Automating material handling to boost productivity and response

Automating the sheet handling process allows laser cutting operations to speed up loading and unloading, boost throughput and overall efficiency. This can be done using LVD’s Tower Automation System, a compact single or double tower storage system with automated loading and unloading capabilities for 3015, 4020 or 6020 format laser cutting machines. As a bonus, TAS also significantly improves operator working conditions, safety and productivity.

TAS sheet handling automation can increase laser cutting workshop efficiency by up to 30%

During this tech event, we will focus on automation for fibre and the challenges we had to overcome to answer the current demands of the market. With the evolution in laser technology from CO2 to fibre, we encountered new issues for the automation systems but this evolution also changed the market and the way people looked at laser cutting. 

To gain a better understanding of this, we will discuss three points during this tech event. First of all, why? What is the reason you as a customer might need automation and how can you determine whether you actually need it? Secondly, I will discuss the possible solutions LVD can offer in answer to your particular needs. 

And last but not least, which solution to pick? What type of automation best suits you? With so many systems available in the market this is far from easy to determine.

So first of all, why automate? What possible reasons can make you consider investing in automation? We distinguish four main reasons to invest in automation. 

The first reason is very basic and is all about ergonomics. Most of our operators are not heavyweight lifting champions and of course, we will all need to work longer. In other words, we have to make sure we have equipment available that makes this possible for operators. One of the options is futuristic equipment such as exoskeletons. 

In truth, however, this type of equipment restricts your freedom of movement and will definitely not speed up the process. In most cases, an overhead crane is used to assist with the lifting of sheets and parts. The problem with this setup is that the overhead crane is now unavailable when needed for other operations. The conclusion is that we need dedicated equipment near the laser cutting machine to assist the operators in handling the material or loading the machine. 

A second issue is that fibre laser technologies are making machines so fast that the operator can hardly follow. Some operators may panic but most will continue working at a steady pace, which is only logical if they want to keep doing the same job the whole day. 

As a result, the machine is starved while waiting for the operator to provide new raw materials, drastically reducing machine efficiency. So this is another problem automation strives to solve, namely higher equipment efficiency. A practical example of this is the cutting of this nesting in 1.5 mm stainless steel. The nesting takes 1 minute 43 seconds and the operator has to sort a total of 8 parts into three different stacks, remove the skeleton and load the new sheet. Perhaps the operator will be able to keep up for the first few sheets but never all day long. The solution to increase equipment efficiency is to speed up the material changes, the unloading and loading.

A trend we see on the laser cutting market is also the third reason why automation is becoming increasingly important: customers want to do more with less. A previous tech event where we focused on the need for more power taught us that multiple CO2 machines were being replaced by one single fibre laser with more power. 

Having only one machine available often means increasing equipment availability so the machine has to be available to produce more. When you’re working in one shift while needing to get a job done, adding automation can be an easy solution. Automation can add production hours without influencing the rest of your production or your organisation. You can make optimal use from the time when the machine would be idle anyway.

Another advantage is that the hourly rate diminishes as production hours with the same machine increase. So instead of producing one shift, you can go to one and a half shifts for example, but through unmanned operation to spread your investment value over more hours while increasing your margin on the part. 

A last reason can be material handling. Batch sizes are becoming smaller and we’re cutting one sheet of this, two sheets of that, or another sheet of another type of material. When material loading is fast enough, the next problem is having the material available. So in addition to the machine, the materials must be available near the machine for loading.

In fact, this results in more forklift movements, which are often not fast enough, so material availability is a huge problem. Also, more forklift movements increase the chance of accidents so reducing those is very beneficial.

These are the four basic reasons why investing in automation can be useful. 

Ergonomics, equipment efficiency, equipment availability, and material availability, or handling. When taking care of the last three items, you're actually achieving your ultimate goal, which is to increase the throughput on your machine. 

This brings us to the next point. What are the possible solutions? There are many different systems available simply because one size does not fit all. None of these solutions is best because none fits all production types. Some OEMs prefer to focus on grouping types of material while others want to work in kits. Subcontractors want to reduce lead times but also want to group parts of the same material type and thickness to reduce scrap. Some of you are looking to work in one shift, others want to work 24/7. In short, customers look for the solution that best fits their needs while keeping the cost to operation ratio in check. 

Therefore, LVD has developed a range of automation systems to be able to meet your specific needs. The first step in automation, which goes to ergonomics, is a basic load/unload approach. This is a type of automation which only takes care of loading and unloading the material, regardless of the time this takes. 

You can use multiple loading or unloading stations to increase flexibility. Another type of load/unload already focuses on equipment efficiency. This is the FAL or Flexible Automation Laser, which reduces the material change time to just 40 seconds, thereby answering the need for efficiency or flexibility. 

An option on the FAL partially addresses the question of material availability. Here we can add an input pallet, making two different materials available for processing, or we can even make the connection with a warehouse.

On the subject of warehouses, another automation type is our compact tower, which is the first step in warehouse operations. It's a small, compact design, with obviously a limited number of pallets, and it is linked to a single machine. It can be loaded with several different materials and thicknesses, but it can also store back the finished sheets after cutting. 

As I said, this takes care of machine availability. Having multiple materials available allows you to work unmanned, throughout the night or even at the weekend. Another step up brings us to the TAS or Tower Automation System, or even the WAS, Warehouse Automation Systems. Whereas the Compact Tower is limited, these systems offer more storage capacity and can be linked to multiple machines. 

A Compact Tower uses one machine but these systems can feed raw materials to multiple machines. The TAS is available in 16 different configurations and for sheet sizes up to 6 by 2 metres. It has a modular design: it consists of blocks with which to build any of the 16 configurations. In this image, two machines are connected to one TAS system: one in the front, one in the back. We have a TAS installed in our XP Centre here in Belgium and we will demonstrate the functionality of the TAS in more detail.

The final automation we can discuss is the WAS or Warehouse Automation System. Unlike the TAS, which is limited to two towers, a WAS can have four towers or more. It even has a larger capacity than the TAS. These warehouses are available up to 4 by 2 metres. The big advantage of the TAS is that it takes care of material handling, material transport inside your factory. It will provide the different raw materials to your laser cutting machines, but it can also transport the finished sheets to a sorting area or take the sorted parts from that area to your press brakes for further processing.

So that is a major advantage of the TAS but of course the system must suit your production needs. Now we have to determine which type of automation best suits your needs. This is a question only you can answer as you are most familiar with your production.

Of course, we will be happy to assist you in guiding you towards the best solution. To do so, we need to ask you a number of questions, which you should also ask yourself. These questions involve such factors as production volume and batch sizes, different material thicknesses, how many high runners you have, required loading capacity, an important one is your available space, etc. So a number of questions need answering to determine which type of automation is best for you. For the larger systems, like the TAS and the WAS, the one we will demonstrate later on, we have even developed an experience app that takes you through these questions with the assistance of our sales team.

Ultimately you will arrive at a single solution which should answer your needs.

Automated sheet handling using TAS at work

Watch this webinar and find out how LVD’s TAS system automates sheet loading and unloading, improving the laser cutting process flow and boosting the machine’s throughput. A wide range of functionalities is demonstrated, including integrated stacking, smart vacuum lifting, and unattended loading and unloading.