Fabricating techniques for creating
artistic retail displays look a lot like fabricating anything else –
except when you have to laser-cut leather and engrave plastic and wood.
One of the pleasures in
reporting on our industry is finding shops that make an interesting or
surprising product. While some fabricate storage tanks, others fabricate
spacecraft parts. Still others fabricate artistic displays. They use
the same machines but the radically different functions or aesthetics of
the finished products can catch you by surprise. People from other
walks of life wouldn’t suspect that we’re all using the same machines
and technologies – that we’re all doing the same things.
No matter what you make,
you’ll recognize the shop-floor and business operations of NicoNat Mfg.
Corp., a California-based company that started with three brothers in a
small shop in 1999 and which now has 54 employees. The company
fabricates and sells stylish, artistic store displays to high-end
retailers around the world. The company fabricates and sells stylish,
artistic store displays to high-end retailers around the world. Their
customers have included well-known fashion houses and department stores
from as far away as Asia and Europe.
But they work a lot like most fabricators. “Nearly everything goes through the lasers,” says Vicent V, company president. (Many things about NicoNat are stylized; Vicent’s full name is Vicent Valdez, but his industry knows him as “Vicent V”) NicoNat has been using two Bystronic CO 2 lasers for five or six years, and recently added a Bysprint 4020 fiber laser. Together, they handle a wide variety of materials processed by NicoNat. “Right now our business is 75% metal and 25% glass, wood, and other materials. The 75% metal makes up the structure of everything that we do.”
Acquiring the fiber laser
was based on a typical demand – faster cutting speed in sheet stock –
but it also has some other benefits for NicoNat, One is cutting
reflective materials. Making decorative products, they have to cut some
brass. It’s only a small percentage of their work – “Maybe 5% of our
metalcutting is brass,” says Vicent. “And maybe 10% aluminum. Around 35% stainless, and 50% is carbon steel.”
Reflective materials, as many know, are problematic for CO 2 lasers. It’s a matter of how the materials’ reflectivity affects the laser light. The longer wavelengths of CO 2
lasers tend to reflect from brass and some other metals, slowing the
cutting rate down to unacceptable levels. With fiber lasers and their
shorter light wavelengths, the light energy is absorbed by the metal and
the laser cuts much more effectively.
Besides metals, NicoNat is laser-cutting wood and plastics. The plastics are a problem; the CO 2
lasers will cut it effectively but the fiber laser won’t. Again, it’s a
matter of how the material reacts to the different wavelengths of
light. The short-wavelength fiber laser light goes right through the
plastic without cutting it. “It doesn’t even heat it,” says Vicent.
“We can cut it with the CO 2 lasers,” he says, “but you don’t want to do a lot of it. It’s the fumes and the effect on the filters. You need special filters if you’re going to cut any quantity of plastics. They have to capture the fumes (some plastics emit cyanide when they’re burned) and, when you're cutting plastic, some of the melted plastic will end up in the filter of the dust collector and it's like chewing gum. It plugs the coils of the dust collector.” Vicent reports that a Bystronic customer in Germany, who cuts plastic in production, has invested $1 million on his special dust-collector system.
NicoNat cuts some plastic
parts for prototypes and for small volumes, but it isn’t worth it for
them to invest in the extremely expensive special filters for
plastic. They go to great lengths to protect workers and to avoid
accumulating fumes in the shop, but their salvation is to limit it to
very small volumes and to send large quantities of plastic work to
outside specialists. Vicent remarks that there are certain shops he
avoids visiting on days when they’re laser-cutting plastic.
NicoNat’s designs often
incorporate wood as well as plastic, in combination with metal
structures. They use the lasers to cut and to engrave both wood and
plastic. Some of NicoNat’s customers want a part number engraved on
every part, either to simplify assembly or to identify replacement
parts. We imagine burnt edges on the laser-cut wood but it isn’t as bad
as we thought. “We just clean it off and apply a finish,” Vicent says.
“We have cut leather with the lasers,” he says. “We have cut fabrics and paper. It works very well. But that’s all with the CO 2 lasers. We haven’t found a way to cut anything but metal with the fiber laser.”
However, they’ve only had
the fiber machine for around six months, so they haven’t worked out all
of the possibilities. Their experience indicates two important things:
First, CO 2 lasers are far from being on the way out, as some
fiber-laser promoters claim. It’s still more versatile. Each type of
laser will handle materials the other one won’t, including reflective
metals that the CO 2 lasers won’t cut, and non-metallics that the fiber lasers won’t cut. For a shop like NicoNat, they really need both.
They also have some special capabilities. Note that the welding in the photos is mostly TIG. Those are some long seams for a relatively slow welding process, but they need TIG for appearance’s sake.
Some designs require very
sharp bent corners – too sharp for conventional brake bending. To solve
the problem, they have a V-grooving machine that cuts into thin sheet
metal, typically 16 gauge, so the press brake is bending at a very thin
point in the metal.
Tubing and pipe also make
up some of their designs. Vicent estimates that cutting tube, pipe and
angles, is 10% of their cutting work. “It’s not enough to invest in a
special tube-cutting laser,” he says, and they also can use their
milling machine to cut angles and notches when they need to. But they
have a tube chuck for one of the CO 2 lasers and making those cuts on the laser takes seconds, compared to minutes on the mill.
Cutting glass and plating are two jobs that they send to outside vendors, but final finishing is done in-house. Grinding and other prep is done in-house as well. “We send the dirty work out,” says Vicent.
A lot of their work is
large. Their fiber laser handles work up to almost 7 ft. by 13 ft. “It’s
a big advantage,” says Vicent. “Then we bought a new Bystronic press
brake to go with the large-capacity fiber laser.” Staging and trial
assembly requires a lot of room, as the photo on page XX shows.
NicoNat does a lot of their own design work – around 60%, they estimate – and, as you can see from the photos, it encompasses a wide range of decorative and display items. Word of mouth is their primary way of getting new work; high-end retailers must talk to each other a lot. NicoNat has found a niche big enough to support their growing company.
As published by FABSHOP Magazine Direct, July 2016.
By: Ed Huntress, Editor