Posted By: Keith Leuthold | Posted On: November 22, 2021
Tips to Finding the Right Laser Cutting Machine
Note: This article was originally published on thefabricator.com on January 8, 2018, and has been re-posted here with the author’s permission.
This type of capital equipment expenditure is a big deal, so fabricators should know what to ask to find the right fit.
How would you go about purchasing a laser cutting machine? That's not an everyday task, and as a result, some shops aren't sure where to start. This guide can help fabricators ask the right questions when making this important purchase.
For most manufacturers, buying an industrial laser cutting machine is a major investment. It’s not just the initial price you pay, but the fact that the purchase will have a great impact on the entire manufacturing process. If the wrong equipment is chosen, you have to live with the decision for quite a long time. It is not unusual to see manufacturers keep a laser for seven to 10 years.
Do you know the best way to go about purchasing a laser cutting machine? Even if you currently own one, how long ago did you buy it, and what has changed since then?
This guide should help you in making a capital purchase decision that will drive your manufacturing operations to new heights.
What’s the Application?
Perhaps the real question is, “Should I even be buying a laser cutting machine?” For many reasons, investing in a different cutting system may make more sense for a company’s manufacturing activities. Investigating all available options can minimize any possible regrets in the future.
Depending on the part volume, a stamping press may deliver the lowest cost per part. When speaking of metal forming in a press, however, you also are talking about the need to invest in tooling. Stamping also presents the ability to perform multiple tasks, such as forming and tapping, as part of the production process.
A traditional turret punch press can cut out holes and shapes economically—but, again, it involves tooling. A punching machine also can’t match the production speeds of laser cutting machines. As with a stamping press, some forming can be done on the punch press.
A high-definition plasma system is good for thick materials and for applications in which the edge quality isn’t critical. An abrasive waterjet also is good for thick materials and for applications in which the metal can’t have a heat-affected zone, which is a problem with most thermal cutting methods. Both plasma and waterjet cutting systems cost less than laser cutting machines, but many times do not match the laser’s cutting speed. Of course, plasma cutting and waterjet systems can boost productivity with the use of multiple heads and the ability to cut stacked blanks; the application obviously would influence what exactly you need.
Do We Really Need to Invest in Laser Cutting?
A company that doesn’t have a laser cutting machine generally subcontracts the work to one or several job shops with that capability. This scenario doesn’t involve a lot of risk and can work if you have some flexibility with lead times.
But, there will come a time when you have to ask yourself if it is time for the company to bring laser cutting in-house. This has to be considered even if the business relationship with the subcontractor is great.
How do you know if it is the right time to own a laser? Look at how much you are spending monthly for laser-cut parts. In the words of Henry Ford, “If you need a machine and don’t buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don’t have it.”
If the decision is made to bring laser cutting in-house, you may be put in a position where you need to justify why the investment needs to be made. The costs associated with subcontracting out the laser cutting are just the starting point for the justification. How much more productive will the manufacturing process be with in-house laser cutting? How does this affect lead times? From an expense standpoint, not only do you have the cost of the laser cutting machine, you have labor and consumable costs, such as laser cutting assist gas.
Figuring out these answers will give upper management or even a lending institution an idea about production savings and subsequent return on investment (ROI) following the initial investment.
What Does It Mean to Control the Laser Cutting Process?
Other than monetary issues, when manufacturers offer reasons as to why they are looking at purchasing a laser cutting machine, they mention “control.” Ask yourself these questions to see if you fall into this category:
- How many times have we lost business because of late delivery?
- Have we ever had to reject parts because of poor quality?
- How would it help our image if we had our own laser cutting capabilities?
From Whom Should We Buy the Laser Cutting Machine?
As a manufacturer, you have numerous sources to purchase a laser cutting machine. There are dealers that specialize in used equipment and original equipment manufacturers that offer state-of-the-art cutting equipment and even refurbished machines that may not have the production prowess of new machines, but still can perform much more efficiently than machines of a similar age with no rework done to them.
Ask the OEMs questions about service availability. Today’s technology does not require as much maintenance, but when a machine goes down, you’ll want it back up and running as soon as possible. Also find out about parts availability and delivery. Again, a laser cutting machine that can’t cut because of a damaged part just doesn’t cut it.
Be aware that laser cutting machines from OEMs that are recognizable in the industry typically have higher resale values.
CO2 or Fiber Technology?
Two types of lasers currently make up a majority of the industrial market: traditional CO2 gas lasers and newer solid-state fiber lasers. CO2 lasers have been the workhorses of the metal fabricating industry for the previous two decades. These lasers operate by running electricity through a gas-filled resonator (which includes CO2) and using mirrors to focus and deliver the beam. In a fiber laser, banks of diodes are used to create the laser, which is channeled and amplified through fiber-optic cable—similar to that used in the telecommunication industry.
The fiber laser, which made its debut around 2008, has lower operating costs and delivers higher cutting speeds than the CO2 laser. Early on, the fiber technology could cut at these higher speeds only on thin materials, but with the advent of more powerful lasers, fiber lasers are demonstrating robust cutting speeds even in 0.5-in.-thick material. As a result, fiber lasers tend to be a popular choice despite their higher price.
Also, fiber technology may open new opportunities for a fabricator. These machines can cut reflective material, such as brass and copper, whereas this task is difficult for CO2 lasers.
Some applications still remain better suited to CO2 lasers, such as applications that require good edge quality on thicker or specialized materials. Also, some manufacturers may feel comfortable with CO2 technology because they’ve used it for several years, and the company has in-house maintenance expertise.
After the end of the warranty period, keep in mind that you will have to make a decision about ongoing maintenance. Are you comfortable relying primarily on the OEM for service, or do you like to be self-sufficient, perhaps relying on a third-party source for any maintenance? Because the fiber laser has fewer moving parts or mirrors when it comes to laser generating, unlike a conventional CO2 resonator, it will require less maintenance over its lifetime.
Will We Need Material Handling?
Choosing some level of automatic material handling equipment also is an important consideration. This is even more important today, primarily because of the significantly faster cutting speeds of the fiber laser technology.
That’s why it’s necessary to understand just how you will use this new laser cutting capability. Do you plan to run the laser only a few hours each day or multiple shifts? Based on the typical time to process a sheet of material, can your operator keep up with manually loading and unloading the laser, even if it has a second shuttle table? How important is minimizing the labor cost in the part production to making a profit and remaining competitive in your business?
Sometimes metal fabricators choose not to buy material handling automation immediately. If you choose this route, ensure that pallet systems or even an automated storage and retrieval tower can be added easily in the future.
Will We Need New Software?
In many instances, manufacturers are already using a software package that everyone is used to. Will that software be able to work efficiently with the new laser cutting machine, or will you be better off purchasing the OEM’s software? If the latter, what new capabilities come with the new software?
As more of the manufacturing world is talking about increased interconnectivity among machines and software systems, it behooves you to ask if the new software is capable of running other machines already in place on the shop floor. Additionally, it’s worth having a conversation as to how the laser might integrate into the company’s network. Laser cutting speeds aren’t the only thing increasing at an incredibly fast pace; collecting pertinent manufacturing information in the blink of an eye is leading to more timely and impactful decision making for manufacturers.
What Is the True Cost of Running the Equipment?
With such a large investment, a manufacturer needs to know at what level of efficiency the equipment is operating. You need to know more than just if the machine is running or not running. This is where equipment performance monitoring comes in.
It’s important for you to find out if software can measure the laser cutting machine’s overall equipment efficiency (OEE) in real time. If so, can the software be used for your other laser cutting machines, if you have them, so that you might discover “hidden capacity” where you thought there was none?
With the cost of about 1 percent of the equipment price, monitoring software can provide a 10 to 50 percent productivity gain with paybacks of less than four months.
How Will We Finance the Purchase?
While some manufacturers pay cash for a laser, the majority use some method to finance the purchase. Don’t assume that your bank is the best source for funding the laser equipment purchase. Look at other alternatives, including the OEM, many of which own their own financing arms.
Also, don’t assume you will receive better service if you choose the OEM’s financing option.
What’s Involved with Delivery and Installation?
Preparation is required for a successful delivery and installation. First, what type of foundation, if any, is going to be required? Second, the laser cutting machine has to be located in the right place in the facility, preferably away from harsh environmental areas. You also should have found the best location for the laser so that it contributes to an efficient flow of laser-cut blanks to downstream manufacturing processes.
For a lot of companies, the delivery of a new piece of major manufacturing equipment is a new experience. The company that supplied the laser cutting machine can answer your questions about shipping and rigging; they do this all the time.
What Can Be Done to Make the Purchasing Decision Easier?
Answering these questions and obtaining quotes based on the feedback can be used to narrow down the selection of the supplier of a laser cutting machine to two to three sources. From there you need to find the right model, ask the right questions during equipment demonstrations, and work toward an acceptable price. Remember, there are many important items to discuss during the final negotiation.
The purchase of such a machine can be an overwhelming task. That’s why it might make sense to join an industry association, such as the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, to network with manufacturing peers to learn from them, or even seek out the assistance of someone that has been through or is familiar with this type of industrial equipment purchase. Such an effort likely would prove to be worthwhile.