Shifting Gears with an Innovative Product Line
LasX Industries, Inc., founded in 1998 in St. Paul, Minnesota, has new products, a new customer service initiative, and a new focus. When profiled April 2018 in Manufacturing in Focus magazine, LasX custom designed and manufactured industrial laser systems for materials processing. Since then, the company has been shaping its most popular ‘Engineer to Order’ platforms to a ‘Configure to Order’ product line to offer customers more competitive options with quicker order fulfillment—still customizable, and tailored to meet customer requirements.
Indeed, “Probably the biggest single change for us has been to focus on productizing,” says LasX President Ryan Falch.
To this end, the company is preparing to launch its first product: FreshFocus, which is a laser system that can be used to create breathable and easy-to-open food and consumer packaging. Also in preparation is LasX’s next configure-to-order laser system, which will serve the folding carton and commercial print markets, featuring the proprietary laser materials processing technology and robotic system offering ultra-fast, highly automated digital finishing.
Branching out into product development
FreshFocus, LasX’s first configure-to-order laser system, will be unveiled in late September at a pair of trade shows: Pack Expo in Las Vegas and Fachpack in Germany. FreshFocus will be sold and serviced worldwide initially to flexible packaging converters.
It is a big move for a technology firm that has excelled as a specialty manufacturer making one-off laser systems for individual clients. LasX’s patented LaserSharp® technology can be used for engraving, perforating, etching, scoring, cutting, and ablating plastics, textiles, abrasives, metalized films, acrylics, adhesives, vinyl, and other flexible materials used in manufacturing applications. The company’s main markets include medical, electronics, automotive, aerospace, packaging, and graphic arts.
LasX’s “journey into packaging,”—leading eventually to the FreshFocus system—began in 2005, says William Dinauer, founder and CEO.
That year, LasX set out to solve an issue that was causing problems with brand owners using flexible packaging such as pouch and flow-wrap packaging. Consumers were fed up with hard-to-open food packages that required scissors or strenuous effort to open. LasX researched, developed, and produced a custom laser-based machine for easy-to-open packaging.
The solution works like this: using a laser, the machine operator creates a weak spot in the plastic packaging film. If a consumer tears at this weak spot, the package easily opens wide.
To promote this innovation, a new company, FlexPak Services (www.flexpakservices.com), was spun off from LasX in 2008. FlexPak, as it is commonly known, was tasked with “delivering easy-to-open and breathable packaging to flexible packaging converters,” says Dinauer.
Breathable packaging—that is, food packaging containing little holes that let in oxygen to keep perishable goods fresh longer—represented another challenge. LasX went to work again and developed a laser solution that “poked very small holes in the plastic film, enabling shelf life to go from one week to three weeks,” notes Dinauer.
Breathable packaging offers enormous benefits in terms of food distribution, shipping, and safety. Customers also appreciate that it makes produce last longer.
FreshFocus can create easy-to-open packaging that is also breathable, making it doubly appealing to flexible packaging firms. FreshFocus is being sold and serviced worldwide through dealers and manufacturing representatives.
LasX has also established a partnership with the Miami firm Karlville. Among other things, Karlville sells slitter-rewinders—machines that slit large rolls of flexible packaging film into many smaller rolls.
Karlville “has partnered with us to demonstrate FreshFocus using their high-end slitter rewinder.” At the end of 2021, FlexPak is installing a FreshFocus system in-house, with the Karlville slitter-rewinder. “This machine will be available for our converter customers to laser process rolls up to 1.8m (71”) wide,” says Dinauer.
LasX’s next laser system developed for the folding carton market offers a zero-setup automated alternative to traditional carton finishing. Using conventional analog or tooling methods, operators “would make a bunch of cartons, finish them, and if the cartons were not used, throw them out,” Falch states.
LasX’s CartonsInMinutes® process integrates LasX’s high-speed laser and robotic part-handling machine, a digital printer, and an inline folder/gluer. “LasX’s patented laser and robot control software coupled with advanced vision technology ensures precise, repeatable, cut-to-print registration and product sorting,” notes Falch. These elements operate in a continuous digital workflow using software that LasX provides.
As the CartonsInMinutes name implies, cartons can be finished in minutes, versus days or weeks when using traditional methods. CartonsInMinutes makes on-demand production possible, in which only the required number of products is manufactured, drastically reducing waste. Job changes can be made by simply entering new programming. Finished parts are removed and sorted by robotic automation.
Growing and diversifying
LasX’s focus on product-oriented manufacturing was inspired in part by the arrival of new leadership.
“Ryan Falch came on board in 2018 as the president of LasX. Ryan said: ‘We’ve got to change how we do the business and diversify from custom machine building.’ While we’re making money and FlexPak is doing really well, custom equipment is very difficult to build and sell. So FreshFocus emerged from 2018 as a development project,” recalls Dinauer.
Designing and then manufacturing custom laser equipment is an expensive, time-consuming process. It can take half a year to get a custom-built laser system to a client, says Dinauer. With its new product line, LasX wants to cut delivery time to less than twenty weeks, he adds.
Still, the company has not completely moved away from its roots. “We’re going to continue doing the custom business for our key accounts and highly specialized applications,” says Falch.
In keeping with the company’s broadened scope, LasX continues to deploy lasers to modernize the tool and die and textile sectors. While dies are traditionally machined by toolmakers, a designer could create a digital die pattern and then use a laser to cut the pattern in a material. On-demand manufacturing, as it is called, presents a new, highly-efficient, and automated way to cut materials.
“With laser, there’s zero changeover time, the setup time is minimal. They can afford to nest and run several parts in small runs. In digital finishing, everything is instant, so they don’t have to run big batches doing high volume production. They can do short runs with short batches. That’s where laser really, really plays a strong role in manufacturing, because there isn’t the cost of the die and changeover time involved,” adds Falch.
LasX is also spearheading an in-house customer support initiative. Throughout its history, the firm’s technical support staff members have assisted clients with “installations, repairs, maintenance, and preventative maintenance,” says Falch.
The company has launched a new program called ClearCut® to enhance its already commendable customer-service capabilities. This program is “really intended to provide a more proactive approach toward our service,” he says.
ClearCut allows clients “to realize the full potential of their investment in LasX equipment by offering both machine service and materials processing services. We do a health check-up to really look at how a machine is performing. We check our customers’ processes, look for opportunities to help customers improve. We do remote support. We offer spare part discounts, software upgrades, prescheduled process support operator training. All these things are built into the ClearCut program,” Falch adds.
The path ahead
As the company gears up for product launches and proactive customer care, LasX leadership is also looking toward the future. A LasX Europe branch in Germany has been opened for the European market, and there are plans to open a branch in Asia.
“I think Asia would be the natural step, to create a service and sales office similar to LasX Europe,” says Dinauer. “We are already working with a number of equipment manufacturers and key manufacturing accounts worldwide.”
Meanwhile, the company is committed to its new emphasis on configure-to-order laser systems. “We’re going to put more investment on the upfront side: sales, service, customer experience, marketing. We’ll continue to invest in technology, and we’ll continue to stay cutting-edge. That is a big focus for the company so that we will continue to grow,” states Falch.