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Focused flexibility: modular and OEM-independent laser automation

Becoming increasingly automated is a key component to remaining competitive in any industry as workers retire and companies face ongoing challenges to hire and retain skilled replacements. That’s according to Matt hias Remmert, owner of Remmert GmbH & Co. KG in Löhne, Germany.

The company is known for its warehousing systems to store and retrieve long bars and sheet metal, Remmert says, but it started to investigate how to effectively and independently load and unload 2D laser cutting machines about a decade ago, based on customer input. “We started to dig into this problem a little bit more deeply. We started our engineering project about this and designed the LaserFLEX.”

LaserFLEX 4.0 is a technology that provides fully automated loading and unloading of laser cutting systems. Remmert notes that two advantages make LaserFLEX unique in the market. The first is that it provides builder-independent integration of laser machines. “That means LaserFLEX is a product that is able to communicate and to interface with a number of different laser machines. We are not just focused on [working with] one brand.”

That capability is possible, Remmert explains, because virtually all laser cutting machines are CNC operated and, therefore, have a communication, or interface, module. “That’s the base for our communication. We act as a supplier to the laser. The laser is the master in the overall footprint, and we are the slave. We give the machine whatever the machine is asking for, whether it’s to load raw material or to unload cut nests.” In addition to being CNC, essentially all the machines being integrated in LaserFLEX are fiber lasers, Remmert says. “CO2, from our perspective, is almost dead. There are almost no newly installed CO2 lasers on the market.”

MAKE IT MODULAR

The second advantage is the automation technology’s flexibility and modularity, Remmert says. This capability enables a customer to start with a basic arrangement in which one laser cutting machine is loaded and unloaded, and then extend it by adding one or more storage towers, one or more additional lasers, or a sorting application, such as the company’s SortFLEX robot for automatic sorting of laser-cut parts. “With SortFLEX, we have the possibility to sort individual parts of the nest onto pallets or trays or whatever.”

Extending the load/unload system frequently occurs after customers become familiar with the system and have generated their own data about the benefits it provides, Remmert says. Of the roughly 100 systems in operation in the U.S., more than three-quarters are single-machine arrangements, he estimates, with a similar percentage for the global market, meaning the majority will potentially be expanded.

A customer might start with a standalone LaserFLEX, then add a basic tower and then add a doubletower storage system and a second laser. “When we see the U.S. market at the moment, the tower is the most popular unit to buffer raw plates and to buffer cut nests,” Remmert says.

If large quantities of sheet metal or even palletized blanks need to be stored, the company offers the MIDI multiple-tower sheet metal storage system, he notes. MIDI can be arranged as a single or double-line system of towers and have a storage and retrieval machine to handle pallets inside the system. “We have some MIDI systems installed in the U.S.”

Besides the storage and laser automation solutions, Remmert provides other FLEX modules for laser cutting processes, including robots and conveyor belts for sorting and an automated guided vehicle system for autonomous transport of sheet metal. The AGV has a payload of 3 metric tons, Remmert notes. With a 3,000 mm (118 in.) by 1,200 mm (471/4 in.) transport platform, the AGV is used to bring laser-cut parts to whatever process is required after machining, such as bending, welding or powder coating. The company reports that AGVs navigate safely and independently in any direction, including through narrow paths. They can replace forklift trips and rigid conveyors, creating new possibilities for organizing production.

INDEPENDENT OPERATION

LaserFLEX is fitted with an automated supplier unit, using vacuum cups to load a plate and an automated remover unit using a fork system to remove the cut nest from the laser table, Remmert explains. “These two components act independently. That means loading and unloading is independent from each other.”

The benefit of independent operation is speed. As soon as the remover places the cut sheet back down or sets it next to the laser, the supplier attaches a new sheet to the laser all in about a minute for sheet metal in the 3150 large format (1,500 mm by 3,000 mm). The automation is also suitable for the 4020 maxi format, which measures 2,000 mm by 4,000 mm.

“In a 60-second cycle time,” Remmert says, “we have the possibility to exchange the nest to a raw plate again, which gives a tremendous throughput and tremendous capacity to the laser.” That rate of speed for the automation, he adds, is critical because fiber lasers cut quickly. “The speed of the 30 kW laser is so fast that even our automation can hardly keep up with it.”

The manufacturing and delivery lead time for LaserFLEX is three to nine months, depending on the complexity of the system, Remmert says. After consulting with a customer, the company will engineer the correct configuration and build it at its factory in Germany. Remmert’s own team installs the system, which is then monitored by the company’s service department if the need arises. All installed systems are connected to the internet, enabling service technicians to dial into the system and remotely control it. “About 85 percent of troubleshooting is remote interaction.” He notes that Remmert also offers a full spectrum of on-site services, such as preventive maintenance. “My team is able to handle and to cover all the service needs of our customers.”

The expectation for a return on investment is from three to five years, Remmert says, as customers strive to achieve 24/7 lights-out production with LaserFLEX. While warehousing is still a strong field for the company, Remmert says it has increasingly focused on intralogistics as it continues to develop automation that is independent, modular, fast and future-proofed. “That’s mainly what we do today.”

 

Initially published in FF Journal (USA)

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