Many processes in the sheet metal industry are developing rapidly. Laser cutting, for example. In this interview, Johan Elster, Bystronic’s Head of Business Unit Markets, explains where the journey is headed.
Nowadays, sheet metal is cut using both fibre lasers and CO2 lasers. how will these two technologies develop?
Johan Elster (JE): Over the past few years, the fibre laser has experienced massive technological advances. We launched our first cutting system with fibre laser technology in 2010. Since then, the output power has grown six-fold. Our current top-of-the-line model, the ByStar Fiber, has an output of twelve kilowatts. This progress has also resulted in a massive expansion in the range of applications. Initially, fibre laser technology was suitable only for thin sheet metal; but today, fibre lasers can be used to cut sheet metal thicknesses of 40 mm and beyond.
For a long time, thick sheet metal was considered the domain of CO2 lasers. is this no longer true?
JE: The CO2 laser still possesses good characteristics for the cutting of thick sheet steel. It also allows good results to be achieved in terms of the price per part. Nevertheless, its market share has decreased significantly in recent years; today our sales of CO2 systems are almost negligible.
So, fiber lasers are now the preferred solution for many sheet metal processing companies. what is the key to the success of fiber laser technology?
JE: Fibre lasers achieve up to five times higher cutting speeds than CO2 lasers and exhibit three times the energy efficiency. The operating and maintenance costs are also considerably lower. The fibre laser offers highest cutting speeds, an attractive cost-performance ratio, high cutting quality, and increased flexibility.
Flexibility as a competitive advantage?
JE: Absolutely. Around 70 to 80 percent of our customers are job shops that do not produce any products of their own. They must be prepared to deal with a broad spectrum of orders. Manufacturing a wide variety of parts at the lowest possible cost and in the desired quality is what their business is all about. Fibre lasers make this possible. The ByStar Fiber cuts stainless steel, aluminium, non-ferrous metals, mild steel—and all of these from the thin to thick range of material.
High-performance fiber lasers are all-rounders; what are the most important criteria when selecting their power output?
JE: The criteria vary from customer to customer. Companies that primarily cut thin sheet metal can usually get by with three, four, or six kilowatts. Users that frequently cut in the medium range, for example mild steel between 6 and 15 mm, and want to use nitrogen as the cutting gas, are optimally served with ten or twelve kilowatts. For large companies, the output of the laser is obviously the most important factor for the efficient processing of large batches. Here, the higher output has a significant effect on both speed and profitability.
What does the higher cutting speed mean for the overall production chain?
JE: In fact, the challenge with the latest generation of fiber lasers is to keep up with the loading and unloading. Hence, as a general rule, it makes sense to combine fiber lasers with an automation system. Our ‘ByTrans Extended’ and ‘ByTrans Cross’ loading and unloading systems take automation to the next level. Many small and medium-sized companies are currently in the process of progressively automating their production processes. We are experiencing an increased demand, in particular for sorting solutions. Nowadays, our customers no longer want to sort manually. For this, we offer our highly flexible BySort solution.
What can customers who want to increase their level of automation expect from Bystronic?
JE: As a general rule, our customers have a great deal of expertise in their core processes. We can help identify customer-specific bottlenecks: For example, we can find out where time is being wasted or where there is potential for improvement. This requires all the processes to be analyzed. We build on this and show what options are available to customers to optimize their production processes. Frequently, our customers are interested in compact cells that combine efficiency and flexibility. Accordingly, our solutions are configurable – not only in terms of hardware, but also with regard to software.
How can companies digitalise their production?
JE: This must be implemented step by step. Nowadays many suppliers offer a range of processes: cutting, bending, welding, etc. Regardless of how many processes are involved, it is possible to digitalize. We can help network our customers’ production environments in a gradual and process-specific manner using suitable software solutions.
What is the role of laser cutting in the context of Industry 4.0?
JE: Laser cutting is just one building block in a smart factory. Intelligent and networked production encompasses all the processes of a sheet metal processing company, in particular also those upstream and downstream of the production process: calculations, the preparation of offers, production planning, etc. A manufacturing execution system (MES) controls the production line. This enables production processes to be optimized fully automatically by comprehensively evaluating the data generated during the individual processes and optimizing the processes for the following orders.
There are hurdles that must be overcome on the path towards networked production—which of these is the most challenging?
JE: Since with regard to interfaces, our industry does not have the kind of standards as those found in the IT world, the integration of a variety of different machines into a networked system is very challenging. As a result, the process flow of each individual customer must be taken into consideration.
Bystronic is the only supplier that also integrates third-party machines. what are the reasons for this decision?
JE: We are convinced: The customer wants to be able to pick and choose the best solutions. In our view, suppliers that only integrate their proprietary products are following an outdated approach. For example, no supplier’s portfolio currently includes paint finishing systems. But it is precisely this process step that many customers also want to integrate. What is more, our customers generally already have machines that they wish to integrate into an overall system. This is why it is clear to us: Optimizing a production environment and achieving a higher level of overall efficiency requires not only expertise, but above all openness.
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