In 2001 — after completing his apprenticeship and gaining an HND in mechanical engineering and an NVQ Level 3 in AutoCad — Iain Summerfield started working at a sheet metal sub-contractor.
He was initially tasked with sweeping the floor and loading material onto four Bystronic CO2
flat-bed laser cutting machines; within three months, he had re-organised the firm’s production processes, started programming and operating the lasers — and taken a course in the nesting, programming and simulation software BySoft.
Seven years later, in mid-2008, he decided to use a small inheritance, remortgage his house and join forces with co-director Paul King to set up Laser 24 and provide similar sub-contract services.
In a little over a decade, their company has grown to employ 26 people and has added CNC bending to its offering.
Due to the reliability of the Bystronic machines at Mr Summerfield’s previous company, and in particular the user-friendliness of the software, Laser 24’s first purchase was a second-hand BySprint 1.8kW CO2
3015 (3 x 1.5m) laser cutting machine, which ran 24/7 in a 3,500ft2
factory unit in Wickford, Essex.
One of the company’s early contracts was the production of 5,000 decorative snowflakes from 0.5mm-thick aluminium sheet for a Christmas display at the Harrods department store in London.
Over the next seven years, various more-powerful CO2
laser cutting machines were installed, but it became apparent that it was impossible to be competitive when cutting reflective materials such as stainless steel and aluminium with a CO2
In 2015, Laser 24 ‘exchanged’ a CO2
machine for its first fibre laser cutting machine — a Bystronic 3kW ByStar Fiber 3015.
This was automated with a ByTrans Extended sheet-handling system purchased two years earlier with a previous machine, shortly after the sub-contractor had moved into new premises that were near its original unit and almost twice its size.
The effectiveness of fibre laser cutting was immediately apparent, and the wider range of materials that could be processed resulted in new work being won.
Fibre technology had matured by then and was supplanting CO2
in almost all application areas; it was clearly the future.
By mid-2018, Laser 24 had ‘attached’ a 10kW ByStar Fiber to the ByTrans Extended, and a second identical production cell was added six months later, making the company the only one in the South of England to operate two such powerful sheet metal-cutting centres.
Mr Summerfield said: “With our latest machines, we opted for the PowerCut feature in the BySoft 7 control software, as it produces a clean cut edge on thicker materials — even reflective types — up to 30mm.
“This feature is also economical, as it more than halves the volume of assist gas consumed.
“Furthermore, the 10kW fibre laser is twice as fast as our previous fibre machine and over three-times more productive than our old CO2
“We now cut 10mm mild steel sheet at around 5m/min with a 10kW fibre laser machine; on our CO2
machines, the best we could achieve was 1.5m/min.
“We also mainly use nitrogen as the assist gas rather than oxygen, as it results in an unoxidised edge that does not need to be finished before it is painted or powder-coated.”
Mr Summerfield says a further advantage of having a 10kW fibre laser source is that there is enough power to effectively use air rather than oxygen as the assist gas for certain jobs; this results in an edge quality that is indistinguishable from if oxygen is used when cutting material up to 1.5mm thick (and is still acceptable for thicknesses up to 3mm).
“We are currently undertaking trials with air cutting — avoiding the cost of using bottled gas — as an economical alternative to plasma cutting for applications that do not require a top-quality edge finish.”
Mr Summerfield says a further significant benefit of the higher-power laser is its ability to guarantee the edge quality on both sides of a sheet when cutting coated material.
Normally, due to the coating on the under-side, there is a burr that needs to be removed by hand, but the 10kW fibre source eliminates this problem and leaves a clean edge.
Coupled with the use of ByTrans automation, which avoids the risk of damage from manual handling, parts require no buffing or cleaning — as was the case with ‘mirror polished’ stainless-steel frames supplied to this year’s Chelsea Flower Show; these supported glass displays and were visible from both sides.
The maximum cutting capacities of the 10kW fibre laser are 25mm mild steel, 30mm stainless steel and aluminium, 15mm brass and 12mm copper.
Mr Summerfield says that the ability to tackle thicker plate overlaps with the use of water-jet cutting, which costs twice as much as laser processing.
“Unless a heat affected zone at the component edge — created by a laser but not by water-jet cutting — is a problem when cutting thick materials, the 10kW Bystronic ByStar Fiber is the obvious choice.”
At the end of 2017, Steve Westgate was employed by Laser 24 as operations manager to oversee the transition to a paperless working environment, which included replacing a wall-mounted T Card planner, plus adding two software modules within BySoft 7 — Plant Manager and ByCockpit.
Plant Manager is an analysis, planning and monitoring module that automatically assesses machine and job data so that parts can be cut and bent more quickly, at a lower cost and without errors.
Mr Westgate said: “As manual data input is no longer necessary, processes run more reliably.
“The software also provides comprehensive statistical data on production efficiency; we are currently exceeding 90% overall equipment effectiveness.
“Furthermore, the Parts Removal function within Plant Manager allows the suction cups on the ByTrans to be positioned so that individual components within a sheet can be picked up and stacked onto pallets, with the skeleton also being removed — all of which reduces handling time and cost.”
Meanwhile, ByCockpit monitors — in real time — all processes taking place within Bystronic laser cutting machines and press brakes.
Running on a lap-top, smartphone or tablet, it collects data without manual intervention, evaluates it and generates status reports while machines are producing parts, allowing production output to be continually optimised.
For many years, Laser 24 customers asked for their laser-cut parts to also be formed, a service that was fulfilled by putting the work out to other sub-contractors.
That changed in September last year, when the company installed its first press brake — a Bystronic Xpert 80 with an 80-tonne 1.5m capacity.
This machine has been designed so that a robot can be attached to the front for automated loading and unloading, and Laser 24 says it is seriously considering this retrofit, as about half of its customers have expressed interest in having their parts bent.
Mr Summerfield says a particular strength of BySoft 7 is that it is used to program not only laser cutting machines but also press brakes.
“This means that only a single program is needed for producing a bent part from a flat sheet.
“Having one program speeds the end-to-end manufacturing process and virtually eliminates the possibility of mistakes, so even the first-off part is right.
“BySoft does most of the ‘thinking’ for you and has taken the trial-and-error out of press braking.
“An internal database automatically calculates the bend allowance, spring-back angle and punch stroke according to the type and thickness of the material.
“We routinely achieve high levels of accuracy — typically ±0.25deg.”
Laser 24’s customers come from a wide range of sectors, including automotive, aerospace, marine, yellow goods, construction, retail, catering, sign making and general engineering.
Due to a high level of interest in the provision of additional services, the company is considering expanding the extent of its in-house processing capability to include fabrication and painting — and perhaps machining operations such as milling, tapping and countersinking.