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Laser Cutting Leads To Business Diversification
- Oct 15, 2018 -


“About 70 to 80 percent of the store’s annual revenue passes through the drive-thru. And you can lose between 50 and 60 percent of your drive-thru business during inclement weather.”

So said C.J. Mays, design manager for Kennesaw, Ga.-based Uni-Structures Inc., the fabricator that makes those canopies, menu boards, and other drive-thru components. Uni-Structures has grown to about 60 employees by focusing on drive-thrus, including those at banks and car washes, but mostly in the industry that has made the drive-thru ubiquitous: the quick-service restaurant, or QSR.

At first glance, a drive-thru looks to be an architectural element that could benefit from the flexible tooling that’s at the heart of custom fabrication. After all, drive-thru menu boards aren’t ordered in the thousands. How could a company possibly justify designing and ordering a tool dedicated to one product?

Repeatability and Scalability

Installing so many order-point canopies probably never would have happened if the company hadn’t taken its unique approach to design. When Barnes worked in the sign business, he became all too familiar with a reality of the job shop. Every job is different, and with that comes all sorts of variability and business planning headaches.

Uni-Structures accomplishes this by getting its installers involved in product design on the front end. They point out any area of the design that could make it more complex to install, and this includes any part size variability and components not coming together as they should. Here is where extrusions play a critical role.

Mays conceded that the company’s extrusion strategy is counterintuitive, particularly considering the die development time involved. “We can spend thousands to have a die made, with a lead time of one to three months,” he said. “We evaluate the die and go back and forth with our extruder. We can spend a lot of time and money getting the shape we really want. There’s a big expense.”

But the expense is worth it, and a quick glance on the shop floor shows why. Over the years the company has designed several hundred unique extrusions that make up the framework (usually carbon steel) and external structure (usually aluminum) of drive-thru components.

The extrusions help make everything repeatable—no having to deal with sheet metal thickness variations, brake operators or welders “making things work.” The extrusions also helped Barnes’ strategy for scaling up his product lines.

When cut and assembled in the right way, the extrusions eliminate all external welds on most products, which has in turn reduced the need for grinding. Extrusions also are fabricated to exact dimensions, which speeds and simplifies on-site installation. If you see a hand grinder in use on the floor, it’s probably being used to add specialized finishes.

Mays held up two extruded shapes that the company has been using for years. “If you have these miter-cut, these mate up cleanly, and you have what we call our ‘drip edge.’” It’s basically a small C-channel that serves as a tiny gutter for rainwater. It is difficult to form on a press brake quickly and consistently, but easy to extrude, assemble, and weld. And again, all the welding goes on the interior of the assembly; the shell has nothing but clean lines and perfectly mated surfaces.

About Diversity

Although it did have a plasma system, the shop used to process much of its sheet and plate on a routing table, which required a team to work two shifts, cutting mostly aluminum sheet metal and plate. It replaced the router with an  4-kW fiber laser . What that team accomplished in two shifts on the router now can be cut within hours on the fiber laser.

“During the first shift of that laser being operational, we had no need for a second shift,” Mays said, “and we really couldn’t fill up an entire first shift.”

He added that now, if somebody in the shop needs an extra part to be cut, supplying it is no problem. “We used to have to work to fit an extra job on the router’s schedule,” Mays said. “But now, if we need an extra part cut, the guys say, ‘No problem. We’ll be back with the part in five minutes.’”

Of course, that routing table sufficed for years. How, exactly? It goes back to the company’s extrusion strategy. Its products are primarily made of extruded components; they just don’t have that many sheet metal parts. The majority of parts the laser does cut are those for which creating an extrusion die just wouldn’t make sense. All of the company’s products have a flat surface of some sort, and most of these are extruded shapes that the company has used hundreds of times over the years; hence, an extrusion for those flat surfaces makes sense.

This leaves few flat parts for the laser to cut, so most parts that come off the laser flow to the press brake for bending. On that brake is a sign showing allotted times for operators, which is a hint at how the shop had to alter its scheduling and part flow strategy shortly after buying the laser in early 2017. Because the laser cut so many parts so quickly, workers at first lined up at the brake to bend their parts. Today each worker has a designated time for press brake time during a shift. When workers need parts bent, they work on other jobs until their timeslot comes up.

This begs the question: If a router’s capacity sufficed before, why buy a laser now—and a high-powered fiber laser at that? It goes back to a strategy many custom fabricators are very familiar with: diversification.

The company is already filling up the laser on second shift with overflow contract work from other fabricators in the area, and with the growing local economy leading to capacity constraints at many local fab shops, there’s plenty of overflow work to go around.

Still, contract work wasn’t the main reason that the company bought a fiber laser. It made the investment to gain more special projects work. At least some of that work could evolve into new product lines and, ultimately, another consistent stream of revenue.

For instance, the company recently designed and installed a building exterior, along with some interior elements, for a manufacturer of large earth-moving equipment. The design incorporated extrusions, but it also involved several cosmetic elements.