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BC fireplace maker turns up the heat with fiber laser technology


The Problem: Rising energy costs in the face of increased customer demand call for a technology upgrade
The Solution: Fiber lasers cut costs and raise productivity

Electricity is expensive on Vancouver Island. This was a large part of the reason why Pacific Energy Fireplace Products Ltd. had long steered clear of CO2 lasers, opting instead to stick with its tried and true CNC turret punches.

Yet fabricators have been successful with lasers for over three decades. Compared to punching, laser cutters are faster to set up, and require far less maintenance. And in Pacific Energy’s case, cutting complex part profiles was becoming increasingly difficult with its aging equipment, a task that’s far simpler on a laser than on a turret punch.

General manager Shannon Sears knew all this, and says the company took a hard look at CO2 several years ago. “We found the operating costs represented a significant increase over our existing equipment. And we knew the utility companies were projecting a 30 per cent rate increase over the next few years, so lasers were eliminated from consideration at that point.”

Pacific Energy is an independently owned producer of fireplace heating solutions. It offers a wide variety of wood and gas burning stoves, fireplaces and inserts, and prides itself on manufacturing clean, efficient energy products. Located in Duncan, BC, the company employs 200 people, and has customers in Australia, Russia, and all points in between. Says Sears, “we’re a metal fabricator at heart. Aside from a few purchased components, we manufacture everything in house—that means we cut, bend, form, paint and finish roughly 20 different grades of steel into finished products.”

With 35 years in the hearth appliance business, Pacific Energy has gone through several generations of fabricating technology. Like many companies, it started with hand-operated shears, ironworkers and forming presses, then evolved to CNC turret punches and eventually to automated material handling. Through it all, laser technology was kept at arm’s length.

The case for fiber lasers
That attitude changed recently. Faced with 60 per cent annual company growth, Sears and the Pacific Energy management team knew they needed additional capacity. The question was: what to buy? Despite the low operating costs of its CNC turret punches, Pacific Energy was spending several hours or more each day on machine upkeep and tool sharpening. This limited production time to no more than 16 hours a day, where the rest of the shop was running round the clock. Based on discussions with local area shops together with plenty of research, Pacific Energy took another look at lasers, this time on relatively new fiber laser technology from Bystronic Inc.

Fiber lasers, as the name implies, use a fiber optic cable to channel amplified light from a bank of diodes. There are no mirrors as with a CO2 laser, and since the focusing lens is sealed within the cutting head, maintenance and consumable costs are lower. So too is electrical consumption.

The finished product. The company says use of fiber laser technology has resulted in better part quality.Vincent Meillet, sales manager for Bystronic Canada, Mississauga, ON, says the typical operating costs for a 6000 watt fiber laser are around $4.50/hour, around half that of a comparably sized CO2 laser. Better yet, fiber laser cuts like crazy—that same fiber laser cuts 1 mm (0.040 in.) thick steel at over 6500 mm/min (255 in.), roughly four times that of a CO2 laser, according to Bystronic. “Around 90 per cent of the laser sales in Canada today are fiber,” Meillet says. “The only place where CO2 competes is with very thick material, say 19 mm (0.750 in.) and up, and even there the gap is narrowing. Fiber is a clear trend.”

Pacific Energy took delivery of its first machine in February 2013, a BySprint Fiber 3015 with 3000 watt laser and then purchased its second 4,000 watt BySprint Fiber 3015 one year later. The second machine, this one equipped with a 4000 watt laser, was installed one year later. Both machines have a 3 x 1.5 m (10 x 5 ft) working area, and offer positioning accuracy of +/- 0.100 mm (0.004 in.) at speeds of 140 m/min (459 ft/min.

“We looked at other brands of equipment,” says Sears. “One of these is built in Italy, for example. The utility rates there are four to five times that of North America, so we knew their lasers would be efficient. But in the end, it comes down to relationships. There’s a lot of good equipment out there, and the only thing guaranteed is they all break down at some point. That’s when you need a supplier that stands behind its product, and is there to support you when you need it.”

With equipment costing the better part of a million dollars, dependability is an important point. Over the past two years, Pacific Energy has learned this is nothing to be concerned about. Aside from some scheduled maintenance on the weekends, both machines have been operating 24 hours a day, six days a week. And since each is equipped with an automated material handling system, much of that operation is unattended.

“We’re running them as many hours as we can,” Sears explains. “Changeover is a matter of loading the nested program and checking to make sure the steel is available. Uptime like this just isn’t possible on a punch press.”

Maximizing uptime is great, but cutting speed is just as important. Where many manufacturers utilize oxygen as an assist gas, Pacific kicked it up a notch by opting for nitrogen, which, according to Bystronic’s Meillet, nearly doubles the cutting speed in 10 gauge steel, from 4300 mm/min (169 in./min) to 8050 mm/min (317 in./min). This also benefits the downstream painting process, since nitrogen produces a clean, oxidation-free surface.

Optimizing fabricating costs
Nitrogen is expensive, however. With an eye towards optimizing operating costs, Sears researched and installed Pacific Energy’s own nitrogen generation plant. “The system became operational last March. Capturing and extracting our own nitrogen is about

28 per cent cheaper than buying it. Even without the increased productivity, we figure a 22 month payback on the investment.”

One surprising but happy outcome of the fiber lasers is better part quality. Instead of the “nibbled” edge typical of punch presses, laser cutting provides a smooth, precision edge, which in turn makes secondary forming and fitting operations more efficient. As a result, Pacific Energy has enjoyed a 10 per cent productivity improvement on the finishing lines, and less wear and tear on the assembly jigs.

Sears isn’t ready to ditch the old turret punch machines. The machines have long been paid for, and remain the best choice for parts that require embossing or forming. Also, on material thicker than 5 mm (0.197 in.), shearing is still faster. That situation may soon change, however. Fiber laser technology is on a fast growth curve, and Pacific Energy has its eye on a pair of 6000 watt machines, which according to Bystronic will cut that steel 42 per cent faster than Pacific’s 4000 watt laser, a speed that will likely send the old turret punch equipment to machine heaven.

All this is good news for Pacific Energy. The company is busier than ever, and Sears says they’re looking at adding on to the facility to house the new equipment, this after adding 22,000 sq ft (2,043 m) just last year. They’re also in the midst of an ERP software implementation, which is expected to Go Live this spring.

Looking back, Sears says there’s little he would change. The machine installation and subsequent training went smoothly, and everyone is happy with the service and support they’ve received from Bystronic. “When I look at the vast majority of production that comes out of our turret punches, most of it would be produced more efficiently on the lasers. Considering the flexibility, and the overall operating costs relative to machine output, I think it would be very difficult to buy another turret punch. Laser technology has removed most of the challenges from our manufacturing environment.”

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