MEPCA spoke to metal fabrication specialist, Dudley Industries, to explore some of the advantages of laser cutting and how it can be combined with many of the company’s other processes to create high quality finished parts
MEPCA: In metal fabrication applications, what are the key advantages offered by laser cutting?
Dudley Industries: The most obvious advantages relate to accuracy and precision. Laser cutters create really clean edges and a smooth finish, and they enable manufacturing to very fine tolerances.
Allied to this is consistency; because they are so precise and because they are programmed using CAD/CAM software, they can make exactly the same cut as many times as the project requires. In that sense, it makes an important contribution to quality assurance.
Together, these strengths also yield waste-saving benefits. Our Laser cutters can perform complex cuts and work to elaborate patterns on sheet sizes of up to 3m x 1.5m. With suitable planning, multiple parts can therefore be programmed in and cut from a single sheet of metal (nesting), minimising the amount of waste left over.
The other big advantage is speed, which means shorter lead-times. Whether they’re being used on large- or small-scale projects, laser cutters can cut most metals at very high speeds. Cutting the parts more quickly obviously helps reduce the overall manufacturing time and that, in turn, can deliver significant efficiency savings.
M: Does the laser cutting method suit specific applications, as opposed to other cutting methods?
DI: Laser cutting methods are extremely versatile but they are especially well suited to work that requires the creation of complex shapes and patterns. Laser cutting is the obvious choice wherever a high level of repeatable accuracy is required, whether that’s on a large or small scale.
M: What materials are suited to laser cutting?
DI: Fibre lasers can cut stainless steel, mild steel, corten steel and aluminium with relative ease. Copper and brass are more challenging but, in essence, they just demand a slower cutting speed.
M: What degrees of complexity and precision can the approach achieve?
DI: Typically, fibre laser cutting is accurate to within 0.05mm. However, the limitations on complexity are governed by the material thickness. The thicker the material being cut, the less complexity you will achieve. As a rule of thumb, any cut-outs need to be at least the same size as the material thickness. For example, you couldn’t cut a 1mm hole in 3mm thick material using a fibre laser cutter, but you could cut a 1mm hole in 1mm material.
M: If customers have a project where laser cutting is a good fit, when should they approach you?
DI: The earlier the customer can approach us the better. Good manufacturers will have experienced designers as part of their teams, and their expertise can often be invaluable at the early stages to avoid issues further down the line. Reviewing designs at the concept stage will typically save time and money in the long run, and may well also help to identify efficiencies that reduce ongoing waste costs. Designers may have useful suggestions to make about the form of the product itself, material choices, the method of assembly or a host of other considerations.
Importantly, even beyond the design and discuss phases, savings and efficiencies can occur at any one of several key stages in the process
M: In most cases it is not as simple as cutting a piece and sending it to the customer – there will be other finishing steps employed. What might these include?
DI: In most instances other operations will also be required. These could include folding, inserts (studs or nuts), welding and dressing corners, and powder coating.
A good example is an existing customer’s trim panel. The panel requires a complex honeycomb cut-out in a particular pattern to accompany their logo. The flat panel is then folded into a ‘U’ shape and has a safety fold applied to both side edges. Weld studs are then fitted to the underside to act as spacers, and the part is then linished to provide a good surface ready for powder coating.
Although the finished part looks clean and simple enough when fitted, its manufacture actually involves several separate stages, all of which are important to the finished result.