Experience spurs success at Afrilaser

Dale Hughes built his reputation in the laser cutting and material bending industry by being the employee that the company could rely on to get the job done. Hughes has been in the sheet metal processing industry for the whole of his working career having started off in the industry when it was in a fledgling stage in South Africa and there were not many companies that had laser cutting machines on their books as capital equipment.

At the stage that Hughes joined the industry, companies were still 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 in operation in South Africa before the turn of the century.

Afrilaser utilises state-of-the-art machinery and the latest versions of design and manufacturing software for its processing

Dale Hughes, who established Afrilaser in 2014, built his reputation in the laser cutting and material bending industry by being the employee that the company could rely on to get the job done

But he joined the industry at the right time. The rapid growth in the industry from the year 2000 has seen a proliferation of machines being installed countrywide with many companies now owning more than one machine. Some are even on their third, fourth and fifth machine.

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 Dale Hughes because he has built up a wealth of experience in the laser field and today views himself as an ‘expert’, he said tongue in cheek.

His ability to recognise and offer a specialised service that is aimed at identifying areas of a client’s current production that can be streamlined by laser cutting and precision bending – leading to tremendous time saving in assembly, reduced labour costs and eliminating the need for expensive tooling – naturally paved a way for success.

Afrilaser installed a Bystronic ByStar 3015 6kW fiber laser that includes a ByLoader for material handling, in April 2017

Afrilaser manufactures for a client the SmartCanopy, as it is known, a patented modular CKD (Completely Knocked Down) design with a number of benefits

Of course utilising state-of-the-art machinery, the latest versions of design and manufacturing software and years of industry experience is a big help too.

“The company I worked for when I started off as an operator had quite a sizeable order book for manufacturing signage. Combining signage with metal and laser cutting is not a good idea because the client is looking for perfection in the surface finish and generally speaking it is just not possible, if you consider the number of times the material is handled. This presents numerous opportunities for scratching and bending to take place. Nonetheless, it was a good area in the industry for me to start in and it set the tone for me – excellence or nothing.”

“Today my company is manufacturing toolboxes and canopies for bakkies for a client whose mantra to us was to produce the highest possible quality product on the market, using 409 Grade stainless steel and automotive production methods. This approach succeeded in bringing my client one of the largest canopy deals in South African history when they signed up to equip a fleet of 2 500 bakkies. The SmartCanopy, as it is known, is a patented modular CKD (Completely Knocked Down) design with a number of benefits. Because the canopies were assembled using separate component parts, the client could replace individual parts when damaged, instead of the entire canopy. Flat-packing of the components also meant that five flat-packed kits fitted into the same space as one fully assembled canopy, with savings on shipping and distribution costs.”

The first laser that Afrilaser purchased is a Trumpf 5kW. The bed size is pretty standard – 4 x 2 metres

Afrilaser convinced its client to change from manufacturing its canopies and toolboxes in aluminium to stainless steel

“Now my client makes a variety of canopies well suited to the leisure 4×4 and overlanding markets, offering a number of optional extras to tailor each canopy to individual needs. Among these options is a fully kitted kitchen unit with a built-in stove and twin stainless steel fold-out tables. The canopies feature neat little touches like a positive pressure vent to help keep out dust, and the unique thumb tabs for locking the rear and gullwing doors are unlike anything else on the market.”

“My client must be commended about not only the design aspect of the canopies but also for his ambitious and revolutionary decision to move from manufacturing the products in aluminium to stainless steel. He was subsequently recognised for this fact.”

“I established Afrilaser in 2014 and manufacturing toolboxes and canopies for this client was one of our first contracts. We were involved with the design of the products and of course the processing. We are very strong in these areas because of my experience and the team behind me. I work with an amazing group of people who are dedicated, highly experienced and passionate about this work. This enables us to achieve exceptionally high standards of workmanship and full scale production no matter how large or technically challenging the job.”

Afrilaser has two Trumpf press brakes – TruBend 3120 machines with a bending length of 3 110mm and a 120 ton force

Afrilaser can cut up to 25mm for mild steel and stainless steel, up to 30mm for aluminium, up to 15mm for brass and up to 12mm for copper

“My history includes working as an operator, starting a laser cutting department for a steel processing company where I was appointed the manager and then I started my own laser cutting service centre. During this whole period I have continued to operate the machines at my disposal because I love the work, and also so that none of my employees can lead me down the garden path because I know how to operate the machines, whether it is the lasers or the press brakes.”

“When I started off in the industry we only had CO2 lasers as a choice of machine. This has now changed today but I still think there is a place for CO2 lasers, at least at the moment, depending on the type of work you do. I was one of the first to order a Trumpf 5kW laser in South Africa and that same machine is still in operation today. I subsequently ordered another Trumpf 5kW machine and the machine I have on the floor, the first laser that Afrilaser purchased, is a Trumpf 5kW. The bed size is pretty standard – 4 x 2 metres – which suites our needs.”

“I have been very comfortable using CO2 laser as our primary source of cutting but I knew there had to be change at some stage.”

Various components that Afrilaser have cut on the lasers

Afrilaser is not shy to take on complex bending projects

“However, the transition from CO2 to fiber cutting has to be made at the right time as it is a big investment. The investment has to contribute to the reduction in production costs and we needed a drastic improvement in laser cutting speed, to justify the purchase. We took our time and we had to understand exactly what was going to happen when the new fabricating technology hit the shop floor.”

“We are not a job shop where anyone with an idea for a metal contraption might walk through the front door. We are interested in gaining new customers but we don’t want short runs or one-offs. Our strength lies in identifying and improving the manufacturing process of a product and processing those components that have longer production runs.”

Bystronic ByStar 3015 6kW fiber laser
Afrilaser installed a Bystronic ByStar 3015 6kW fiber laser that includes a ByLoader for material handling, in April 2017. The installation was intended to provide the high cutting speed that the company just couldn’t get from its CO2 laser.

“We needed the speed of the fiber laser to make more components economically. The CO2 laser could not keep up with demand needed on light-gauge sheet metal, and its economic efficiency was limited to thick metal work. We needed a third choice besides the two Trumpf press brakes or our CO2 laser, and the fiber laser was the answer.”

Afrilaser has a department that is equipped to produce parts that require sub-assemblies and finished product

Afrilaser offers comprehensive draughting services

“The fiber laser cutting head, which doesn’t contain the mirrors found in a CO2 cutting head, is able to move 120mpm along a single axis, according to the technical specifications. In materials around 10mm thick, the fiber laser is believed to cut almost three times faster than a slightly more powerful CO2 laser. That cutting speed disparity is reduced when the fiber laser is programmed to cut thicker material.”

“But when the fiber laser – so called because the laser is created by diodes that are fed into fiber-optic cables where the excitation process takes place and then is delivered to the cutting head by another fiber-optic cable similar to one used for data transfer – gets going with cutting thin gauges, it needs to be constantly fed. That’s why we included the ByLoader automated loading system for both the fiber laser and its older CO2 machine. The dual-pallet system always has a new sheet ready to be loaded once a cutting job is completed.”

To prepare for the fiber laser’s arrival, Afrilaser rearranged its entire shop. It moved its assembly, packaging, and warehousing activities to a nearby building. That freed up room for the new laser-cutting cell. Today the company has a building dedicated to manufacturing.

“You only get one shot at this. You have to take all of the information that you can gather and try to make a good choice.”

The fiber laser hasn’t stopped running since its implementation. It is actually pushing downstream activities to operate at a faster pace, according to Hughes.

To get the two Trumpf press brakes (TruBend 3120 machines with a bending length of 3 110mm and a 120 ton force) up and running as quickly as possible, operators only have to download the job programme, prep the machine, and start the job. Manufacturing engineers prepare all job programmes and work instructions in the production office.

Wide range of industries
“We offer production laser cutting and precision metal forming to a wide range of industries, whether laser cutting as a standalone service or employing our fabrication and assembly department.”

“Besides CO2 and fiber laser cutting our key processes include CNC press bending, welding and fabrication services producing sub-assemblies and finished product, and a comprehensive draughting service providing clients with a design for manufacturing evaluation of their part design.”

Through partners Afrilaser can also offer plasma cutting, rolling, powder coating and heavy engineering

Afrilaser also carries out MIG, TIG and spot welding of mild steel, stainless steel and aluminium

“If a customer does not have drawings we provide a reverse engineering service, and sometimes simple dimensions are enough to get your job underway.”

“The maximum sheet size we can cut is 4 000 x 2 000mm and we can cut up to 25mm for mild steel and stainless steel, up to 30mm for aluminium, up to 15mm for brass and up to 12mm for copper.”

“We also offer MIG, TIG and spot welding of mild steel, stainless steel and aluminium.”

“We do our fastest work when we receive an individual DXF or a DWG file. These can be emailed to us or brought in person on a USB. We also work with IGES and STEP files.”

Hughes said he is confident that the investment in the new laser cutting capacity will pay off. The machine is operating as promised, and the company’s preparation has paid off, too, in that there were no major hiccups during installation and early operation. Looking down the road, the company thinks the machine will require less maintenance as it doesn’t have the moving parts or mirrors found in its CO2 equivalent.

“The lack of surprises has helped Afrilaser keep up with the work and maintain a solid cash flow position. That feeds the ability to invest in new equipment when it’s needed to respond to changing customer demands or market developments.”

“It’s part of the plan. You can’t stay relevant if you don’t have the latest equipment, and you can’t buy the latest equipment if you aren’t growing.”

For further details contact Afrilaser on TEL: 031 705 1477 / 1482 or visit www.afrilaser.co.za