Shining a light on the advantages of laser tube cutting
If you need metal tubing finished with a variety of shapes and openings, laser tube cutting is an order of magnitude more efficient than other manufacturing processes. During the last eight years, it has been a game-changer for Sanborn Tube & Fab and its customers.
Laser tube cutters don’t simply cut tubes to a pre-set length. They can cut holes and create detailed patterns more precisely and exponentially faster than previous machines and methods.
“It’s a big part of our business here at Sanborn – and it’s continuing to grow,” explains Chad Schultz, Vice President of Operations and General Manager. “Our customers love the speed, precision and cost advantages of it.”
Laser tube cutting was a new process in 2012 when Sanborn Tube & Fab got into the game. The acquisition of this technology marked the company’s transformation from a tubing distributor to a value-added manufacturer of finished tubing.
“Laser cutting was the start of our manufacturing process at Sanborn,” Schultz recalls. The company began with a single laser tube cutter. It now has three machines, with the most recent one purchased a year ago.
Why do manufacturers increasingly come to Sanborn for laser tube cutting? Schultz explains that this technology provides them with a variety of benefits:
Flexibility and cost-effectiveness
There are two main types of laser cutting: fiber and C02. Both employ a laser to cut and an “assisting gas,” either nitrogen or oxygen, to blow away the excess materials.
The difference is in the way the materials are cut. C02, the older process, uses mirrors and lenses to focus the cutting beams. Fiber, on the other hand, requires no mirrors. Fiber optic cable is used to channel and amplify light beams, which are then focused on the tubes by a lens.
“Fiber is more advanced and it’s faster for cutting thin materials,” Schultz reveals. “It’s also a cleaner cut and it’s less expensive.” It can also be used to create more complex patterns.
C02 lasers generate more power and are therefore the preferred method for cutting thicker tubing.
Schultz believes it’s important to have both approaches available to customers: “Having the right laser makes a difference in both processing time and cost,” he says. “It enables us to use the best machine for each customer’s needs.”
Both types of laser tube cutters deliver finished products, eliminating most or all of the post-processing that other finishing methods require. “The majority of fiber cuts don’t need finishing,” Schultz explains. C02 requires minor finishing if any. “There are no sharp burrs. That makes these tubes safer for OEMs to handle than tubes produced using older manufacturing methods,” he adds.
To further advance cost-effectiveness, Sanborn turns to a third method – a saw – when tubes only need to be cut to a specific length.
“The saw is very inexpensive in those situations. It’s another option we can offer to our customers,” Schultz clarifies. Utilizing one of the three laser tube cutters would be overkill, he points out.
Fewer steps and streamlined processes
In the old days, the tube was first cut to length. Then it was placed in a machining center – which used a jig to hold the tube. There, the holes were cut into it using hardened cutting tools.
Laser cutting automates this process. “You put the whole tube in and it comes out finished,” Schultz stresses. “There’s no tooling, and the holes are cut by a laser rather than a machine tool.”
There is no pre-cutting, either. Tubes are inserted into the machine, often in bundles. The laser cutter completes the detail work, such as creating the holes and patterns, and cuts the tube to the proper length. Then it moves another piece of tube into position and repeats the process.
The time savings is substantial.
“A job that would take us eight to 10 hours now takes two,” Schultz asserts. “You eliminate a whole stage because you don’t have to cut the tube to length. And there is no tooling or deburring. You get significantly better throughput.”
That helps keeps reduce customer costs – and enables Sanborn to turn around orders faster than before.
Eliminating steps saves hours compared to the old methods. But so does having new and improved equipment and technology. Sure, it may only save a few seconds at a time, but those seconds add up to minutes, which accumulate into hours.
The laser cutters have become faster with each new generation. “They have new technology with faster fiber-optic lasers,” Schultz says. “They cut faster and they’re more powerful. The new machines also have increased automation. That’s probably one of the biggest advantages.”
As an example of the potential speed, Schultz compares the time required for tube centering checks: “With the older laser cutters, checks such as properly centering the tubing take an average of 10 seconds. The new technology uses a vision system, so it takes less than half a second to do the same thing.”
While 10 seconds isn’t an eternity, it’s a lot longer than a fraction of a second. “If I’m doing two centering checks on a part with the old cutter, it takes a total of 20 seconds – versus not even a second with the new machine,” Schultz points out.
The cumulative effect can be significant: “If I’m cutting 10,000 pieces, that adds up in a hurry,” he emphasizes.
Improved material utilization
Schultz considers eliminating waste to be a key – but often unsung – benefit of laser tube cutting. He explains how Sanborn maximizes tube stock.
The company’s laser cutters can handle tubes up to 27 feet long. Getting the most out of the material is easy if the required lengths of the pieces are easily divisible – for example if the finished pieces are 3 feet or 9 feet.
Of course, things rarely work out so precisely. For example, if a customer wants 5-foot pieces, the 27-foot tube provides five of them – with 2 feet of scrap.
Sanborn’s advanced machines use nearly all the material.
With laser tube cutting, the 27-foot tube is inserted. Five identical 5-foot sections are produced. Then, with a simple adjustment on the computer, the laser works on the remaining 2 feet of tubing. It creates completely different patterns than those for the 5-foot sections – patterns the customer, or even another OEM, needs for another project.
“It enables us to nest multiple parts within the same job,” Schultz explains. “We get the absolute most we can out of every single tube. That reduces the customer’s piece price because there’s less scrap.”
Inexpensive prototype development
Laser tube cutters are great for developing prototypes.
“We can load in a new program and make any modifications to the CAD file and the machine will cut it,” Schultz points out. “There is no need to build tooling to generate prototype tubes.”
The laser tube cutters can also handle diverse materials – tubes as long as 27 feet, as heavy as 23.5 pounds per square foot and with diameters as large as 8-5/8 inches.
With prototypes, most of the work is done on the computer – a method that’s preferable and more cost-effective than manufacturing parts using a trial-and-error approach.
Laser tube cutting is a growing market. “In the Midwest, it’s really grown in the last five to eight years,” Schultz says.
Increased acceptance has led to improvements in part designs. “Engineers are starting to produce designs that are made specifically for laser tube cutting. That makes them a better fit with our tools,” he adds.
In the end, OEMs benefit: “These more efficient designs improve quality and throughput – and help to further reduce costs,” Schultz declares. “All three are things that our customers love to hear!”
He looks for OEMs to continue to partner with companies like Sanborn instead of taking on the cutting themselves. “Usually, they can’t afford to invest in the equipment and the space required for it,” Schultz says. “You also need a skilled operator to run laser tube cutters efficiently.”
After weighing the benefits of outsourcing tube finishing versus producing the parts in-house, most OEMs quickly realize that having a firm like Sanborn produce the parts they need – using state-of-the-art laser tube cutters – is a smart and cost-effective decision.
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