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Coil Processing Technology

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Chicago Slitter Sets Sights on Laser Chicago Slitter will market its new coil fed laser blanking line under the name RDI Laser Blanking Systems. Coils pass from an uncoiler through a six-high roller leveler and looping pit to continuously feed a fiber laser. (Photo courtesy Chicago Slitter) Capitalizing on innovations in fiber laser technology, Chicago Slitter and Italian partner Iron SpA have developed a coil-fed fiber laser line as an alternative to sheet-fed lasers and blanking presses. By Tim Triplett, Editor-in-Chief Chicago Slitter, as its name suggests, is best known for the coil slitting lines it has been supplying the industry since 1975. The equipment maker’s latest offering is a notable departure from its traditional business and represents a new innovation in the marketplace. In partnership with an Italian company, Chicago Slitter is now marketing a coil-fed laser processing line that it claims offers significant productivity advantages over sheet-fed lasers and stamping presses. To develop the new line, Chicago Slitter partnered with Iron SpA, an Italian machine maker that pioneered the concept of coil feeding a laser cutter. Its original design used conventional CO2 lasers, however. Recent innovations in fiber optics have led to fiber lasers that are five times faster, making it practical to cut parts rapidly enough to take advantage of high-volume coil feed rates. Chicago Slitter currently is fine-tuning a demonstration line at its suburban Itasca, Ill., headquarters, and has begun taking orders for what it says is the first coil-fed fiber laser line in North America. The line starts with an uncoiler, which passes the coil through a six-high roller leveler, then through a 15-foot looping pit, to a roll feed that directs it to a 4,000 kilowatt fiber laser. Once parts are cut, they can be packaged using any number of material-handling configurations, from simple conveyors to articulated robots. “Fiber laser technology has really propelled this concept to be more competitive with the blanking press. Five years ago, the economics would not have worked out,” says Jim Russell, Chicago Slitter vice president of sales and marketing. Coil-fed fiber lasers are best suited for thin-gauge metals 1/8th inch and under, which are widely used in many applications in automotive, appliance, office furniture, and building products. This is the market Chicago Slitter has served over the years, so the territory is familiar, Russell says. “We just rolled right into this without a big learning curve. It fits right into our product scope.” The coil-fed fiber laser approach offers several advantages over conventional sheet-fed lasers and stamping presses, which translates into productivity increases of 50 percent or more, the company claims. A coil-fed line can feed metal twice as fast as a sheet-fed line. With integrated material handling on the exit end of the laser cell, cut parts and scrap can be handled automatically, so the line can operate continuously rather than stopping and starting for each blank. Using a laser to cut parts rather than a press to stamp them eliminates the need for expensive dies. Reprogramming a laser is much quicker and cheaper than producing new dies every time a part changes or dies wear out. For a stamping operation to change from mild to stainless or high-strength steel requires new tooling and perhaps even a more powerful press. A fiber laser can be set up to cut different types of material with some basic reprogramming. “You don’t need a bigger laser to cut higher-strength materials,” Russell notes. One of the key requirements for laser cutting is that the sheet must be very flat. The inline roller leveler fixes most of the flatness flaws in light-gauge coils, but the laser head also has a capacitance sensor that follows any wave in the sheet to maintain the proper standoff distance. The laser will cut carbon alloys, aluminum, stainless steel, even titanium coils, as well as conventional mild steel. Nesting software used by the laser system maximizes the parts cut from the coil and significantly reduces scrap. Combined with low power consumption and reduced labor, a coil-fed laser offers significant savings, Russell says. “Once you start looking at the cost per part, this is a very compelling solution.” The coil laser line also makes economical use of space. Its footprint is less than 50 feet long, with no extremely tall components, so it fits in a normal sized building. “It’s really a closed-loop system. You come in with a coil and come out with a finished, stacked part that is ready to go to the next processor,” Russell says. He declined to offer specifics on the cost of the line, noting that it will vary widely depending on its configuration and part/scrap handling setup. It can be designed to handle coils of 24, 40 or 78 inches wide, from 5,000 to 80,000 pounds. He emphasized that this new laser initiative will not affect Chicago Slitter’s brand or traditional coil processing and slitting business. “This does not compete with our other products, it just expands our offering,” he says. Recognizing the branding challenge for a company called Chicago Slitter to sell a laser line, company executives decided to take the product to market under the name RDI Laser Blanking Systems. The RDI Group is the parent company of Chicago Slitter and its sister companies Reichel & Drews and RDI Enclosures. To help with the new initiative, Chicago Slitter added some key expertise to its staff, hiring Project Engineer Scott Erickson and Sales Executive Steve Stultz. Through a license agreement for technology transfer with Iron SpA, Chicago Slitter has the right to distribute the line in North America, while the Italian company distributes the product in Europe. “We sent a team to Italy for a couple of weeks to work on the design. A month or two later, they sent a team here so we could work together. It was a true collaboration, built on their original concept,” Russell says. Chicago Slitter and Iron SpA produce some components of the line and outsource others. IPG Photonics, Oxford, Mass., provides the fiber laser technology; SigmaNest, Cincinnati, Ohio, the nesting software; and Aerotech Inc., Pittsburgh, Pa., the machine controls. Chicago Slitter will not use the new coil-fed laser line in Itasca for production, just for demonstrations and testing. “We will never compete with our customers,” Russell says. “Conceptually, we knew it would work. It was proven technology. When we added the fiber laser, we took it from a go-cart to a Formula One car,” Russell says.