity. While a storage system does not add value directly to the parts, it enables fabricators to stack material vertically, save valuable floor space and efficiently organize inventory. With the right solution, it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate forklifts.


A lean approach aims to keep stock levels to a minimum while immediate access to common raw materials enables quick reaction to the demands of the market. This can be important as quick delivery is often a decisive factor for gaining new business. Making decisions with flexibility in mind is the best way to position a shop for future needs and expansion.


Manufacturers can customize their automation setups based on variety of process characteristics, such as material flow, production volumes, material types, batch sizes and more.



Automation concepts and philosophies
Automation concepts for sheet metal cutting vary based mainly on material flow, process chain, production volume, shift-models, material types, part geometries, part size, and thickness and batch sizes. Concepts that address these factors and enable flexible sheet metal production fall into the following categories:

  • Loading and unloading of a single machine: The device loads a single machine from a stack of raw material and unloads the finished sheets into a separate stack.
  • Small to medium autonomous cells: One or two machines are connected to automated devices for loading, unloading and potentially sorting. A storage tower unit supplies the machines with raw material and can later be used to store cut sheets. The system functions as an autonomous production cell.
  • Large raw material storage units: Machines are connected to a large storage system that supplies each machine with raw material. The material flows only in one direction – from the storage unit to the machine to additional processes. Typically, this concept is highly efficient if the storage unit is installed close to a wall and if the machines are connected to one side of the unit.
  • Logistic centers: Machines are connected to a large storage system that handles raw material and semi-finished goods automatically between various processing steps. The storage unit serves as a logistic system and is usually located in the center of the production. Machines are typically connected to both sides, allowing for material flow in various directions, and a buffer function for production purposes is also possible. The key to this structure is overall process control and monitoring.


Whether an autonomous cell or a logistic center, the variety of ways in which a laser can be automated are shown in the examples above.


Combinations of these arrangements are possible and make financial sense depending on a company’s structure. With an understanding of what is available, remember also that the best automation equipment is modular and allows a fabricator to invest in phases. A machine can be purchased and installed in phase one while automation for loading and unloading can be added in a second phase.


Because this automation is typically priced to start at about 30 percent of the machine cost, a relatively low investment can have a big impact. A storage tower can be implemented later. Although the strategy might change, it’s wise to have a final system in mind and to plan for it from the beginning. This minimizes unnecessary and often costly changes to the shop floor foundation, machines and their placement within a facility.



Lean indirect processes

When manufacturers look thoroughly into their order processing chain, they are often surprised by how many steps and touches it takes to process even a single order. The typical process chain always looks simple at first, but consider how much time it takes just to turn a customer inquiry into an order confirmation – and then think how much time it takes to take an order confirmation through the process of programming the parts, assigning machines and distributing the necessary information along the shop floor.


When evaluated in detail, fabricators often find that the indirect processes take more time than the direct processes on the shop floor. In fact, a recent study in the sheet metal industry indicated that the time ratio between direct and indirect processes is often 40:60 – so, more indirect processing time is required than direct.


This imbalance may not have a huge impact with large orders and larger batch sizes, but because the time required to answer the phone, quote the job, confirm the order and program a single part is not much different whether the customer requires 10 or 1,000 parts, small batch sizes can quickly become costly to manufacture. Simply stated, indirect processes are not easily scalable with part quantity. The leverage for improvements on the indirect processing is huge – and early adopters will be the ones that remain competitive. Others will need to follow if they, too, want to be competitive.



Preparing a smart factory

The manufacturing industry is strongly pushing toward Industry 4.0. As the smart factory approaches, machines and systems will communicate, exchange relevant information and optimize this network automatically. Machines already have Wi-Fi connections to link with software systems and various devices that ensure higher uptimes and eliminate time wasted by complex processes. The key is to have the relevant information available where it is required, and without delays.


Industry 4.0 goes beyond the vertical chain within a single factory – and even beyond optimizing a network of plants. If the steel supplier automatically knows a minimum stock level of a certain standard material has been reached or will be reached in two days, or the shipping service immediately is alerted when an order is ready for pickup, significant time is saved. Axoom, an independent business platform, was founded with the goal of facilitating easy horizontal connections between industries and services to avoid waste.



Automation and Industry 4.0 come together with the goal of facilitating easy horizontal connections between industries and services to avoid waste.



TruConnect from Trumpf is one example of how the smart factory is taking shape. A variety and combination of software and hardware solutions create transparency on all processes, job scheduling and production as it automatically occurs. It considers a larger amount of factors and focuses on the core competency of manufacturers: processing orders and parts efficiently. In addition, familiar processes, such as single part identification, which is already a big topic in the industry from tracking production parts to long-term part identification, will become even more important in the future.


Single part identification – tracking production parts and long-term part identification – is becoming an important aspect of achieving Industry 4.0.



Creating awareness of the current situation is always a first step. Identify where inefficiencies are hiding and just how big they are. This will provide a good indication of where to start.


Solutions vary from taking the low-hanging fruit with a simple change in the programming system to going the whole nine yards by reorganizing and connecting all manufacturing processes to one system. It can be beneficial to phase in the measures over time, however, as new and exciting solutions are released every month. Ultimately, having the right partner to help sort through them all and make smart choices will be key.


Trumpf Inc.

Electric efficiency

Improved technology positions electric motors as a smart choice over hydraulic systems for material handling

by Jimmy Myers, senior editor



For decades, hydraulic systems have been a major part of the manufacturing process. The theory behind hydraulic power dates all the way back to the 1600s when physicist and mathematician Blaise Pascal laid the groundwork with Pascal’s Law, which established a principle in fluid mechanics that pressure exerted anywhere in a confined incompressible fluid is transmitted equally in all directions throughout the fluid such that the pressure variations (initial differences) remain the same. That principle eventually led to Joseph Bramah patenting the first hydraulic press in 1795.

It would be another 40 years before a functioning electric motor was invented and another 100-plus years before manufacturers began considering replacing hydraulic systems with electric motors.

Despite all the advancements in electric motors, there are still some jobs that only hydraulic systems can manage. However, it’s becoming clear to those working in the average job shop that electric motors provide clear-cut advantages over hydraulics.



The weight of hydraulics

Consider everything that goes into a modern hydraulic system used in manufacturing today: pumps, control valves, pressure relief valves and regulators, fuses, actuators, brakes, reservoirs, accumulators, fluid, filters, tubes, hoses, pipes, and the seals and fittings that keep everything contained. These are all parts and consumables that need to be replaced, repaired and maintained on a regular basis.

Given all these components, hydraulic equipment is often quite heavy, requiring more than one mechanic to perform maintenance on the equipment at any given time. These weight considerations also impact the amount of materials a manufacturer can load onto a workstation. Floor space is also a consideration when using hydraulic systems.


Some of the most common mistakes made regarding hydraulic maintenance include changing oil and filters. Oil degrades and depletes over time, and the many variables that affect the rate at which this happens further complicate the issue. This makes it difficult to determine when a change is required. A thorough analysis of the oil is often the only way to determine when it should be replaced. To compound the situation, oil prices fluctuate, as well.


Similarly, filters also pose a maintenance issue. Changing them too early means overspending on consumables, but getting to them too late could mean compromising the integrity of nearly every component in the hydraulic system.


An overheating engine is often the telltale sign that the equipment operator needs to shut down and take stock of the situation, yet running too hot is a commonly overlooked issue where hydraulic systems are concerned. Furthermore, using oil with the wrong viscosity index can also pose a major threat to the integrity of the hydraulic system.


Finally, ignoring proper initial startup procedures can lead to damaged components because hydraulic components are not self-priming nor self-lubricating, a fact of which some operators are unaware.



Introducing electric motors

While the use of electric motors in manufacturing and material handling isn’t new, advancements in the power generated from motors is making them a stronger competitor against hydraulic systems.


Off-highway equipment was an early adopter of electric actuators, replacing the pumps, valves and hoses typical of hydraulic systems, helping to keep the off-highway equipment lighter, quieter and smaller.


JT Messer, a former mechanic, engineer and current regional sales manager for JMT USA, has a mechanical background with experience servicing a number of different laser-based machines. He’s also familiar with hydraulic systems having been a heavy equipment mechanic for the railroad. His company is currently prototyping a new material handling system that uses electric motors instead of hydraulics.


While servicing machinery as a mechanic, Messer saw filters that owners neglected to change for two or three years when they were supposed to be switched out every six months to a year, maximum. He says JMT is always looking at where the biggest mistakes occur, and as experience tells him, it’s almost always the end user. Misuse of hydraulic systems means money is being “thrown away” as repairs and maintenance are very costly.


JMT USA’s material handling system has two tables powered by electric motors that alternately transfer material in and out of the laser machine.



“We went back and said ‘how can we eliminate this issue and how can we save money doing it?’” Messer says of JMT’s focus on electric motors for handling materials. “You cut back on the maintenance cost by up to 90 percent because you don’t have to worry about O-rings leaking, changing the oil, changing the filter or anything. All you’re doing is changing two electric wires and that’s it.”


Prototype of JMT USA’s material handling system powered by electric motors instead of hydraulic systems. The new system supports more material per square foot than previous models.



Electric cuts weight

Messer says a big concern for manufacturers is weight per square foot regarding equipment on the shop floor. For instance, for every hydraulic system on the floor, there are hoses, bulky cylinders and other equipment to take into account. When an electric motor is brought in, the hoses, cylinders and associated heavy equipment are switched out for simple wiring, which “gives the user bigger sheet count capability,” meaning, they trade the weight they would normally have in hydraulic systems for more materials to run through their machines, whether it's a press brake, welder or laser workstation.


Weight is also an issue when it comes to performing maintenance. Messer says it’s not unusual for a hydraulic maintenance job to require two mechanics due to the sheer weight of the equipment. An electric system requires little to no maintenance, and when it does, the parts are light (aside from the actual motor).


“We’re cutting weights of cylinders and motors by half,” Messer says of electric loading and unloading systems compared to hydraulic systems, which have at minimum two housing components and typically four or more. “I remember changing hydraulic cylinders and it taking two people to lift it, whereas with electric actuators, it typically takes one person.”



Less operations cost

Hydraulic systems, especially ones built in the 1990s and earlier, have motors that are constantly running to supply pressure to the hydraulic system. Accumulators are also used to assist with the excess pressure. They, however, use and consume power constantly. Newer hydraulic systems, Messer says, use a smart motor that helps to cut the amount of power being used, but they still use more power than electric motors.


“If electric motors aren’t in use,” Messer explains, “they’re completely off. They can be started and up and running at full power in nanoseconds.”


One of the biggest selling points for any type of machine, whether you’re talking fiber lasers over CO2 lasers or the electric press brake over the hydraulic press brake, is maintenance, Messer says. Oil, filters – all the consumables that make a hydraulic piece of equipment run – cost money. None of that exists in electric motor machinery, aside from a few wires or the lubrication for the moving surface parts of the equipment.


“You’re just making sure your motor pulleys and chains are lubricated,” he explains of maintaining electric motors. “That’s about it.”


Asked if hydraulic systems will ever fade away, Messer answers that the day will probably never come. For instance, electric motors can’t handle heavy material needs, like working with 6-in. steel plates – that’s material electric motors currently can’t touch.


“Quarter inch, 1/2-in. and 1-in. steel plates,” Messer says, “we have no problem with. It’s just those heavier capacities … it’s not cost effective because you would be overloading motors and consuming too much power to move that kind of metal.



JMT prototype

JMT is currently calling its new all-electric motor material handling system the “electric actuation system.” It will have a trademarked name when it hits the market in the United States, but many of the specs are currently being held close to the chest as the prototype is developed in Turkey. It debuts this summer at a trade show in Europe and will make its way to JMT’s facility in Utah for demonstration later this year.

Messer says everybody in manufacturing rides the same wave when it comes to innovation, which includes investing more time and energy in electric motors for material handling systems. JMT, however, is doing things a little different.


“Most manufacturers are still using the hydraulic lift system on their table change,” he says. “We’re an all-electric table change – it’s a standard feature, not an upgrade.”



Blended Business Values

When cutting-edge equipment is in sight, Midland Metal Products takes a conservative investment approach

by Abbe Miller, editor-in-chief


Two lasers from Cincinnati Inc., a CO2 707 for 5-ft.-by-10-ft. dual pallets and a CO2 840 also for 5-ft.-by-10-ft. dual pallets, process a variety of sheet metal for Midland Metal Products, located in Chicago.



With more than 90 years of successful operation under its belt, it’s easy to say that Midland Metal Products is doing something right. Ask owner and facility director B.J. McDonald what the underlying driver is behind nearly a century of doing business, and he’ll tell you it has to do with the company’s traditional values. But in that same breath, he’ll also attribute the company’s long run to how it embraces technology.


“When we decided that we needed to get into laser technology, our expectations were high,” he says when describing the company’s two lasers from Cincinnati Inc., a CO2 707 for 5-ft.-by-10-ft. dual pallets and a CO2 840 also for 5-ft.-by-10-ft. dual pallets. “The lasers were acquired almost 10 years ago, and they’re still running beautifully. However, we are absolutely planning the purchase of fiber lasers from Cincinnati. Because of the increased speed of a fiber laser, these investments will almost double our current capabilities.”


Although Midland Metal Products has come a long way since first opening its doors, the company still embraces a traditional approach to the capital expenditures required for its impressive mix of equipment. In addition to its two lasers, it has two turret punches, 20 press brakes, 38 resistance welding stations, two CNC 3-D wire bending cells, 16 MIG welding cells, two robotic MIG/TIG welding cells, two 5-axis tube lasers, four CNC tube bending and rolling cells, and a fully automated powder coating spray booth.


“When we first considered buying a laser, I was faced with the challenge of improving the ROI,” McDonald recalls. “We’re debt adverse here. We pay cash for every machine tool and don’t borrow anything, so the ROI was really important.”


So in addition to justifying the purchase, he also had to promise an aggressive ROI. His family was counting on him. McDonald represents the fourth generation of the private family-owned business, which was founded by his great grandfather.


“There are four family members as owners,” he explains, “my mother in financial, my dad and brother in sales, and I run the facility and operations. The cool thing is that all four of us have different skill sets that complement each other’s, so we each occupy different parts of the company. We trust that the other person is doing what’s best – it’s a really harmonious working environment.”


Being responsible for the facility and the overall operations of the organization, McDonald had to answer the question of how a new laser machine could be paid back in two to three years.


“I had a hard time proving that a standalone machine could do it in short order, so it was quickly determined that the laser had to run 24 hours a day,” he explains. “So how are you going to that? You’d have to add people and management to shifts that you didn’t have before. It made more business sense to spend more for a material handling system that could shorten the payback of the laser.


“When we bought the material handling system, we only had one laser, but we designed it so it would be big enough to one day accommodate a second laser,” he continues. “People wondered why the system occupied such a large footprint, but it made sense when the second laser arrived. When all was said and done, the investment paid for itself in under three years.” 



In addition to its two Cincinnati lasers, Midland Metal Products has a wide range of equipment, including 20 press brakes.



Inner workings


Located in a 110,000-sq.-ft. facility in working-class Bridgeport on Chicago’s South Side, the company primarily serves the POP, or point-of-purchase, advertising display market. It’s a custom job shop that handles medium- to high-volume custom store display fixtures.


The company is fully capable in sheet metal, tube and wire, which gives Midland Metal Products a competitive edge in the marketplace. Thanks to its sophisticated collection of equipment, the company can handle all of the main types of material – even wood. The company also provides assembly for its customers as well as powder coating, making it a full-service custom job shop.


“The ad agencies tend to revolve around the Chicago and New York markets,” McDonald says about the company’s customers. “Working with those firms means that we’re also doing business indirectly for all sorts of bigger companies, like Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Walmart and Dollar General. We also have big customers in Atlanta and on the West Coast, so we go far beyond the Chicago area.”


Based on tonnage, McDonald says that 90 to 95 percent of the material it processes is commercial-quality cold-rolled steel or mild steel. The other 5 to 10 percent is a mix of brushed aluminum for signage as well as stainless steel.


In terms of making the most of its laser technology, Midland Metal Products currently uses shop air for cutting – an incredibly cost-effective way to run a laser machine. The company uses it exclusively for up to 12-gauge material.



How to handle automation


The large automation system McDonald referred to is Cincinnati’s Modular Material Handling System, or the MMHS, coupled with a material storage tower. As the predecessor to the current Cincinnati version, the MMHS-100, the MMHS is a flexible and expandable system. It can handle sheet from 20 gauge up to 1/2 in. thick for sheets that measure 5 ft. by 10 ft. and 6 ft. by 12 ft.


As McDonald mentioned, the goal for bringing in the system was to improve the ROI of the new laser as well as increase overall shop capacity. According to Cincinnati, automation does that and more. Automation, such as the type at Midland Metal Products, can also reduce operating costs and increase safety. Cincinnati has various options available that can speed up the time for loading material, including an additional model that also sorts cut parts.



Midland Metal Products primarily serves the POP, or point-of-purchase, advertising display market, creating medium- to high-volume custom store display fixtures.



“The ideal customer for this model, the SortMMHS, is one that wants to reduce labor costs, improve throughput, and minimize handling of raw material and finished parts,” says Mike Otten, product specialist at Cincinnati. “The type of customer that may benefit most is one who processes a steady diet of the same parts and can benefit by optimizing the sequencing and speed of sorting. However, the system is flexible to allow small contract manufacturers to quickly program the system for small lot size runs.”


Otten notes that with the ability to simultaneously pick up multiple parts, the system improves productivity by removing and sorting parts faster than doing so manually. He says that productivity is further enhanced when the cycle time of a nest is relatively fast. 


“In situations where more than one person is required to remove parts from the laser, the SortMMHS has the capacity to lift heavy parts,” he explains. “This eliminates situations where personnel are removed from their primary duty, further reducing the overall productivity and throughput. The system’s software has the logic to place parts on different, pre-determined pallets. This reduces and even eliminates human error in sorting parts that could otherwise affect productivity of the cell.”


With the material handling systems – no matter the variety – operator involvement is minimal. Otten says one requirement for operators is to populate the control of the material warehouse with information about material type, sheet size and quantity pertaining to each raw material drawer. However, the introduction of automation doesn’t mean that operators aren’t needed. Midland Metal Products new automated powder coating station is a good example of that.


“When we added automation to our powder coating capabilities, the guys in the spray booth were thinking – and this is human nature – there goes my job,” McDonald says. “And this is true with the lasers. We improved our ability to make flat parts, and that drove us to expand our press brake capabilities. So we needed more operators.”


McDonald is incredibly proud of the team at Midland Metal Products and stresses that everyone is a part of that team for a reason.


“Labor reduction from the automation wasn’t the goal with the material handling equipment,” he continues. “If people are single-dimensional about material handling – weighing equipment costs to labor costs – they’re going about it the wrong way. That’s not how you prove the investment. It’s all about increasing your machine on-time.”



Midland Metal Products currently has two Cincinnati Inc. CO2 lasers on its shop floor with plans of a fiber laser investment on the horizon. 


Bringing investments together


When it comes to bringing new technologies in house, McDonald doesn’t look at a piece of equipment as a standalone investment. He sees every aspect of the company’s operations as part of an overall system. This viewpoint helped drive the adoption of another Cincinnati product, its CI Scheduler.


The Scheduler software package does what one might expect. It schedules and nests parts on one or more lasers, similar to an MRP system. It is, therefore, the perfect complement to the Modular Material Handling System that Midland Metal Products is leveraging. But, it also works well with lasers not integrated with automation. When coupled with the MMHS, the CI Scheduler receives job completion information from the system and shares that information to automatically track material inventory.


“I’m focused on the systems integrations aspect of how they all work in tandem,” McDonald says. As an example, he mentions that the company wasn’t content with nesting software on its own. “We felt that the nesting software would only work if there was a robust ERP or MRP-style scheduling software that would look at the buckets we were filling. There needed to be something that would help us schedule those parts.”


Cincinnati Inc.’s Modular Material Handling System, or MMHS-100, similar to the one residing at Midland Metal Products, is flexible and expandable and can be integrated into one or more Cincinnati laser systems.



He uses the analogy of the laser system as an airport and the parts coming in and out as airplanes. The software, therefore, would be the air traffic controller. “Without a doubt, the biggest impact for going into laser operations, and especially with a material handling system, is short lead times.”


So not only did the company achieve its aggressive goals for ROI as well as shorter leads times, it also eliminated 30 to 40 OBI punch presses with its two lasers. Essentially, Midland Metal Products’ outcome paints the ideal picture of what happens when traditional business values and cutting-edge technology come together.


Cincinnati Inc.

Midland Metal Products    

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