Bringing laser and tower automation in-house helps West-Mark become faster, more creative, and more responsive.
West-Mark Inc. is a tale of many chapters, quite literally so, especially on the subject of laser fabrication. Established in 1967 as a manufacturing and repair facility for dairy transport tankers, it expanded quickly to become a leading West Coast builder of fluid-transport vehicles for many industries. Today, its customer markets include petroleum transport, firefighting, military, construction, food, liquid sanitation, and even Arctic equipment, through its branch in Fairbanks, Alaska.
In addition, West-Mark has manufacturing, fabrication, assembly and repair facilities in Ceres, Atwater, and Bakersfield, Calif. It operates a full complement of laser cutting, shearing, roll forming, head forming and flanging, brake forming, punching, milling, welding, and quality-inspection equipment. Its service operations range from leak repair and testing to full retrofit and field replacement.
West-Mark has a broad range of vehicles for sale or rent, too, including fuel tankers, buffaloes and bowsers, water tenders, firefighting apparatus, grease trap and septic tank vacuum trucks, DOT Code tanks, even aircraft refuelers, working in a variety of industries, as well as for the Dept. of Defense, National Park Service, Department of Interior, U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and the civilian supply chain.
In the late 1990s, another market sprung up for West-Mark, namely, fabricating display enclosures for entertainment venues, kiosks, elevators, airports, shopping malls, and other retail/commercial establishments. Using the engineering and manufacturing skills that had proven successful in the industrial markets, the company opened “Digital Factory” in Atwater, where it produces enclosures and freestanding kiosks marketed under the Perfected Protection™ brand name.
West-Mark was an integrated design, fabrication and assembly company, but it recognized “one area that needed better control and cost containment,” according to fabrication director Chris Portmann, “namely, the laser cutting of the various stainless steel, carbon steel, and aluminum materials we processed.” The company was using the services of three local laser job shops and occasional bottlenecks would occur, in addition to the cost factors involved. As it continued growing, West-Mark’s production challenges grew, as well.
At a meeting with a trusted machine/equipment dealer, Metal Process Engineering, West-Mark was introduced to the Han-Kwang plate laser with integrated material tower automation. In one of those classic “light bulb” moments, a decision was formulated and the sale proceeded. The company also hired an experienced laser operator from a local shop. The benefits were apparent very soon.
Portmann explains: “Very quickly, we realized we could run a lot faster to save time and money. Beyond that, we could be more responsive to the one-off and short run job requirements we get, all the time, in our operation. Because of the software we use and the products Han-Kwang provided us, we were able to integrate those short runs into the nesting strategies with our longer run jobs.”
The tower automation provided West-Mark with the flexibility to do several more things in its production. It could stack frequently used materials on pallets into the tower for quick access and start-up, owing to the powerful CNC onboard the Han-Kwang laser. Meanwhile the fully automated cycle capability allowed West-Mark to adopt a lights-out manufacturing strategy, thereby providing additional cost containment in personnel and power consumption.
The machine configuration at West-Mark is Han-Kwang’s Model FS 4020. It has a long-bed gantry; a flying optic plate laser with twin 6x12-ft. shuttle pallets; and an 8-high materials tower, all controlled by the industry’s most powerful CNC, a Siemens Sinumerik 840D. On this laser, West-Mark processes 304 and 316 stainless steel, A36 and 570 carbon steel, and 3003 and 5054 aluminum.
Portmann pointed out that the company uses Masonite® blanks to protect the high quality surfaces of materials during unload sequences and that this extra protection step has not slowed the laser’s production in any substantial way.
West-Mark utilizes Inventor® CAD and Radan® CAM systems, typically, plus the proprietary nesting software provided by Han-Kwang. Since West-Mark started using its 3D software at approximately the same time as the laser, the company’s programmers and operators shared a learning curve, but Chris Portmann noted: “It was a ‘law of unintended consequences’ situation, because the market slowed at the same time we were acquiring the new machine and software packages, so our guys were able to learn in the slow times.”
He further observed the company has enjoyed an ability to be more responsive to customer needs, and this has led directly to more new business for West-Mark, including doing laser processing for other local firms in the area.
Portmann called out Eric Kim at Han-Kwang as having been particularly helpful in the start-up and application of the laser and tower automation at his company.
A particular benefit of the Han-Kwang laser, according to West-Mark, is its ability to process aluminum tread plate with the diamond side up, so the dross falls onto the back side of the material, compared to the typical laser cutting diamond side down, where the dross falls on the visible side of the material.
“When we need another laser, there will be no question about getting another Han-Kwang,” Portmann sums up. “Their machine quality, application assistance, operator and programmer training, plus the overall improvement they made in our company’s production makes that decision an easy one.”