Laser Process founder David Lindsey first saw a laser cutting machine at Birmingham's NEC in 1980. Soon after that, he helped found one of the first UK laser cutting companies, Laser 2000, in 1981. Later, frustrated by its direction, he found financial backers and started Laser Process, in Cannock, in January 1990, with brother Neil as manager. Their first machines were two Quantum laser profilers, of 1.6 and 2 kW laser power rating.

Reminiscing in the corner office of the new-build factory and offices the company moved into in 2002, Lindsey remembers the early days: "It was an easier business to make a profit in; the margins were far better. Now it is totally different.

"When I was first involved with the business, most customers didn't know what laser profiling was; we had to convince them that we could do the job, that we weren't too high-tech for them."

In the mid-90s, the company embarked on what has become an exclusive relationship with Trumpf laser cutting machines. It began after the company was tempted by a British-made laser cutting system, but which it had to cancel after unacceptably long delays. A call to Trumpf revealed that a machine from a cancelled order was free the next week.

Although he says that he believes that Trumpf has "undoubtedly" the best laser profiling machines on the market, the managing director admits that his brand loyalty is partly based on convenience.

In 1995 Lindsey also helped set up the Association of Industrial Laser Users (AILU), an industry trade group that now comprises 300 members in groups encompassing subcontractors, technology suppliers, medical and microprocessing.

After a decade of educating the market about laser profiling, Laser Process was operating three machines in a unit double the size of the first.

But competition was growing rapidly in the 5 mm and under range, mostly from companies with lower-power machines that are less expensive. So, at the turn of the century, the subcontractor bought what was one of the most powerful machines then available: a unit with a 5 kW laser.

"We were being squeezed at the thinner end of cutting, since every man and his dog could cut. We realised that with the higher-cost machines able to process thicker stock we could maintain our margins. We decided then that we would only buy higher-power machines." (Today, Laser Process's maximum metal cutting thickness is 25 mm in mild or stainless steels, and 15 mm in aluminium).

That solved part of the challenge, but not only did the company need to move into heavier cutting, it also needed to diversify horizontally. "It was apparent that we were losing work because we couldn't bend components we were cutting, and customers didn't want to have to take them somewhere else to be bent afterwards. The problem we had was that we didn't have room for a pressbrake."

Unlike many components, whose final purpose is difficult to tell, the 240 life-size statues made from 20 mm thick Corten steel for the Sustrans bicycle charity Connect2 project are instantly recognisable. Lindsey got the job after reading about it in a submission to an internal quarterly newsletter, 'Cutting it', started in about 2011, that he edited. Gary Barlow features here

EXPANSION AND INVESTMENT

So in 2002, Laser Process moved into its much larger new-build unit in Upper Keys, Cannock. This accommodated two extra laser profiling machines and its first pressbrake, which has been hugely valuable: "Probably 40% of the work we do now is bent," Lindsey says, with a Trumpf CNC pressbrake performing that duty. The move also generated the space to install three large capacity tanks for the oxygen and nitrogen consumed by the machines in the cutting process. Previously, the company had relied on gas supply out of bottles, which further cluttered up the already congested facility. "I calculated that just by using bulk gas we saved £80,000 a year," Lindsey says.

In another 'horizontal' investment, a Dugard CNC vertical machining centre bought later for another job has been a helpful production adjunct since.

During 2002, the company had grown to employ 23 staff and turn over £2.5 million. In the busy years to 2007, the company expanded further into its new space, doubling employee numbers and turnover, but things changed abruptly in October 2008, Lindsey recalls. "We were half-way through a record month, but in the second half it just died. That was it; we fell off a cliff." The timing of the recession was doubly hard because it occurred in the same year that David's brother Neil died.

In the following two years, turnover nearly halved. Which wasn't to say that work was sporadic: there were as many jobs in 2009 as in 2008, but they were all smaller in size: 100-off rather than 500-off, for example. Following a good year in 2011-12, business remained 'a bit flat' until mid-2014, but even so, since the recession, business has been getting harder: the number of competitors has again increased and profit margins have declined. "We have been busy trying to improve our margins, partly through looking at costs, and being leaner."

BIG CHANGES IMMINENT

In order to improve Laser Process's fortunes once more, then, Lindsey says that two big changes are just around the corner for the company.

First, although CO2 lasers are more productive than before, they have not changed so very much since the 1990s, he adds. So the company's next machine is likely to be a fibre laser. "It is very quick on thinner material and also cuts copper and brass, which is not a huge market but one we could go after. Fibre lasers have made great strides over the last 12 months with thicker pieces. In my opinion, they will replace CO2 lasers. What is positive is that you only use 40% of the electricity of a CO2 laser. That adds up: we're spending £3,000 per machine, per month on electricity alone. They do not use helium, either, which is also expensive: another £200 per machine, per month."

Second, the company is to install a material resource planning (MRP) package, from vendor SigmaTek Europe, that Lindsey says will radically change the business. "At the moment, it is a fact that we are doing jobs that we are losing money on. The trouble is, we don't know which ones they are."

He says that this problem is not only about the difficulty of accurately quoting a job, but also due to uncertainty in other production issues. The software will enable much better recordkeeping, as well as drive its five Trumpf machines. "It tells us daily how jobs are doing: which job is taking longer, which job is likely to take more material. Then we know straight away, so we can do something about it."

In a later phase, the system will also change the way jobs are quoted. Currently, six sales staff use a database-driven system containing material, grades, prices, customer details and cutting functions. The new system should generate more accurate per part costs than current means, which Lindsey characterises as 'guesstimates', because its costings are based on automatic estimates of total cutting length from a scan of the CADCAM job file.

Delivery speed remains as demanding as ever. "If we quoted two weeks' delivery, we'd get no work. Nor 10 days. Now our delivery is 5-7 days. That's okay.

"I blame myself and the others in laser profiling who have been doing this as long as I have for working to tight deadlines. For 35 years, one of the main benefits of laser cutting has been rapid turnaround. The industry has accepted it and is now working around it. Some customers delay ordering their cutting because that's the way we have taught them to do it.

"If we have a couple of days with few enquiries, we might start running out of jobs, or, on the other hand, if there are too many enquiries, we might not be able to cope. And there is no notice. It is not an easy business; it is a way of life."