The manufacturing machine automates the production of flat parts
Automation is the present of manufacturing.
Even without robots, pallet changers or other obvious forms of manual labor reduction, competing manufacturers are finding ways to accomplish more with fewer people. An example is the use of machines that combine multiple operations on a single platform. However, the trade-offs involved in combining processes can result in equipment that is just as specialized as the dedicated machines they replace.
Consider the Advanced Hybrid Laser, a laser manufacturing system from Murata Machinery (Muratec) that combines laser cutting, forming and tapping capabilities in a single multi-function machine. Flat parts cut from sheet metal with many formed features and threaded holes are a broad category of work. However, Jeff Tyl, Muratec’s national sales manager, aftermarket and manufacturing, says the designers also had a specific application in mind: panels for fabricated electrical enclosure components for the HVAC, medical and industrial industries. ‘lighting.
We see here the tooling of the punching station. The machine has an eight tool capacity, with up to 46 using optional tool changers. Photo credit: Muratec
Automate with specific parts in mind
Electrical box components have many features that must be stamped into the metal, as well as holes that must be threaded for fasteners. For materials half an inch and smaller, the laser will cut all interior holes and transfer material for forming and tapping while maintaining positional accuracies through the use of a fixed material clamp. For larger materials, it can be used as a stand-alone fiber laser where clamping is not required. Once in the forming and tapping station, the machine can use up to eight tools – 46 with one tool changer – to shape the material before tapping. “Previously, someone had to position it in the laser, then transfer the part to a forming machine, and then finally transfer it to tapping,” says Tyl.
Although the machine has a relatively large footprint, various manufacturers of flat parts requiring secondary operations could benefit from it. In fact, Muratec has already agreed to develop processes for medical parts, Tyl says, adding that the machine is also ideal for parts that require contouring. However, electrical boxes are ideal for this because the metal is thin and the parts require secondary processes.
“This machine is the first of its kind to my knowledge.” –Jeff Tyl, Muratec
“If you look at a hybrid machine, whether it’s a plasma punch or a laser punch or whatever, there’s always a limit,” says Tyl. “With the advanced hybrid laser, that limitation is press tonnage.” Specifically, the press can only achieve five tons each of up and down pressure, which means it is suitable for materials with a thickness of 12 gauge or less. “It really finds its place in materials that require a bit of tapping and maybe a bit of counter sinking,” says Tyl.
The tapping station has four separate spindles for tapping holes. When using particularly thin parts, holes must be extruded at the forming station to create space for tapping. Photo credit: Muratec
Additionally, forming before tapping is usually a requirement for thinner parts, including panels for electrical enclosure components, Tyl says. “It is important to form particularly thin plates before tapping because they do not have the thickness required for tapping,” he explains. “So the tool has to extrude the metal up or down to provide the space to cut the threads.” The tapping system uses independent servos to generate the cutting forces.
Finally, Tyl says potential users should consider the need for new tools. “This machine is the first of its kind to my knowledge. No current tool will work with this,” he explains. “However, both Mate and Murata will craft tools.”
In manufacturing, there will always be tensions between specialized and generalized approaches to automation, and either approach is unlikely to completely eclipse the other. The inherent trade-offs of combining processes on one platform can narrow a machine’s range of applications, but in this niche it can outperform generalized approaches, as this hybrid machine demonstrates.