From gadgets and guns to medical devices

Features - Cover Story

Northeast Laser & Electropolish transitioned from a tiny start-up in a well-defined niche to grow 70-fold in less than 25 years with teamwork, smart hiring, and strategic moves into technologies, services, and markets – such as its latest venture combining laser cutting with Swiss machining.

Don’t let the name fool you. Northeast Laser & Electropolish (NLE) in Monroe, Connecticut, competes internationally, wins big with medical original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and applies machining and other disciplines well beyond its moniker.

The journey started in 1993, when Rich Rosselli and Kurt England, two young engineers manufacturing blood analyzers and centrifuge products at DuPont, realized they shared the entrepreneurial bug. England had overseen DuPont’s transition from product marking using roll engraving or screen printing to the then-new process of laser engraving. He saw an opportunity for a laser-marking firm in Connecticut that could be more responsive to customer needs. The partners bought a laser from General Scanning and took the plunge.

“It was a tough sale,” Rosselli recalls. “Two guys and a laser trying to convince medical companies they should change what they were doing and go with us.”

Luckily, their ability to engrave promotional products and firearms found a receptive market, sustaining them for the first two years.

The right people, services

Success in the promotional products and firearms markets enabled NLE to buy an additional laser and to hire more people, launching them into larger industrial accounts. Among the key hires in the ’90s were Tom Hecht and John Franchi who became co-owners through sweat equity.

Hecht was doing quality control at DuPont and pushed NLE into automatic indexing and handling parts, “capabilities serving us well to this day,” Rosselli says.

Franchi joined as a sales engineer and was instrumental in guiding NLE into new opportunities, broadening NLE’s appeal beyond the immediate geographic area. Medical accounts, in particular, were unwilling to send parts any distance just to get laser marking. Franchi noted that many of these parts were electropolished right before laser marking and passivated immediately afterward. So NLE added those capabilities, expanding its marketability.

“At about the same time we took our now extensive laser knowledge and added laser welding,” Rosselli says. “This meant we could assemble, weld, electropolish, mark, and passivate, all within a few days. We had already established a company with a great focus on customers and rapid turnaround. We were using technology wherever we could to improve efficiency. But now people realized we had a really valuable combination of offerings and unique talents in handling parts.”

The big leagues
Co-founder and principal Rich Rosselli with a surgical guidewire.

Franchi brought an exciting opportunity in 2009: “One of the top 40 medical OEMs was building a single-use, outpatient, multi-component device in Costa Rica. The assembly required eleven welds, and every time a weld failed – which happened with some frequency – they had to throw out the entire lot of 300. Once we applied laser welding, the strength went up by a factor of two to three and the reject rate dropped to basically zero.”

Dave Hornak engineered a process that uses a vision system to automatically target the laser and a motion control system to make all the necessary gyrations to orient the part for the 11 welds. The operator simply loads the next part while the machine is welding.

This doubled their production rate, allowing them to price the job so competitively that they’ve been doing it for more than seven years with rising volumes.

“The customer originally thought that we would develop the process and then they’d take it in-house. But when they saw the six-station line we’d built here and the level of complexity involved, they decided it would be better to leave it with us. We now run lots of 3,000 using a fully validated process,” Franchi says.

Rosselli adds that Franchi, Hornak, and their team built and validated the entire line in three months, meeting the customer’s tight schedule. “In most companies this would have been a six-to-nine-month project.”

NLE has gone from a company that performed a few operations on other people’s components, to becoming a contract manufacturer that builds the entire assembly, solving a variety of customer challenges. This has earned them a place as a direct supplier to six of the top 40 medical OEMS and a Tier II supplier to most of the remainder. The latest step in this journey depended on yet more technology – the Tsugami LaserSwiss.

Investments pay off

While the contract manufacturing business grew, so did the complications and frustrations, especially when using outside suppliers. In one case, NLE delivered a welded assembly to a medical OEM but was dependent on an outside vendor to produce a key component. Producing that component required a chemical cutoff, wire EDM, a turning operation for an E-ring groove, and a centerless grind. NLE didn’t have those capabilities, and even its outside supplier had to send out the grinding work.

“Our customer was on us for quality, delivery, and pricing,” Rosselli remembers. “That’s when we called Mike Tierney of the Morris Group. He told us Tsugami/Rem Sales (a division of the Morris Group, Windsor, Connecticut) had a machine that could load 12ft bars of tubing stock and perform all the machining and laser cutting operations in one setup. All we had to do was weld it afterward.”

That machine is the Tsugami S205 LaserSwiss, which combines 5-axis Swiss machining with a fully integrated laser. This gave NLE the ability to apply up to 32 cutting tools in a variety of front, back, and side orientations with laser cutting at up to 20ips (500mm/sec).

“The Swiss-turn accuracy of the Tsugami met the required tolerances of the surfaces that were being ground, and the laser easily cut the slots and areas that were being EDM’d,” Franchi says. “We can do all the machining and laser cutting operations in the Tsugami, making us so efficient that we were able to sell the entire assembly to our customer for the price we were paying for one of the components. The net result was about a 40% cost reduction to the customer.”

Helping ensure success
NLE can laser mark a 2D matrix and change the surface to white when required.

“Mike recognized from the beginning that most Tsugami buyers have extensive machining experience and are ready to add another machine that has a laser as an additional tool. He knew that while we might have the laser knowledge, we needed to be brought up to speed on machining,” Rosselli notes.

First, the Tsugami/Rem Sales team helped by producing prototypes on the machine to test cycle times and quality. Based on that data, NLE lined up financing and made the investment. At that point, NLE hadn’t completed the required plant extension (now 31,000ft2 of production space, plus offices), so Morris offered to train Hornak and Eric Olander (a mechanical engineer and NLE’s first Tsugami operator) at their facility.

Rosselli says “Morris even programmed the initial process we’d use and selected the tools. And, any time we had issues, Morris had someone down here the same day or the next day – whatever it took.

Speeding time to market

The first success with the Tsugami immediately brought in more work.

“Our supplier rating went up dramatically and it opened other doors,” Rosselli explains. “And as those doors opened, customers brought us additional work for the Tsugami – so much so that we quickly realized we needed another one.”

Franchi cautions, “Just buying the Tsugami isn’t necessarily going to bring you business. In our case we’re using them for products that get other operations. Some parts come off the Tsugami and get a validated welding process. Others come out and get a very difficult laser marking. The Tsugami is part of our overall business strategy of providing our customers with multiple capabilities so they don’t have to deal with multiple vendors.”

Rosselli says, “Roughly half of what goes through here gets only one process, like only laser marking or only laser welding. While roughly half get two or more.”

Mechanical Egnineer Eric Olander loads tubular stock into the Tsugami bar feeder, which is configured to deliver through-part coolant. The LaserSwiss occupies only 31ft2 (excluding the bar feeder and gas tank).

On the other hand, lots of the one-operation jobs they get came from customers who hired them to do something else.

Franchi explains, “It’s very difficult to get on some of the OEM vendor lists. But once you’re on it you can bid for other items within your company’s capabilities. And one of the biggest things going on in medical today is time to market. Engineers often design parts that are difficult to manufacture, but a LaserSwiss gives the ability to apply all kinds of cutting technology to a problem.”

More than giving NLE an important aid in adapting to customer requirements and reducing part handling, the LaserSwiss is also just plain fast – 6x faster than standard cutting techniques.

NLE initially bought their second Tsugami for a whole new family of parts.

Franchi says they had looked at other machines that combined Swiss turning and laser cutting, but “there just wasn’t really any comparison. They’ve integrated the laser so well and the support we get from Morris is unbeatable. Their engineer was the first person to get us thinking about this technology. I wish I could tell you there was one deciding factor. But everything was better about the Tsugami.”

Rosselli’s conclusion? “It was a landslide; we made the right decision.”

Northeast Laser & Electropolish

Tsugami/Rem Sales