5 ways to improve your flow of laser-cut parts

Updated: Jun 28

1. Shop Layout

Your shop’s layout can make or break even the most efficient production plan. The more time your parts spend in transit or waiting for delivery to the next operation, the less efficient you’re being, and the effect can be crippling.

Ideally, the incoming material would be loaded directly into or near the laser and the secondary operations would be located nearest to the laser output. This may seem like common sense, but sometimes this layout isn’t considered when equipment is installed initially. When a patchwork approach to shop design is found to be inefficient, often the entire shop layout must be redesigned. Equipment movement, especially lasers and automation systems, can paralyze a shop and halt production for weeks.

A layout’s basic objective is to ensure the smooth flow of work, material, parts, and information through a system. Understanding your overall shop floor flow can help material move efficiently. An effective material requirements plan (MRP) can act like a global positioning system (GPS). When traffic becomes congested, the process can be rerouted and adapted to ensure your parts arrive at their destination on time.

2. Maintenance

It cannot be stressed enough that if your machinery isn’t maintained or working correctly, the whole process can fall apart in an instant. For some fabricators, laser maintenance is a given. For others, laser maintenance is out of sight, out of mind. Often fabricators feel more pressured to maintain uptime than to schedule downtime for maintenance. It is not until they experience a problem with speed or accuracy that they go into troubleshooting mode.

If you do not stay on top of recommended maintenance activities, once a problem occurs, the equipment operator won’t be productive. Any number of variables can cause the problem, and precious productive cutting time is lost while the search for the cause takes place.

Today lasers are being manufactured to make it easier for you to practice healthy maintenance. For example, a controller with a full list of maintenance options can be built into the laser machine. You can schedule and set a maintenance regime that makes sense for your production schedule. The controller also stores notes, dates, and historical data for quick future reference.

3. Programming

Programming automated material and part handling is extremely important to shop efficiencies. With the introduction of fiber lasers and the need to double or even triple production, automation has become necessary. A shop that manually unloads a cut sheet can have vastly different outputs than a shop that employs an automated system.

Optimizing your plant layout, maintaining your equipment on a schedule, programming and using automation, and monitoring your production are crucial to helping avoid downtime.

In past years programming software developers used algorithms that nested parts with as little waste as possible. Material saved meant more money left in the pocket of the job shop or manufacturer. In many cases, this has changed.

Laser nests must maintain integrity while being unloaded automatically so that they can be effectively denested at a different location. This is especially true in cases where high-capacity carts are used, because a stack of cut sheets can become a tangle of parts and scrap. The more intelligently tabs are used and slug destruction is performed, the faster the parts can be removed properly.

4. Automation

Technology advancements continuously provide better tools to increase and maintain efficiency. Once you have optimized your shop layout and performed maintenance and programming, you are prepared to set out to stride toward laser automation.

If your stand-alone industrial laser can be operated with 50 percent efficiency (most commonly called beam-on), you’re doing very well. Most common beam-on times for an average mix of materials have hovered between 30 and 40 percent historically. But your laser could be capable of more than that. Adding a very basic load and unload automation system can increase your beam-on time to more than 80 percent.

Standard cart unloading creates denesting bottlenecks that can delay parts in arriving downstream.

Conveyors have become very popular because they allow denesting to occur at the same rate as production. This enables you to react more quickly to production problems, giving more time to downstream operations.

5. Production Monitoring

To make meaningful improvements to your laser-cut-part flow, you must understand and track all your jobs all the time. Statistics like beam-on time, transit delays, process bottlenecks, and even maintenance schedules need to be tracked so that you can achieve continuous improvement.

Some laser cutting equipment can now be equipped with a production monitoring option. A robust production monitoring and support system should be designed to provide transparency to your machining processes anywhere, anytime. This type of system enables you to get real-time access to an extensive amount of data through your desktop or mobile device.