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A Case Study in the Cutting Edge

By Tony Pinho | Duggan Manufacturing | 5/23/2018
 

Strategic equipment investment is a critical part of staying competitive. Planning a procurement path that will keep your business relevant in an ever-changing landscape can be difficult in the best of times and a truly herculean task during periods of rapid market change like we’re seeing today. In times such as these, even the best laid plans may need to be overhauled. Do you take a chance on a new technology that's heavy on potential, but light on real-world evidence, or stay the course with your current equipment and risk falling behind?

While I can’t provide an easy answer to such a question, I can at least tell you about the last time my company went through it, why we made the decisions we did and how it benefited us and our clients in the long run. 

Back in 2009, my company was the first custom manufacturer in the state of Michigan to offer fiber optic laser welding. In many ways, laser welding is similar to more traditional techniques, but there are at least a few distinct advantages. The narrow, tightly controlled laser beam makes it possible to create incredibly precise welds and even micro-welds measured in fractions of a millimeter. Laser welders don’t need to come in physical contact with the pieces being welded. They also only require access to one side of a weld zone. Not only that, but laser welders, unlike arc welders, are effective on non-electrically conductive materials such as stainless steel—this is true of YAG, CO2 and fiber optic lasers.

Of all the types of laser welding, fiber optic is the newest, with the first industrial fiber optic lasers being introduced in the early 2000s. As time progressed, the technology continued to improve, rapidly increasing in power while slowly decreasing in price. Within a few short years, fiber optic lasers had proven to be a technology to watch with several advantages over YAG and CO2 lasers*:

  • Faster when it comes to thinner material
  • Better at cutting many types of reflective materials and less likely to suffer damage to delicate optics resulting in extended downtime
  • More energy efficient with a cheaper per part cost when cutting thinner material
  • They operate at a wavelength that is more readily absorbed by metals such as aluminum, and brass—fiber optic lasers are faster at cutting and welding those materials and cause less heat distortion.

Yet, despite these advantages, many manufacturers were reluctant to commit to the technology. Some didn’t need them because their workload was focused on components better served by CO2 or YAG lasers. Others could benefit from fiber optic laser technology, but the up-front cost was too much, especially since it usually required new training or personnel in addition to the new equipment. Others simply felt that they already had a full complement of laser welders. Up until 2009, we were in a similar position, then something important changed: our clients’ needs. Or, more specifically, our clients’ future needs. 

Like anyone in our field, our clients depend on us to create a variety of highly customized metal components. These products are often extremely complex, highly engineered pieces that have to be tooled within extremely tight tolerances—tolerances that are only going to get tighter. Fiber optic lasers are ideal for this: their precision is on par with CO2 and YAG lasers and are capable of more power—they are more rugged with less down time. We had been interested in the potential of fiber optic lasers for a while, but by 2009 it became clear that they had matured as a technology and their addition would provide tangible value for our clients. So, despite that year being a fairly volatile one for manufacturers, we opted to invest in a technology where its benefits outstripped its costs and its potential put us in a better position to meet the needs of our clients. 

Our current collection of fiber optic laser machines are the result of that ethos: will this help us continue to meet our clients’ needs? This isn’t an easy question to answer, but over the last decade and a half we’ve done fairly well by identifying trends within our clients’ markets to help figure out how we can prepare for their needs. A mixture of extensive research and careful planning has been the key to keeping up with our clients and get real results. 

So, what should your takeaway be from all this? Mainly, that I love talking about our lasers, but also that you should balance a new technology’s potential with your own business realities and the needs of the market you serve. Also, whenever possible, you should seek out new technologies to avoid being caught off guard. Never stop learning. Automation Alley is a great partner in this regard and has helped us keep ahead of the pack on several occasions, most recently by including us as part of a trade mission to the Hannover Messe International trade show. It’s one of the single greatest ways to see where Industry 4.0 is headed and to ensure you're ready for it.

Our Sales Director, Mike Arndt, said it best. “We can keep up with our clients because we never pass up on an opportunity to learn more about our field and the technological advances ready to change it.

*CO2 lasers do have their own strong points—they are generally better for cutting thicker material

 

Tony Pinho is co-founder of Duggan Manufacturing and has served as president of the company for the last 17 years. During that time, he has overseen the company’s growth and built lasting relationships throughout the manufacturing sector. Tony is a graduate of Oakland University.

Categories: Innovation and Technology (61)

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