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Remote Monitoring Reveals How to Boost Uptime on Laser Machines

By East Iowa Machine Co.

East Iowa Machine Co. (EIMCo) in Farley, Iowa, is a full-service machine and fabrication shop. It is an ISO 9001:2015 certified manufacturing company, employing about 150 people on three shifts at its single 130,000 ft2 (12,077 m3) location, and converts raw metals into finished component parts and assemblies using a wide variety of CNC equipment and state-of-the-art manufacturing processes.

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Rick Hoffman (right), CEO of EIMCo, with a machinist in the company’s machine shop.

EIMCo was founded by Rick and Mary Hoffman in 1992. The company started out in Dyersville, Iowa with two employees: Rick and his brother Jamie Hoffman. Although EIMCo became a reality in 1992, dreams of the company took shape years before. Rick started working in a machine shop shortly after graduating high school in 1976. He rapidly progressed from machinist to foreman to manager, and finally to owner of his own shop. EIMCo relocated to Farley in 1999.

EIMCo has been gradually building up its laser machining capabilities since the early 2000s, adding two CO2 lasers about 15 years ago and two more in 2013. Within the last year they have replaced one of the CO2 machines with an 8-kW fiber laser. (All of EIMCo’s lasers are Mitsubishi machines from MC Machinery Systems). The additions dramatically diversified the materials the shop can handle (aluminum, stainless, or copper) and capabilities (from precision etching to cutting 1" [25.4-mm] plate), all with improved speed.

But even with the new fiber laser up and running, CEO Rick Hoffman recognized something wasn’t right. His Sunday reports consistently revealed about 280-320 earned hours a week on the four lasers instead of the 400-plus hours he was expecting over EIMCo’s three weekly shifts. Hoffman even suggested to his operators that they might have to start coming in on Saturdays in order to hit the mark.

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After installing a new 8-kW Mitsubishi laser in 2019, EIMCo also installed Mitsubishi’s remote360 monitoring software on all four of its Mitsubishi lasers.

The team could recall the occasional blocks of downtime caused by things like jammed tower loading and unloading, or waiting for materials to be moved across the floor, but it still wasn’t adding up to the earned hours they should have been achieving, considering the advanced lasers and automated material handling. The shop was even turning down opportunities to quote work because the team was convinced there wasn’t capacity.

“When a customer has you quote laser work, they typically want it in a week or less,” Hoffman said. “If you’re telling them three to four weeks, you can forget about it. In the end, it turned out we did have the hours available to deliver.”

Hoffman started to realize this in 2019 when EIMCo began operating its more powerful 8-kW fiber laser. Though it provided the capability to cut sheets much faster, it wasn’t just the fiber laser that impacted productivity. In the end, EIMCo installed remote360 monitoring software from Mitsubishi on all four machines during the upgrade, and the software made a large and immediate impact on the department.

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EIMCo operates four laser machining systems to produce parts such as these.

“I’m a big believer in real-time job monitoring,” Hoffman stated. “And with better tracking in place, we wanted an explanation from the operators for any type of downtime on a machine lasting more than 10 minutes. The team immediately got more aggressive towards keeping the machines running; they would rather do that than have to report on every little stoppage or work on Saturdays.”

Because remote360 is constantly running and monitoring production, every Sunday, when the 10:00 pm shift starts, the software is able to track downtime by machine. From each shift to the next, Hoffman and his operators could see what was happening with every machine on a daily basis and be prepared for (or address) certain issues. Previously, that type of report would only come in weekly. Identifying and solving issues was next to impossible.

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Hoffman and a machinist examining one of EIMCo’s laser-cut parts.

Prior to the installation of remote360, “the team just wasn’t aware of how two or three minutes of downtime every 30-40 minutes added up at the end of each shift, and the end of each day,” said Hoffman. “With remote360, it was so much easier to see the impact; it’s all up front instead of under the rug. Overall, those stoppages, for the most part, have just gone away.”

Another benefit is that remote360 has made the team more proactive. Instead of waiting for a batch to finish or to load a tower with the next job, materials can be at the machine and loaded as the previous batch cuts; instead of gas changes happening while another job waits, they are now done during planned breaks.

Not too long after remote360 was installed at EIMCo, Hoffman visited MC Machinery Systems headquarters in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, near Chicago. The trip provided the opportunity to take advantage of another important feature of remote360. While there, he saw the same laser he had recently purchased cutting ¼" (6.35 mm) A36 sheet at 370 ipm; EIMCo was maxing out at only 220 ipm.

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With its new laser cutters, EIMCo can cut up to 1" (25.4-mm) plate with improved speed.

Hoffman inquired how this was possible. Upon his return to Iowa, the experts at MC Machinery accessed his Mitsubishi eX-F fiber laser cutting machine remotely and discovered that there was something off with the cut files. The remote360 team was able to log in remotely and upload the proper files.

“I asked them if I needed to be down and they said, ‘no’.” Hoffman recalled. “Fifteen or 20 minutes later, they sent me an email telling me it was done. That really increased our production immediately.”

For example, during one week EIMCo ran for more than 500 hours on its lasers. Hoffman can point to direct impacts on his shop’s overall profitability because of remote360. He estimates “at least a 20 percent net increase to our bottom line in the laser department.” A better handle on capacity and productivity is also allowing his team to quote more aggressively and take on more work that keep the shop’s machines running.

Remote monitoring has helped unleash the full potential of EIMCo’s laser department—including the significant investments into it and the skilled team that operates it—thanks to detailed tracking and more proactive management.

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