England-based sheet metal fabricator Dutton Engineering, located in Sandy, Bedfordshire, processes more than 550 tons of material a year, mostly stainless steel.
“We don’t try and compete on lots of mild steel because there are companies out there that will churn through tons and tons of thin mild steel every single day. Around 99% of our work is on stainless steel—in both pure cutting and in fabrication—and it is mainly destined for the food and pharmaceutical sectors,” said Managing Director Andrew Read. This is a key differentiator, as customers in industries like these can’t risk any mild steel contamination on their stainless steel products.
“We have a twofold approach, offering both pure laser cutting and a complete fabrication and assembly service, and they are treated fairly separately,” he explained. Besides laser cutting, the company’s fabrication capabilities include waterjet cutting, bending, manual welding, surface finishing, and bead blasting.
But Dutton was finding that some of its equipment wasn’t keeping up with the demands of the competitive markets it serves.
“The normal range of material we cut on the laser is 3 to 10 mm,” Read said. “Because we have the waterjet, we would always use that if we had thicker material to cut. We used to cut 20-mm aluminum on the waterjet, and it would take eight to nine hours to do a plate.”
Cutting steel covered with plastic protective film—common on high-quality stainless steel work—also was causing headaches.
“One of the major problems we have had for years is that the protective plastic coating on the stainless sheet gets stuck to it when you cut it,” he explained. “It leaves a black residue, which is horrible to get off. It might take a minute to cut it and then 10 minutes to take the plastic off. It was horrendous stuff and the bane of our life.”
The company’s laser cutting equipment included a 4-kW LVD Sirius CO2 laser with a tower automation system, as well as an LVD Impuls CO2 laser installed in 2005. The Sirius laser, with tower storage and automatic load/unload, has been, and remains, the workhorse for large-volume production.
“It literally revolutionized our ability to sell laser cutting services and works 24 hours a day,” Read said.
That said, Read understands the limitations of the technology: “CO2 lasers are being superseded; they are not as cost-effective as fiber lasers. On a CO2 laser, the beam is delivered using mirrors, and you run into problems with the consistency of the cut when the mirrors start to degrade. With the fiber you don’t have any of that. The beam comes straight down an optic cable.”
He soon decided to invest in a new fiber laser cutting machine.
Dutton recently took delivery of a new LVD Phoenix 10-kW fiber laser system, replacing its Impuls CO2 machine.
“Our electricity bill was huge, and it has dropped by at least a third since we installed the new Phoenix, just by replacing the old machine with a new one,” Read said. “It is also significantly faster, not just a little bit faster; you are talking twice as fast on some jobs. On some of the thinner material, it is cutting faster than a minute a sheet.”
Repeatability has improved as well. “Unlike the CO2 laser, where you have to adjust it over time, once you have the controller set, you have none of that,” he explained. “From an operating perspective, it is much simpler. You just press the button and go.”
Compared to waterjet cutting, the fiber laser is orders of magnitude faster on thick aluminum—work that Dutton sometimes has to do as part of a larger project. “We put that same plate on the fiber laser and it was done in 17 minutes.”
And what about that plastic-coated steel? “Now, because of the power of the laser and the narrowness of the beam, the Phoenix fiber laser cuts the plastic with absolutely no residue. You cut the plastic film in one pass and then go back and cut the metal. That has been a massive saving for us and cut out a time-consuming manual operation,” said Read.
And saving time has been essential for Dutton, especially during the COVID pandemic because of the unpredictability in the markets it serves. Being flexible and cost-competitive is more critical than ever.
“What we have to do is to try and get more out with less and be more efficient with the time we have. We have always made this assumption that we sell time, whether we are turning around sheet metal or whether we are going into a fabrication contract. So we measure everything down to the minute, and you know the profit and loss as soon as it is finished and adjust accordingly,” Read noted.
“Not having to clean off the plastic residue, for example, saves so much time and gives a massive benefit on the bottom line. If the machine cuts quicker, that saves time; if it gives a consistent cut that doesn’t need a lot of finishing, that saves time; if I don’t have to train a highly skilled operator, that’s another saving—you save electricity, you save gas. You are always looking for ways to reduce costs while being more efficient. That’s what the new LVD Phoenix laser does for us.”