In the decades since, the laser has shaped the sheet metal fabrication business. In the 1980s and 1990s, just having a laser cutting machine was enough to set an operation apart. Next came automation, then lights-out automation, then the transition from the CO₂ to the fiber laser, then more sophisticated automation and autonomous cutting in which the machine learns and improves over time.
The technological march forward continues unabated, with machine-makers manipulating the fiber laser beam to improve the cut edge and eliminate the need for deburring. The change comes so rapidly, it can leave your head spinning.
So in this 50th year of The FABRICATOR, we’re diving deep and running a series on the cutting department. We’re taking a step back and looking at the current state of the cutting edge—or cutting the edge (of sheet metal and plate, that is)—through the lens of several successful fabricators, each serving different customers in different markets.
“Different customers” is the key phrase. Although technology drives metal fabrication forward, it’s just the engine. There is no single “right way” to run a cutting department. At the wheel is a shop’s customer mix. And because customer mixes vary so greatly, every fabricator drives a unique road.
Cut, Punch, Done
For years many have questioned the future of the punch press, especially after the fiber laser came onto the scene. For many applications the laser head outpaces the punch, even for hole-intensive jobs.
But visit Ometek, a large contract fabrication operation outside Columbus, Ohio, and you’d see the punch press is alive and well, not as a stand-alone operation but as an integral part of the punch/laser combo. The combo, including its two Amada machines with automated loading, unloading, and part removal and stacking, is now central to Ometek’s cutting strategy.
So how did the metal fabricator get here? Its road started in the early 1990s in a very different place. “On our first laser, the head moved only in the X direction and the table moved in the Y direction,” said Tom Mackessy, president/CEO of Ometek. “It arrived on our floor because we were outsourcing laser work at the time, and there were certain parts that were laser-cut and machined. The machines allowed us to have that in-house capability. It allowed us to run prototypes, considering it had essentially no setup time. We could do more flexible nesting on the laser, too, which improved our material utilization for small components.”
That lack of setup, compared to the punch’s setup time, led Ometek to dive deeper into CO₂ lasers in the early 2000s. Instead of ordering a few large-quantity batches, customers wanted a greater number of small-quantity deliveries—hence the value of the laser with its minimal setup and flexible nesting for greater material utilization.
Read more: Cleveland Ohio Laser Cutting: The laser/punch combo in metal fabricating