Lighting it up
- Category: Automation
- Created: 2017-10-03
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.
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.
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.”