Engineering News’ publisher and editor, Greg Robertson, gets an insight into fibre laser machines and the future of sheet metal engineering when visiting Hi-Tech Metals.
Hi-Tech Metals is a sharp operation.
From the infectious livery proudly emblazoned on company vehicles lined up in the Auckland-based carpark, to its roomy yet precise layout of machinery, racking and job-type organisation within the workshop’s four walls… it’s hard to not get the feeling of ‘precise’ and ‘measured’. It’s a sense that stretches far beyond that of Hi-Tech’s very impressive machines and their capabilities – albeit equally profound and leading-edge.
Hi-Tech Metal’s arsenal of Amada fibre laser cutters, 3D tube laser cutter, pressbrakes and other essential machining tools frame all bar one edge of the building, with the back wall of the premise – comparatively to the company’s wide array of hi-tech machinery – almost acting as a homage to the engineering days of old, with hands-on grinding, welding and other essential manual engineering disciplines still having their place. The company colours of red and black also coat the racking that makes up the spine of the workshop.
Edan and Michelle Newell have been in business since 2005, shifting to the company’s current site in East Tamaki two years ago, and those that know them would also know that they aren’t the kind of people to push their own barrow. Despite the very strong Kiwi humility, there is no disputing that the couple have all cogs in this engineering business-machine well oiled, but they don’t take all the credit themselves. “We’ve had lots of help,” says Edan, speaking about extensive collaborative partnerships with staff, other businesses and friends in the industry. “In those early days, people like Dave Gibson really made a difference and set us up for what we have become.”
A frog catches in Edan’s throat when talking about the former ‘Mr Am Prom’ Dave Gibson, who passed away in June 2015. The bond that was built between the two companies has led to an engineering workshop and business that has Am Prom’s Amada machinery everywhere you turn.
“Amada is all we have. It’s all we need,” explains Edan.
“The start Dave gave us and the help in the early days was invaluable. It wasn’t just for us – he’d do it for anybody. The personal level of attention was amazing. I’m sure there are plenty out there who can tell a similar story. I don’t know whether we’d be in the position we are today if it wasn’t for Dave and Am Prom, and those that are continuing his legacy at Am Prom.”
His legacy indeed lives strong as you walk through Hi-Tech’s workshop. “We have three Amada lasers and three pressbrakes for a variety of jobbing work. We moved here with five machines, but we’ve been on a programme to downsize machine numbers while increasing our overall capacities with the new machinery that we’ve put in.”
And the latest machine is impressive.
Exhibited at this year’s EMEX show, the Amada LCG3015 AJ 6kW fibre laser replaced two older machines says Edan and has “30-40% more capacity than the other machines put together”.
Because maximum performance at low energy consumption was required, Edan knew he could rely on Amada’s laser equipment. With the powerful 6kW resonator, designed especially for this machine, it provides the perfect foundation for changing material tasks and adapts to your production requirements with extreme flexibility.
It was a big investment for Edan, Michelle and the 26-strong Hi-Tech Metals’ team. A machine that gets the job done from thought to concept, design to product completion. But they’ve never been afraid of investment.
“This is our third high end ‘latest technology’ laser machine we have put in. Spending top dollar to get the best is something we have got used to and even though the pressbrakes are a little easier on the wallet, they are still the best you can get,” says Edan.
When the company first started it bought a “little baby; a 1kW Quattro laser. What that machine did for us was unbelievable and it started us on the laser journey. It was so economical and it led us into getting the Alpha laser, the F1, the Fibre FOL and now the new LCG. Not so long ago we upgraded to the new 2kW Quattro. We’ve sold off some of the older machines which has been really great; sad to see some of it go but exciting to sink our teeth into the new technology.”
And just like the first Quattro, the LCG3015 AJ is changing the face of Hi-Tech Metals.
“We’ve always considered ourselves a sheet metal manufacturer in the lighter capacity. Other companies are cutting 25mm (or more) plate and want to cut thicker and thicker. We’ve always targeted the ‘sheet metal’ category and about 70% of our work is 3mm and below… with quite a lot of 5,6 and 8mm but we’ve never really been competitive in 10, 12, 16mm and above.”
Now with two big fibre machines the company’s capacities and what work it can handle have expanded dramatically.
“The new machine covers our full range now, cutting faster than what we used to cut. That’s where the big benefit is for us, so we pretty much had one machine that was good for all of our thin work (the bulk of the work) but now we’ve got two machines that are brilliant for doing that work. The result of this is that our 3mm and below work has now more than doubled. We still want to focus on sheet metal but being competitive on the thicker material is a bonus.”
Edan says that it’s exciting to watch how the world of fibre lasers has evolved at such an astonishing rate, with now even 9kW and 10kW machines coming onto the market.
“Fibre lasers have really decreased the gap between plasma cutting and laser cutting. Everyone is starting to play in the big kWs. We used to miss out on some customers because we couldn’t compete in the thicker cutting market.” With the new 6kW machine, Hi-Tech sure can now.
“I think we are the first company to go fibre only for its main cutting capacity. Traditional belief was that if you had a fibre you still ‘had to have’ a CO2 machine. Putting the second big fibre in is a big change. We spent probably eight months analysing the market and the direction we wanted to head before we made the decision to walk away from CO2 machines. It was like turning your back on traditional engineering. We almost bought a 6kW CO2 machine ‘just because’ it was what you did. But, in the long run, our research paid off and has put Hi-Tech Metals on the right path.”
By the time the new machine turned up it was even better than what they anticipated. It had some extra features that they didn’t even know about. “That’s how much effort is being poured into fibre technology. The machine literally turned up better than what we expected it to be.”
Buying the best that you can get has been a company philosophy and set the standard that it continues today. When it comes to machines Edan and Michelle have purchased, often Hi-Tech has been at the forefront of world trends and among the first to install them.
“We are a pure Amada shop, and every time we’ve been looking at investment and upgrading, Amada has had a solution for us – they’ve always been able to provide the best machine for us,” he says.
After sale service is also a massive reason for choosing Amada and remaining so brand loyal.
“We’ve never been more than three blocks away from Am Prom in East Tamaki so that has been great when we’ve needed that extra level of support from them.
“There’s a lot of machines being sold into the New Zealand market that don’t come with local service agents. Having a service person on your back doorstep is a big bonus. I cannot say that in 13 years of dealing with them I have ever been unhappy with their service.”
What the company is doing has people talking – in a good way. In fact, there is no sales person out on the road drumming up business. That’s done through word of mouth and the lengths it goes to in order to meet customer expectations.
“Word of mouth goes a long way. This is a manufacturing process. Things go wrong from time to time. We will never claim to be the best but we will do our best for our customers and our strength is in overcoming hurdles and producing solutions that lead to exceptional products.
“Our aim is simple. To have the best staff, the best machines and use the best suppliers which all combines to allow us to produce the best result we can for our customers.
“We’ve got some great friends in the industry that we collaborate with. We get along with almost everyone and we do a lot of overflow work for other sheet metal companies… those relationships only come due to a high level of trust and a very ethical approach from our end.
“There’s enough work out there for everyone. The customers’ end result is our success, even if we are doing work on behalf of another company.”
And that success for Hi-Tech Metals can only improve, now kitted up with the 6kW machine. Growth, inevitable.
14 Kerwyn Avenue, East Tamaki