A Midlands laser cutting subcontractor has installed its third five-axis, 3D laser processing cell from Trumpf in the form of the very latest TruLaser Cell 7040. As one of only six of its kind in the UK, the machine is helping secure orders at Nuneaton-based Subcon Laser Cutting Ltd by turning potential loss making jobs into profit-earning contracts.
While 2D laser profiling has become intensely competitive over the past decade, the services of subcontractors offering both 2D (two-axis) and 3D (five-axis) laser cutting remains highly prized.
“When I started at Subcon Laser in 1993 there were only five recognised laser cutting subcontractors around,” says General Manager Tom Mongan. “Now the market is heavily congested with firms offering 2D services – although only a few offer 3D, let alone both. This is one of our distinguishing features, and probably why out of those original five subcontract laser cutting firms, we’re the only one still trading.”
Although the ISO9001:2000-accredited company has operated five-axis laser centres for many years, the company commenced a programme to replace its existing machines with Trumpf models in 2003. A 3kW Lasercell 1005 was followed two and a half years later by a 5kW version. However, with automotive customers applying ever-increasing pressure on prices, profitability on five-axis contracts was being squeezed.
“I recall one contract last year for an automotive customer where the margins were exceptionally tight,” explains Mr Mongan. “So much so, that on some panels we would actually lose money. We decided to get Trumpf involved.”
Trumpf invited Subcon Laser and 20 of the loss-making panels to its headquarters in Germany, where the new TruLaser Cell 7040 five-axis laser processing centre would be put through its paces.
“Typically, one of the panels demonstrating a cycle time of five minutes on our existing machines was reduced to 1 minute 20 seconds – a 375% reduction – on the TruLaser Cell 7040,” says Mr Mongan. “We knew this kind of improvement would reduce a loss-making job into one that was moderately profitable, particularly as the twin cell concept enables us to unload while cutting is in progress. As a package, it convinced us to invest in the TruLaser Cell 7040.”
The machine’s X-axis travel is 4,000mm, while the Y-axis is designed as an arm with a working range of 1,500mm. The TruLaser Cell 7040 supports a very narrow, compact and fast Z-axis with a 750mm working range, and there are two rotational axes to give it complete 3D flexibility. The machine produces extraordinarily dynamic performance by means of high travel speeds and axes acceleration. The focus position and diameter are constant, ensuring uniformly high processing quality regardless of laser power and component position in the working range.
Installed in May 2008 at the firm’s purpose-built Nuneaton facility, Subcon Laser’s new TruLaser Cell 7040 has been put to work processing a wide range of car panels for UK-based automotive customers such as Aston Martin, Bentley and taxi manufacturer LTI, through to panels for classic car spares stockists, serving renowned marques such as Austin and Triumph.
Parts are manufactured from steel, stainless steel or aluminium (as well as some non-metallic materials such as ABS), feature tolerances of ±0.1mm and can be extremely complex in design.
“We design each dedicated five-axis fixture in-house, which is a discipline that some of our competitors have to subcontract and demonstrates one of the areas where we can minimise costs,” says Mr Mongan. “However, component complexity is such that even the most seasoned programmer will sometimes have a collision between the cutting head and the fixture or component. For this reason, another big advantage of the TruLaser Cell 7040 is that the processing heads feature magnetic couplings, which detach upon collision thereby allowing rapid restart without any long term damage. Without this feature each collision can cost around 30 minutes of downtime.”
With a turnover in the region of £4 million and 25 employees, Subcon Laser has enjoyed steady growth in recent years. However, with the current dip in the global economic climate, Mr Mongan is under no illusions regarding ongoing prosperity.
“If we can maintain our current turnover levels in the coming 18-24 months then we will be pleased, considering the difficult trading conditions being experienced across the industry,” he says. “The price of steel particularly is having a massive effect and has risen approximately 60% since April alone. If you throw spiralling energy and transport costs into the mix, it is easy to see why so many are finding it tough.”
However, the company’s thirst for investment is a major factor in its battle against passing rising costs on to its customers.
“Our investment in the latest Trumpf technology means, despite the increasing prices of raw materials and overheads, we can absorb these costs so our customers are not affected,” he confirms. “We promote ourselves as keen investors in the latest technology, and we knew there were already five TruLaser Cell 7040 machines in the UK – if we were quoting like-for-like we would be losing out unless we made the decision to invest. The machine has provided the ability to compete on a level playing field, which is important because although we offer great service, quality and delivery, these business functions are taken for granted in the modern marketplace: ultimately you need to offer a competitive price.”
Working 24 hours a day, the Trumpf five-axis laser centres at Subcon Laser process batch sizes that range from 1-off up to tens of thousands in some instances. A high volume order such as this was recently completed for a prominent automotive OEM that wanted a batch of interior door components prior to the development of production tooling.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, the privately-owned company programs all of its laser profiling machines off-line using Trumpf software (Subcon Laser also has two Trumpf flat bed 2D laser cutters including an L3050, 5kW model). Naturally it is possible to interface directly with virtually all 2D and 3D CAD systems.
“We find Trumpf machines to be the most user-friendly, and we’ve had machines from a number of different manufacturers over the years, so we should know,” says Mr Mongan. “Trumpf also provide excellent operator training – in fact I would say their support is probably the best in the business.”
The TruLaser Cell 7040 features a hanging operating panel that has the option of being mobile (as a teaching supplement Trumpf offers a display panel with a wireless link). The operator interface of the main control console is mirrored via WLAN (wireless local area network) and VNC (virtual network computing) on a distributed, battery-operated operator panel. This wireless design concept has the advantage that the user can take the display panel to the office, and is always informed as to the status of the machine.
The TruLaser Cell 7040 is also state-of-the-art in terms of safety engineering. The operator is protected against uncontrolled axis movements and can, for example, in twin cell operation, safely set up the second workpiece parallel to machine operation. Because the speeds are reliably monitored, the operator can move about safely in the work area at any time without any restrictions in terms of usability. Furthermore, the required footprint is far less than many might expect for a two-station machine. The compact design of the TruLaser Cell 7040 offers a maximum travel of 4m on the same floor space required by a comparable 3m machine. The cantilever position at 2m height and the ergonomic table height ensure excellent accessibility. However, whether twin cell operation, linear changer or rotation changer: the open machine concept enables tailored automation to meet all requirements.
“It is not by luck that since our formation we have become one of the largest and most successful laser cutting service companies in the UK,” says Mr Mongan. “We have the technology and the experience – that's the difference. Our policy provides the customer with what they want, when they want, and at the right price.
“Over the past five years I have personally seen some good companies go to the wall, so we know it’s not easy out there,” he continues. “It’s definitely a case of survival of the fittest. However, our continual investment programme ensures we will remain at the forefront of the industry, enabling us to offer cost effective precision cut parts that will appeal to many manufacturers, particularly those with a requirement for 3D cutting of pre-formed panels and parts.”
Mr Mongan is understandably excited about what the future holds.
“If I assess the advances in laser technology over the past 10 years – in power, speed, drives and optics – it fills me with bewilderment and has been a joy to behold,” he concludes. “If machine tool manufacturers such as Trumpf can achieve half of that in the coming 10 years it will be fantastic. Personally I can’t wait to see the next advancements in laser technology.”