Cutting’s Current State: The laser/punch combo in metal fabricating

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.

Manual Beginnings
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.

The FABRICATOR – 50th Anniversary
Material handling before and after cutting has evolved on Ometek’s floor too. At first operators manually loaded and unloaded pieces on the first machine, not unexpected considering the machine wasn’t for production.

Over the years the company transitioned its production work away from its stand-alone punches to more productive CO₂ lasers. Today two such lasers, each with its own material handling tower, remain production workhorses. Both connect to 10-shelf towers, and one laser has a rotary index fixture for tube and pipe cutting as needed.

That said, those two lasers still don’t handle the majority of the fabricator’s product mix. Glance at a typical part fabricated by Ometek and it’s easy to see why. Cut blanks have numerous louvers, lances, tapped holes, and countersinks.

“By 2012 we found that we could attain better utilization and run the parts faster if we used a standard turret setup, then laser-cut features [for the tools] we didn’t have,” Mackessy said.

So instead of populating auto-index stations with infrequently used tools, the company found it could cut about 80% of its parts out of a standard set of tools on a turret. The laser could handle the rest. This part mix drove the company to invest in the two Amada punch/laser combo systems it has today, one with a CO2 laser and the other with a fiber laser.

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