2004 was a turning point in Paul Dreyer’s life, MD and owner of Lasercraft, a precision sheetmetal and plate engineering company based in Tunney, Germiston, Gauteng.
Not satisfied with the business partnership he had been involved in for the previous 10 years, he decided to open his own business. However, Dreyer’s experience in the laser cutting and metal forming field goes back much further.
“Laser cutting of metal was a relatively new operation in South Africa when I first became involved with the technology in 1989. Even computer-aided design was still in its infancy in South Africa. The first known machine, a 1500 watt Bystronic Bylas, was imported by the late Robert Skok’s company Varios SA in 1988. At that stage everybody was very skeptical about this ‘expensive’ technology and wanted nothing do with it.”
“This can be borne out by the fact that less than 50 machines were sold before the turn of the century,” said Dreyer.
The rapid growth in the industry from year 2000 has seen over 600 machines (unofficial figures) being installed countrywide with many companies owning more than one machine. Some are even on their third, fourth and fifth machine, including Lasercraft.
Paul Dreyer in the Lasercraft factory, which he believes is one of the most modern process-oriented operations in South Africa and probably the Southern Hemisphere. Lasercraft moved in 18 months ago and went from a 1 700 m² facility (1 600 m² factory and 100 m² office space) to 7 900 m² (7 000 m² factory and 900 m² office space), and from 43 staff to the current level of 111
“In addition to being fast, laser processing has high material-utilisation rates and reduces work-in-process inventories. There are no tools to sharpen, maintain, purchase, or replace when broken and no need to purchase filters or dispose of coolants. Also, 3D-laser heads perform several operations simultaneously to eliminate waiting time between operations,” explained Dreyer.
Since those early days laser-cutting technology has continued to mature and ace operators have learned how to tweak parameters to get the most out of the system – particularly when cutting thicker materials. It is the old saying: Experience counts.
This can be said of Paul Dreyer because he has been involved with and worked extensively on the first machine that was imported into South Africa. Since then Dreyer has built up a wealth of experience in the laser field and today views himself as an ‘expert’, he said tongue in cheek. He was in his early twenties when he made his foray into the market.
“I was working as a draftsman for a company that used lasers to cut dies for the packaging industry. I was asked to try to program a drawing for the manufacture of an intricate door panel for an armoured vehicle.”
In March this year Lasercraft installed a Bystronic ByAutonom 3015 laser cutter complete with a Byloader for automated load/unloading
“Lasers were still like space games,” Dreyer recalls, but he was not fazed by the new technology. The company got in touch with Varios SA, the original Bystronic agent for South Africa.
“Varios SA did not have a programmer and they eventually employed me. A technician from Bystronic travelled to South Africa to teach me to learn how the machine worked. The two of us dismantled and reassembled the Bylas, until I knew it inside out. I also went to Switzerland for training and got to know the Bystronic staff in Switzerland, contacts upon which I could rely on for information, spares and advice.”
“It was an exciting time as CNC was really starting to influence the market place and as a result the laser cutting and metal forming field was advancing in leaps and bounds in terms of the equipment, as did the industry.”
“My previous partner and I set up a job shop come service centre in 1994. Our first purchase was a Byflex 4015. We decided on this machine after visiting the EuroBLECH exhibition in Hannover, Germany. Later we purchased a waterjet, a Byjet 4020, which we believe was the first to be imported into South Africa, and then a Hãmmerle pressbrake.”
“Our partnership broke up in 2004 and I went solo. Lasercraft purchased its first machine in October 2004. I have remained loyal to Bystronic so it was inevitable that I purchased a Bystar 4.4 kW, which could cut all standard sheet metal formats up to 3 x 1.5 metres.”
Certain clients need waterjet cutting services and Lasercraft has a Bystronic Byjet Smart 3015 to carry out these operations
Lasercraft quickly earned a reputation for offering its customers competitively priced, high quality products enhanced by efficient and reliable service.
These attributes attracted other industries to the company and today Lasercraft services a wide range of industries nationwide including those in the motion industry, electrical distribution, shopfitting, automotive, defence, material handling, general engineering sectors and more.
Such was the success of the machine that the company required extra capacity in terms of a second laser system. Believing that he should be able offer his clients a speedy turnaround, Dreyer purchased an identical machine in February 2006. This could afford him the opportunity, when it came to larger production runs, to run the job on both machines and thus get the job out in half the time.
This philosophy has stuck with him since.
In the mean time, along with two CNC bending machines purchased, came the MIG and TIG welding equipment, the bandsaw and the shearing equipment. All of these disciplines added value to the final product that Lasercraft could offer to its clients.
Towards the end of 2006 Lasercraft realised, even though they had just installed a second machine, that they were running out of capacity and that they needed to offer their clients a wider variety of cutting options. A visit to EuroBLECH 2006 convinced Dreyer that he needed to purchase two more laser machines.
One of the more recent machines that Lasercraft has purchased is a Bystronic Xcite 80 E CNC press brake
“I have always visited the international exhibitions to learn what the rest of the world is doing and also to experience the new technology first hand. EuroBLECH is no exception. As a result I decided to purchase two identical Bystronic 6 kW Bystar lasers,” said Dreyer.
“Fortunately the lead time on delivery gave us enough time to purchase the land next door and put up a facility specially dedicated to the lasers.”
“The new machines were faster but they also allowed us to cut up to 25 mm on mild steel, 20 mm on stainless and 10 mm on aluminium. At the time this gave us a big advantage on most of the players in the market,” Dreyer continued.
“Now with two ‘sets’ of machines we were not limited in size and we could cut anything from one offs to large production runs. In fact for one client we were cutting up to 60 000 components at a time.”
Organic growth in the business, coupled with winning tenders to supply the big projects such as the Gautrain and stadiums for the World Cup 2010, led to Lasercraft purchasing more fabrication and cutting equipment. This included an Xpert 320 press brake, two Xcel 50 press brakes and a Bystar L 4025 laser.
“The projects involved large quantities of formwork for the construction of the various bridges and stadiums. Lasercraft did not want to miss out on this infrastructural ‘boom’ in South Africa so we had to invest,” explained Dreyer.
In pride of place at Lasercraft’s laser cutting division is the Bystar L 4025 that is equipped with a 12-metre shuttle table.
Lasercraft has a Faccin three roll double pinch plate bending machine, which is ideal for light materials and low volumes. The machine was supplied by Talmac Machine Tools
“The ‘Big Elephant’, as the machine has been named, allows us to cut plates up to 12 metres long and 2.5 metres wide and up to 25 mm thick mild steel. The machine was purchased to allow us to manufacture components for a special customer specialising in heavy-duty, high-tech equipment such as enormous mine vehicles with dumper buckets, mine trucks and trailers, earth excavation equipment and locomotive parts.”
“Many components are cut from durable, high-strength steel, which is twice as strong as mild steel, and allows the client to reduce component thickness while maintaining strength. The installation of the Bystar L 4025 took six weeks but it has run nonstop ever since. Our biggest problem now is that we only have one. It has no backup but this will change in the future.”
Growing so fast comes with its problems and Lasercraft was no exception.
“A solution to the first one was easy to fix. Although we were adding value in certain areas we were lacking on the machining side. Clients did not want to move their components from one shop to another to have the machining operations done. Hence we invested in three CNC drilling machines and two CNC lathes. This does not constitute a machine shop but it has been adequate for our requirements. However we do have plans to increase the equipment in this area by adding more lathes and machining centres and then we will be able to market ourselves as a complete shaping, forming and fabricating entity,” explained Dreyer.
“The second problem was a bit more tricky and required planning, negotiating and then implementing our strategy. It was essentially two-fold in that we ran out of space and we had virtually reached our capacity on the power supply side.”
“This was the reason that we purchased the power saving Bysprint Fiber 3015, nicknamed the ‘Baby Elephant’, but once it was installed we were at our limit.”
These days Lasercraft operates in an extremely competitive environment, and the South African market throws in some unique challenges such as demanding delivery times. Ten years ago, when the company was established, Lasercraft was virtually the only company offering laser cutting services in the area. Not only has there been an expansion in industrial areas that have opened up, but there has also been a proliferation in service centres and job shops offering cutting and fabrication services.
Lasercraft have incorporated a Pacific CNC 1 250 ton hydraulic press brake into their equipment register. The CNC press brake has a 10 metre bed, weighs in at 160 tons, has a 6-axis backgauge, hydraulic upper tool clamping and a remote laser alignment system
“On one hand it is good because there are more opportunities but on the other hand the competition is greater. There must be at least 12 competing companies just in our area now. I am not too sure what the growth has been in the greater Gauteng area, but I have seen established companies upgrading and offering more services with bigger and better equipment. This all adds to the competition.”
“If I wanted to grow the company I knew I had to move to a bigger facility. During our strategic planning we took these factors mentioned into account and used them to our advantage.”
“We first entered into a JV agreement with one of our largest clients that specialises in the manufacture and fabrication of heavy duty components and machinery, predominantly for the mining and industrial industries with a focus on manipulating and welding heavy plate. This secured a strong order book going forward as we were guaranteed all their laser cutting requirements. They had previously being shopping out most of this work to a host of competitors.”
“In our negotiations it was agreed that we would incorporate their Pacific CNC 1 250 ton hydraulic press brake into our plans. This allowed them to concentrate on what they were good at, namely manipulation and welding of heavy plate and it allowed us to increase our capacity in our bending department, which is one of our strengths. The CNC press brake has a 10 metre bed and weighs in at 160 tons. The machine has a 6-axis backgauge, hydraulic upper tool clamping and a remote laser alignment system.”
“Between the two companies it was decided that we look for a facility in close proximity to their facility for a number of obvious reasons. They were also looking at expanding and the outcome is what you see now. We have moved into what must be one of the most modern and technically advanced facilities that any sheetmetal and plate cutting company in South Africa occupies, and our client and JV partner is housed in an equally impressive facility next door. They also have another two facilities 500 metres up the road.”
“As the new facility was built from scratch it afforded us the opportunity to have an open canvass. This meant we could incorporate all the latest techniques and designs that would make us one of the most modern process-oriented operations in South Africa and probably the Southern Hemisphere, something that I had always dreamt about.”
The power saving Bystronic Bysprint Fiber 3015, nicknamed the ‘Baby Elephant’
“We moved in 18 months ago and went from a 1 700 m² facility (1 600 m² factory and 100 m² office space) to 7 900 m² (7 000 m² factory and 900 m² office space), and from 43 staff to our current level of 111 with room to expand to 250.”
New equipment and processes
“With all this space available to the company it was inevitable that we should fill it with equipment. And this we have done, but it was all part of the strategy.”
Shortly before moving into the new facility a Bystronic Byjet Smart waterjet arrived from Switzerland. “This machine is not being used to its full capacity at the moment but strategically it works for us because certain clients need waterjet cutting services and rather than chase them away with the possibility of losing all their business, we accommodate them.”
Plasma and oxyfuel
“To remain competitive, a shop must be willing to embrace both innovation and change together. To get the most out of that commitment, a shop needs to understand just how the introduction of any new technology will affect the entire process chain, not just one part.”
“With our JV in place we knew our partner would require cutting of heavy plate operations and not just bending. This led us to Messer and we installed a Multitherm plasma cutter as well as a Multitherm oxyfuel cutter. Both of these machines are housed in a separate building within the new facility, so there is no contamination possible on the bending, laser cutting and machining side.”
“We have also installed a Faccin three roll double pinch plate bending machine, which is ideal for light materials and low volumes.”
The Messer Multitherm plasma cutter
In July last year a Bystronic Byvention 3015 laser arrived, followed in September by a Bystronic Beyeler Xpert 150 press brake, and then in February this year a Bystronic Beyeler Xcite 80 press brake was delivered. In March this year saw the company installed a Bystronic ByAutonom 3015 laser cutter complete with a Byloader for automated load/unloading.
Automation and part flow
“There’s been a lot of focus on high-speed cutting with the laser. But it’s an undue focus. It’s as if, sitting in traffic, I think ‘if I could just drive faster my commute would be shorter’. So I spend a lot of money to buy a really fast car, only to find I’m still stuck in the same gridlock traffic I was in before.”
“The same can happen when buying a high-speed laser and not accommodating for part flow, be it within a product-oriented factory layout or a process-oriented job-shop layout. A shop should always analyse what the operator is doing while the laser cuts. For extremely high-speed cutting, an operator may continually need to finesse the feeds and speeds, the cutting aperture and gas pressure, as debris and other factors can cause slight changes to the focal point, requiring on-the-fly adjustments.”
Ways to unclog
“A laser cell’s value-added time occurs when it cuts metal—seemingly obvious. Yet if a high-speed system isn’t integrated properly, it can spend remarkably little time cutting. Two major ‘non-value-adding’ points contribute to this: material handling (including raw sheet, finished parts and scrap) and tool change-out. Of the two, tool change-out represents the later development.”
“Currently we spend too much time on changeover rather than reducing this aspect of the operation. I can go and buy fancy material handling equipment to get the sheets to the machine but it is wasted money if it costs me time on changeover.”
“I have been talking to the manufacturers for a number of years about this situation. It is more relevant in a country like South Africa where we do not have long production runs like Europe. Finally they are recognising my point and moves are being made to address the situation.”
The Messer Multitherm oxyfuel cutter
“Still key to the operation though,” he says, “remains the company’s ‘manufacturing plan’ that every job follows, from estimation through scheduling, production, post-process inspection and delivery. Most parts follow four primary paths through the shop floor, and each starts with a different cutting technology.”
Material storage system
“Making the process faster and efficient on the machines means you need to address your material handling situation. As a result all of Lasercraft’s laser cutting machines are fitted with a Byloader for automated load/unloading. The Byloaders are currently fed from a forklift delivery, which retrieves raw material from a racking area.”
“Keeping the aisles free of wooden pallets, piles of ‘work in progress’ and raw material is a priority and we have been fairly successful in this area. But we are still not satisfied. We are currently looking at an inventory management system whereby the racking system that holds the raw material will be automated, from supplier delivery to machine delivery. I have seen it implemented in Europe so I know it can be done.”
“The goal is to get the company’s material suppliers to deliver material to us and then eliminate any labour intensive intermediate steps before the material is delivered to the machines. The inventory management system will be linked into our ERP system that we have installed.”
“The ultimate goal is to be able to incorporate all the systems into the ERP and run seamlessly from the office.”
Branding and advertising
“Part of our strategy in transforming our business from one which was relatively small but very service orientated to one that is a major player in our field was to ask: How to strengthen brand awareness and grow your business through advertising?”
“For many fabricators, the initial reaction to that question would be a resounding no. Often their reasoning is rooted in cost and not achieving a return on investment. Why spend money on some ads when you’re not sure they’re going to result in anything, much less sales? Why should I advertise when I already know who my customers are? Why should I advertise when I’m already doing fairly well?”
Lasercraft offers robotic welding and have recently installed an ABB welding robot
“Of course, if you have no interest in further developing your brand, if you’re OK with not attracting any new customers, and you’re content with not growing your business, then advertising definitely is not for you. But if you are looking to define, establish, and promote your brand; attract new customers; and grow your business, launching an integrated advertising campaign can go a long way toward making these goals a reality, which we have started with.”
“We have taken it further in that our logo has been redesigned and our branding has been standardised thereby establishing consistent messaging throughout the company. This includes branding all the company vehicles, including mine. The feedback of this awareness campaign has been tremendous.”
Down the road
“Besides implementing a total management control system with our ERP we are currently going through the process of getting ISO 9001 certification. We have already been pre-audited and will be certified in the next few months.”
Branding and advertising – “Part of our strategy in transforming our business from one which was relatively small but very service orientated to one that is a major player in our field was to ask: How to strengthen brand awareness and grow your business through advertising?” said Paul Dreyer. Lasercraft have branded all the company vehicles
“Our current BBBEE level is 4 and we hope to achieve a level 2 status soon, we are looking at purchasing more CNC lathes as well as adding CNC machining centres to the mix, adding blasting/fettling equipment and a paint shop. These plans are already being drawn up and will be implemented in the near future.”
“This will take us to virtually being a one-stop-shop. With what we have in place at the moment we have already been recognised both locally and internationally.”
“Our motivation is to prove that we are serious about doing business.”
For further details contact Lasercraft on TEL: 011 828 7900