3 August 2012

The shape of things to come

With many fabrication shops still assessing the merits and limitations of the latest fibre laser cutting technology verses conventional CO2, one contract manufacturer is getting on with things, running two machines of each, side-by-side, to provide industry with one of the most comprehensive and advanced laser profiling portfolios in Europe.

As a result of extensive recent investment, Nottingham-based Lasershape Ltd today operates four state-of-the-art CNC laser profiling centres from Trumpf. In August 2011, the company added two Trumpf CO2 lasers (a TruLaser 3030 with 5kW resonator and a TruLaser 3040) to its pair of TruLaser 5030 fibre models installed a year earlier.

“When I think back to 2010, before we owned any Trumpf machines, Lasershape had reached a plateau,” explains the company’s Managing Director, Tim Leam. “We had run out of space and run out of machine capacity, which meant we had to move premises and invest in new equipment – one without the other seemed pointless.”

Despite the upheaval and the substantial yet carefully considered capital expenditure, Lasershape has emerged the other side in a far more competitive position.

“Previously we used laser cutting machines supplied by another manufacturer, so this was our first experience of Trumpf,” says Mr Leam. “However, the machines are far quicker and more flexible than we ever anticipated. We know this because we have Trumpf monitoring software which presents us with a range of information such as daily up-time graphs and shift efficiencies. We can use this data to set each shift manager a target moving forward, for example. It’s helped our business a lot.”

Today Lasershape employs more than 90 people at its new 38,000 sq ft facility, which in terms of floor space is around double that of its previous site. The company operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week using four on/four off, 12-hour shifts. Each shift has its own production team comprising a shift manager, technical manager and maintenance manager, ensuring continuity of service no matter what time of day or night. Aside from the four Trumpf laser profiling centres, the company also operates three waterjet machines and two press brakes.
Lasershape’s new facility has just received approval from one its major aerospace customers, Rolls-Royce, which embraces both waterjet and laser profiling processes. However, despite working for a number of blue chip OEMs, 80% of the company’s business is generated by typical subcontract engineering firms. In fact, of its 800 or so live and active customers, the largest commands no more than 5% of turnover.

“It’s a management strategy that helps spread commercial risk and negate the effects of any dips in market confidence, and there’s been one or two of those recently,” states Mr Leam.
The company serves all market sectors, but among the current ones demonstrating growth are aerospace, defence, architectural, power generation and shopfitting. Lasershape says one of the reasons behind its success is a planned and aggressive attack on lead-times in recent years, partly through the introduction of new machinery and partly through new production control software systems. The company has just gone live with a new MRP system that allows it to cost-engineer parts at enquiry stage. This not only ensures the price is an accurate quote rather than an estimate, it also means that should the tender be successful, manufacturing can commence “within an hour” from order receipt. Today Lasershape quotes typical lead-time as 48-72 hours, but in reality many orders get dispatched on the same day. Here, a dedicated planning team consisting of three engineering graduates work with innovative software to scrutinise capacity and ensure the most efficient route of manufacture for 10,000 plus different components per month.

“Twice a day we generate nests optimised for the orders that come in,” says Mr Leam. “We keep between £200,000 and £300,000 of material stock – all of which is fully traceable – to help facilitate quick turnaround even further. In a way it means batch sizes are fairly irrelevant and we handle anything from 1-off up to 100,000.”

For sheet thickness above 5mm, the Trumpf TruLaser CO2 machines are preferred; while anything thinner is processed using the company’s TruLaser 5030 fibre technology. The latter also handle all of Lasershape’s reflective materials such as copper and brass. According to Mr Leam, these two materials were previously cut using waterjet technology in cycle times around 20 times greater in some instances. Naturally, the customers for these parts were delighted with the recent price cut.

“In general, while we are extremely competitive we put service first, offering added value such as a dedicated account manager for each customer and providing overnight carriers if required,” says Mr Leam. “We also maintain a rolling cycle of investment that sees us replace our primary manufacturing technology every four years. These factors help provide market differentiation. Ultimately our philosophy is simple: to support and exceed the expectations of our clients at every stage.”

Mr Leam says Trumpf was his chosen supplier for laser cutting due to the efficiency of the machines and the impressive on-board technology.

“If something takes labour out of the process then I’ll buy it,” he says. “Technology such as Trumpf’s automatic nozzle centring and automatic lens checking is fantastic because it saves on human input, not just in terms of time, but in the potential for error.”

In Lasershape’s new factory the four Trumpf machines sit side-by-side. In fact, there is even room for one more, a potential that could be fulfilled in the near future. Watch this space!

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