Lasers aren’t just for Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. They long ago stopped being just a prop in science fiction movies, although many people may not realize how widespread their use is today.
The history of industrial lasers only dates back to the mid-1960s, but they’re now used to cut everything from diamonds to plastic, wood, wax and metals.
One industry that hasn’t had much use for them, however, is HVAC and ductwork fabrication. Historically, laser cutting tables have been considered too expensive to cut the thin-gauge sheet metal typically used to make duct and fittings. Due to the potentially blinding effects of the laser, the machines required an elaborate enclosure to be built around it, making them big, bulky and very expensive.
Most sheet metal contractors, if they had anything at all besides hand tools, stuck to the traditional plasma cutting table.
That could be changing. About a year ago, Mestek Machinery introduced what officials say is the first laser cutting system aimed at the HVAC sheet metal market. The Vulcan Laser-Max 1.5 offers a way to cut sheet metal that’s speedier and doesn’t have the dust and dirt that comes with traditional plasma equipment.
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The fiber laser machine was quietly introduced at the 2017 AHR Expo in Las Vegas and its now being marketed to a select group of contractors that can most make use of the technology, said Mike Bailey, Mestek’s vice president of sales and new product development.
“It’s a big deal,” Bailey said. “We have patented a cutting head that has a shroud around the cutting head so we don’t have to have an enclosure.”
The lack of a big bulky box running the length of the table means that the machine doesn’t take much more space than a traditional 20-foot plasma unit and it also allows operators to access the metal as its coming off the machine. Workers no longer have to wait for the whole sheet to be cut.
Another advantage, Bailey pointed out, is the machine can be fed off a coil line instead of just handling individual sheets, which saves on material and handling costs.
“This system is cleaner, faster with better cut quality,” Bailey said.
Those attributes are what attracted the attention of officials with Poynter Sheet Metal in Greenwood, Indiana. The first Vulcan Laser-Max 1.5 was recently installed there. With a 105,000-square-foot shop, space wasn’t an issue for Poynter. But improving speed and efficiency at the multimillion-dollar company was.
Speed and efficiency
“It’s all about productivity,” said company President Joseph Lansdell, who recently served as 2016-17 president of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association. “And productivity does go to the bottom line.”
Lansdell said he’s always interested in technologies that can improve Poynter’s operations. Unlike many sheet metal shops, Poynter workers were already familiar with laser cutting, using a large laser table for some of the company’s specialty metalwork. But for its HAVC projects, it had stuck to a traditional plasma table.
After a conversation with Bailey and another SMACNA contractor, Lansdell decided he was interested in trying the equipment, which was installed by Mestek earlier this year. It didn’t take long to convince him it was the right decision.
“It’s worked out great so far,” Lansdell said. “We’re really pleased.”
The Laser-Max has replaced one of the company’s standard plasma tables and he may eventually retire the other, he said.
“I have every intention of replacing my other plasma cutter with another laser,” he said. “I don’t see any reason to (keep the plasma table).”
Using the fiber laser has dropped the time to cut a metal sheet from around 11 minutes to about 3 minutes, he added. And it’s much, much cleaner: The smoke and fine powder which cover metal that’s been run through a plasma table is gone, Lansdell added.
Mestek officials point out that the clean cut made by the laser means edge quality is greatly improved compared with plasma, and that can mean longer service life for roll-forming and bending machinery, since laser puts an end to the rough, burr-covered edges common with plasma equipment.
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Bailey acknowledged investing in fiber laser isn’t cheap. It can cost up to five times more than a standard plasma table. But for some high-volume contractors, it should be an easy choice, he added.
“This is right in there with what their thought process is,” he said. “It’s not going to replace plasma. But it is going to enhance those larger contractors doing larger work under very tight schedules.”