STAR Wars technology using lasers for sometime was the exclusive domain of medical technology and defense contractors, but it is being used more often by trailer manufacturers and truck body builders.
"The whole fabrication market is changing as technology advances," says Jon Hoying, vice-president of Fabcor Inc in Minster, Ohio. "Lasers are faster and more accurate, which saves a lot of money in the long run."
Fabcor's strength is in metal fabrication and this is where most growth has occurred in the company, he says. When Hoying and his father Robert, president of Fabcor, started the company in 1985, they purchased Tiger Line Equipment Inc, a line of small ball-hitch utility trailers to develop with their new company.
"Trailer manufacturing smooths the peaks and valleys in our metal fabrication business," Hoying says. "Whenever fab parts are slow, we can run stock parts for trailers."
While lasers are already in use at some trailer and truck body plants, their use will be required in the next three years to maintain a competitive edge, Hoying says. Better accuracy in parts fabrication, speed, and labor savings are the main advantages provided by lasers.
In July, a Mazak 3,000-watt laser was installed in a new 37,000-sq-ft addition to Fabcor's plant. The addition brings the company's total manufacturing space to 72,000 square feet on an eight-acre site.
Currently, Fabcor's Mazak laser is the only one operating in the United States with a 3,000-watt cutting capacity, Hoying says. Laser cutting systems cost about three times more than a plasma cutting table, which typically sells for $200,000.
The Mazak laser can cut up to 7/8-inch mild steel, 1/2-inch stainless steel, or 3/8-inch aluminum. The laser's 3,000-watt capacity enables it to cut the thicker material.
Advantages of Lasers Fabcor needs this advantage because of numerous local competitors, Hoying says. About 150 other metal fabricators in the Midwest have lasers sold by Fabcor's supplier, Modern Machinery in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Compared to other types of metal fabrication, holes and contours can be formed by a laser on a piece of metal sheet at the same time. The laser does the work normally performed by a shear and punch in most metal fab shops.
Another advantage of lasers is that parts they cut do not require cleanup, he says. Metal sheet cut with a laser has no burr, edge, or dross. A metal grinder is normally used to clean workpieces made with other cutting systems.
"The laser eliminates a lot of extra work," Hoying says.
Hoying estimates the machine does the work of the five or six employees needed to move and process metal sheet. Finding qualified help to operate a metal fabrication shop is difficult.
"Skilled workers are hard to find," Hoying says.
The average manufacturing costs are $40 to $50 an hour in metal fabrication shops in the Midwest, he says. These costs or "burn rate" include employee salaries, benefits, building costs such as electricity, raw materials, and welding wire and gas.
"The initial capital costs for a laser are more, but unattended it produces perfect parts every time," Hoying says.
Technological Labor Savings When the automated load cell is operating, the laser can work unattended until it runs out of material. The load cell can be filled with 5,000 lb of metal sheet.
A single load cell can move material to four laser cutting tables, Hoying says. Fabcor plans to purchase a second Mazak laser and cutting table that will be in operation by January 2000. The new laser and cutting table will be fed by the load cell already in operation.
Metal sheet is moved to the laser's five- by 10-ft cutting table by an automated loading cell. After production parts are cut from a piece of sheet, the load cell removes the scrap and places new metal sheet on the cutting table. Pieces cut from the sheet fall onto a conveyor that moves them to bins.
In the event of a malfunction, the laser is equipped with a modem that telephones an operator, Hoying says. Before making a phone call, the laser automatically tries three times to restart itself. Depending on how well parts are nested on the metal sheet, the machine should operate continuously without stopping.
Parts Nesting Software Profiler software determines how parts are nested on metal sheet for optimum use of material, Hoying says. Another program used with the Mazak laser is AutoCAD, which is used to design prototype and production parts.
"Once a part is drawn using AutoCAD, in a couple seconds it can be cut by a laser," Hoying says. "Prototype parts can be created very quickly."
Besides being automated, a laser is faster than its closest work-speed competitor, he says. A high-definition plasma machine can cut 1/2-inch plate at 29 inches per minute. But a laser will cut the same plate at 55 inches per minute.
Fabcor has a Koike Aronson plasma cutting table with a Hypertherm high-definition plasma cutting system, Hoying says. The main advantage of the plasma cutter is that it can burn a hole in any shape of workpiece that fits underneath the cutting head.
"However, cuts made by plasma systems are not as precise as those made with a laser," Hoying says. "Parts formed with a plasma cutter can have inconsistencies in radius, and corners are often not perfectly square."
Parts produced by lasers have higher tolerances compared to parts fabricated by a plasma cutting system, Hoying says. Lasers can produce parts with exact measurements plus or minus 1/1,000 of an inch.
Plasma Parts Cutting Tolerances with plasma cutting systems are measured in a range of plus or minus 1/100 of an inch, he says. Sometimes a punch press is used to finish holes made in metal sheet with a plasma or oxygen acetylene cutting torch.
Fabcor has a 35-ton W A Whitney punch press that is used to make higher tolerance holes than can be made with a plasma cutting system, Hoying says. The press has a programmable back gauge.
Other specialized fabricating equipment in Fabcor's shop includes a roll press that can shape 1/4-inch by eight-foot sheet, 3/8-inch by 36-inch plate, or 1/2-inch by 24-inch plate. One of the first pieces of equipment purchased by Fabcor and the most used is its Peddinghaus iron worker.
The iron worker can cut five- by 3-inch angle iron 1/2-inch thick or 3/4- by 14-inch iron bar stock, Hoying says. The hydraulically-operated iron worker is strong enough to punch a one-inch diameter hole in one-inch thick plate.
"When it comes to processing metal, we have the latest technology available," Hoying says.
Tiger Line Trailers Trailer components not fabricated by Fabcor are purchased from Reliable in Kendallville, Indiana. The company purchases items such as hand cranks, winches, landing gear, and steel cable.
Most of Fabcor's 43 employees are cross-trained to manufacture trailers in the metal fabrication shop, Hoying says. The company builds up to 100 trailers a year.
One of Fabcor's most popular trailers is the Trailevator, which has a bed that lowers to ground level for cargo loading. The bed is raised with a hydrauli c hand pump. Wheels on the trailer have trailing-arm axles that allow the trailer bed to drop below the space that would be occupied by a fixed conventional axle.
Fabcor builds other trailers such as the Tiltster, which has a bed that tilts to ground level. The Tiltster has a maximum length of 16.3 feet with a 7,000-lb load capacity.
A small end dump trailer is 11-ft eight-inches long and has a three-cubic-yard capacity. A small offroad non-tipping dump trailer unloads to the side and has a load capacity up to 2 1/2 tons.
The side dump can be built with pintle hooks and hitch pins so several can be pulled in a train. This configuration is popular for cemeteries partly because one man can unload several loads of dirt to fill graves.
Manufacturing Truck Frames Besides trailers, the company manufactures other products such as a truck frame for yard tractors, Hoying says. The completed frames are shipped to a plant where yard tractors are assembled.
Other Fabcor products include the Stow-A-Crane, which is a bumper-mounted crane for pickup trucks. For snow-and-ice control, Fabcor manufactures spreaders that drop in the bed of pickup trucks and tailgate-mounted spreaders.
With Fabcor's larger plant and faster equipment, the company has the capacity to triple sales, Hoying says. Recently, Fabcor has been experiencing an annual growth rate of 25%. In 1997, the company had $3 million in sales and expects to make $4 million in 1998.