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Laser Versatility Marks Technology’s Growth


Fiber lasers extend applications, CO2 continues as fabrication workhorse

By Jim Lorincz
Senior Editor

It has been more than 50 years since Goldfinger’s “more practical toy”—an industrial laser—threatened Sean Connery’s James Bond as he was strapped to a table of faux gold. A little trickeration freed the fast-thinking Bond, but it has been the magic of the laser, then just in its infancy, that would make it a versatile manufacturing process.

CO2 laser technology has proven itself to be a workhorse, especially for cutting medium-to-thick sheet and plate for industries including automotive, appliance, office furniture, general manufacturing, and job shops. Fiber-laser technology has extended processing and production to a diverse range of applications and industries, like aerospace and medical device. Processes include welding, cutting, brazing, cladding, and marking of even highly reflective materials such as copper, brass, and aluminum. Speed and accuracy, especially when cutting thinner gage materials have been major talking points for the lower capital cost and maintenance-free fiber lasers. As a result, new fiber-laser machine entrants, especially from major suppliers of CO2 technology or companies that have not been in the laser market recently, are crowding the field.
ESAB’s Alpharex offers large gantry laser cutting capabilities with CO2 lasers up to 6 kW with both straight and bevel cutting capabilities.

Customized CO2 Machines, Splitting a Fiber Laser

“The challenge for companies today is to differentiate among the value propositions for CO2, fiber laser, and even plasma cutting technology,” said Doug Shuda, director of marketing, global cutting technologies, ESAB Welding & Cutting Products (Florence, SC). “Unfortunately, given the wide range of available options very few people can articulate the difference between CO2 and fiber laser, and fiber laser and other technologies. And in the general population most people couldn’t tell you the difference between the 1 micron fiber laser beam and the 10 micron wave length of CO2–very important because a 1 micron wavelength (which provides different material processing capabilities) can deliver permanent damage to the eye, necessitating full safety enclosures. Most people, however, can tell you that fiber laser can give you better cut quality and faster cut speeds on thinner material than you would get with plasma and which is much more consistent in cutting small holes and acute angles.”

ESAB offers both CO2 and fiber lasers and is known for its large-gantry laser cutting machines like its highly engineered Alpharex CO2 laser cutting systems that can be custom designed to the customer’s specific application. They are designed to deliver a very small heat-affected zone and are able to cut complex contours quickly. “Because we sell complete solutions direct, we are able to configure machine size, frame size, material handling, and adjust power and the process and resonators to the application,” said Shuda.

“We are evolving the fiber laser side of our business and have developed a large format fiber laser. It features a new concept in a dual-head design. One of the heads cuts in the XY axes; the other head is a bevel cutting head. We’ve taken a 6-kW fiber laser power supply and bifurcated the beam into two delivery fiber cables. The large format gives us the ability to cut with 6 kW for thicker material or faster cutting, or bifurcate into two heads where you can run 3 kW in one head and 3 kW in the other to cut either an XY flat plate or cut bevel scenarios.” ESAB is also looking at small format fiber lasers. “There are a lot of them out there and people are becoming very creative in the way they design tables with full enclosures, fume extraction, and material handling, especially with linear drives and rails that previously were available only on high end lasers,” said Shuda.


Thick, Thin, Welding: Quest for the Universal Fiber Laser

“Our TruLaser 5030 fiber is a highly productive, universal machine that is able to optimally process both thick and thin sheets while keeping the cost per part to a minimum,” said Brett Thompson, sales engineer, Trumpf Inc. (Farmington, CT). “Our BrightLine fiber, CoolLine, and enhanced PierceLine functions guarantee high-quality, reliable laser processing in thicker materials. CoolLine, a new feature for solid-state lasers, stabilizes the cutting process in steel by use of targeted cooling. This results in greater material tolerance while enabling more intricate material contours and better sheet utilization. The new PierceLine function with improved piercing capabilities enables the laser to process smaller contours while significantly boosting pierce speed. In addition, we’ve automated nozzle handling as well as material handling. Our Smart Nozzle Automation visually inspects the tip of the nozzle to determine if it has been damaged and automatically changes if it has been,” said Thompson.

“We’re seeing a boom in our laser welding division which ties in really well with our cutting systems. Laser welding has been around for 20–25 years, largely seen with OEM applications in the automotive industry. Job shops and manufacturers of sheetmetal are now beginning to see the benefits of laser welding which is substantially faster than conventional welding and eliminates the need for rework and secondary finishing operations,” said Thompson.
Trumpf’s new CoolLine feature for solid-state lasers stabilizes the cutting process in steel by use of targeted cooling, resulting in greater material tolerance while enabling more intricate material
To overcome the need to buy an additional laser specifically for laser welding, Trumpf offers Laser Networking which uses one laser source to support up to four different processes. Because of this it is possible to use the laser source that comes with a Trumpf 2D cutting machine to also supply a beam for the laser welding cell.

“The TruDisk laser is the solid-state laser source that we use on all of our high-power applications. Once you hit the 2000-W mark be it for cutting, welding, or another purpose, that is the laser that we are going to use. It’s the same beam as that produced by a fiber laser with all of its known benefits in a more robust, scalable platform,” said Thompson.

“In addition to CO2 lasers, rod lasers, and direct-diode lasers Trumpf also manufactures fiber lasers and disk lasers. From a beam perspective, disk and fiber are virtually the same, though architecturally they’re different. Trumpf only uses fiber lasers up to 1000 W where it’s safe to use that laser source. Above 1000 W the fiber laser is a poor choice because of power scalability issues—lots of fiber lasers must be sliced together to reach multiple kilowatt power levels. The disk laser is incredibly robust and much easier to scale. So for welding and cutting, we’re always going to use a disk laser as it’s a better laser source for those applications,” said Thompson.


Tube, Sheet Combined on One Laser Cutting Machine

BLM Group USA (Wixom, MI) offers both fiber and CO2 lasers for tube and sheet cutting. Fiber-laser cutting systems for tube cover from ½ to 14" (12.7–355-mm) diameter; CO2 laser cutting systems cover tube diameters from ½ to 24" (12.7–610 mm). Both BLM fiber and CO2 category machines have ±45° kerf cutting capability. “We serve a wide spectrum of industries, including aerospace, agriculture, office furniture, recreational vehicles, and trailers. Customers who use our tube lasers are able to eliminate multiple operations. For example they are able to replace multiple touches of parts using band saw, tube cutting, drill press, or machining centers to finish parts with a single process,” said Todd O’Brien, North American product manager for lasers.

BLM’s most recent introduction to the North American market is the compact LC5 fiber laser. The LC5 is a high-production machine with automatic loading and unloading that can process both tube and flat sheet in a single machine. “Switching from tube to sheet is immediate, automatic, and doesn’t require retooling. The changeover can be done in under a minute,” said O’Brien. Equipped with a 4-kW IPG fiber laser, the LC5 machine can handle bar up to 21' (6.4 m) in length and tube to 4.75" (120-mm) diameter. Processing is fully automatic and the machine is equipped with an automatic pallet changer and independent controls for both tube and sheet.
Ulrich Planfiling Corp. (Lakewood, NY) is cutting 20-gage 304 stainless with a #4 finish at 240 ipm (6 m/min) with its Mitsubishi 3015eX-45CF-R CO2  laser for 150 versions of receptacle lids in three languages.
BLM’s machines actually combine a sheet laser and a tube laser on one machine, sharing cutting head, resonator, chill and dust collector without compromising the productivity of either system. The BLM system can be expanded by adding a tube laser in the future, or adding sheetmetal automation, a tower, and parts sorter to match business growth. “Materials cut,” O’Brien said, “include a large amount of mild steel, galvanized, stainless, aluminum, and a minimal amount of copper and brass because the market hasn’t quite adopted fiber lasers too much yet, but we’re also cutting titanium.

“The biggest common challenge for our customers is producing consistent quality parts with the material that’s presented to them. Tube by its nature is bent, twisted, it’s not perfectly square and customers come back to us because we provide a number of tools in their toolbox for compensation including a sensing head or scanning the tube with cameras to compensate for the inaccuracies of the tube. In the flat sheet world it’s all about feeds and speeds. In tube making productivity is measured by how many parts can be produced accurately in an hour,” said O’Brien.



New Fiber Laser Entry Debuts at Fabtech

Murata Machinery USA Inc. (Charlotte, NC) has staked its entry into the fiber-laser market on building a totally new machine, the Muratec LS3015FC fiber laser, from the ground up. “In designing the LS3015FC we recognized the need to take advantage of the benefits of fiber-laser technology by designing a machine that matches its ability to process materials fast with a comparable delivery system,” said Cary Teeple, national sales manager. “Accordingly, we designed a machine with linear drives in all three axes of 13,385 ipm [340 m/min] rapid traverse. Accuracy of the machine and kerf width are extremely [precise] because of the linear drives and the small beam diameter. In fact, positioning and repeatability are ±0.0004" [0.01 mm].
BLM Group’s fiber laser for tube cutting covers diameters from ½ to 14” (12.7–355 mm) and has ±45° kerf cutting capability.
“While fiber lasers process thicker materials, the sweet spot in sheet cutting is 10 gage and lighter. This is especially true for metals like stainless and aluminum where the fiber laser will provide a big improvement in both speed, cost, and freedom from increased operation and maintenance compared with CO2 lasers,” said Teeple. The LS3015FC can be equipped with the IPG power sources in 2.5, 4, and 5-kW. “Automation which is a huge part of Murata Machinery’s four business areas of logistics and automation, machine tools, and textiles, is essential to quickly get material to the very fast fiber-laser machines and get processed parts out quickly and reliably. In fact, the vast majority of fiber lasers that are sold are equipped with automation because of their production speed,” said Teeple.


New, Updated Fiber and CO2 Lasers, More to Come

Mitsubishi Laser will aggressively expand its CO2 and fiber-laser product lines by introducing a number of new products in the next year, according to Hank White, applications manager, MC Machinery Systems Inc. (Wood Dale, IL). New product introductions are currently in full swing. At Fabtech, new and updated fiber and CO2 products include automation built with fiber laser speed in mind and new innovative Zoom head technology.

“The new eX-F Series fiber laser combines the best of both worlds, making the eX-F platform available in both fiber and CO2. The new model has a magnetic breakaway head regardless of power, 2, 4, or 6 kW. The 6-kW machine features the new all-in-one ZOOM Head Technology. It eliminates the need for lens changes because all focal lengths are included in one head, changing seamlessly from 3.75 to 10" [95–254-mm] focal length without any setup,” said White. “The head is completely sealed, lowering maintenance. We can get better cutting quality, thick to thin in all material types, and also greatly improve cutting speeds,” said White.

In testing, the eX-F has demonstrated significant advantages over the conventional Mitsubishi LV-45CF-R CO2 laser in terms of performance and operating cost. Medium- and thick-plate processing times were decreased by 44%. Also, nonprocess setup times are cut in half with simultaneous nozzle cleaning, height sensor calibration, nozzle changing and gas purge.

“Our edge quality in thick plate, from 5/8 to 1" [15.8–25.4-mm] mild steel, is now equal to that of CO2 edge quality. With improved fiber technology, you get both good speed and edge quality now,” said White. To match the speed of fiber-laser cutting, Mitsubishi Laser has introduced its new MSCV laser automation system. “It’s the fastest yet from MC Machinery, capable of keeping up with speed of the latest fiber lasers on the market,” said White.

Operating costs are reduced dramatically, 70–80%, when compared to conventional CO2 and even more when available Eco Mode is turned on. Controls are easy for operators to use and feature standard items like automatic focusing. Two-action processing, simple nesting and program editing make it easy for the operator.

The SR Series CO2 laser is a new affordable 2.7-kW machine that takes advantage of the latest beam path technology for improved performance on mid- and thick-plate cutting. Faster movement and improved processing have demonstrated finer cut surfaces and decreased cutting time when compared to eX-S Series lasers. Energy-saving ECO Mode also makes for low operating costs.


Fiber Laser Delivers Improved Productivity

Prima Power North America Inc. (Arlington Hts., IL) has considerable experience with the Platino Fiber. Six years’ experience and hundreds of installations of fiber-laser systems have allowed Prima Power to develop a new version of the Platino Fiber wholly focused on fiber-cutting applications and capable of exploiting all the advantages of this innovative technology. New piercing devices, particularly for the mid-high thickness mild steel have reduced cycle times and increased application flexibility for cutting highly reflective materials and thick gage mild steel up to 25 mm.

A new focusing head cuts all materials with the single universal lens. New design of the head where the optical chain is totally sealed and protected from any contamination has increased reliability. Other features of the focusing head are the Safe Impact Protection System (SIPS), protecting the machine head in case of collisions with workpieces or fixtures; the quick alignment system (OPC); the high-dynamics focal axis with 35-mm stroke; and a wide range of nozzles for any application which can be automatically exchanged.

Software solutions and automation for the Platino Fiber have reduced manual intervention down to zero, making round-the-clock production possible.

Platino Fiber can be equipped with various laser powers up to 5 kW. For sheetmetal handling, the machine can be provided with the full range of Prima Power automation modules.


This article was first published in the November 2015 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.

Published Date : 11/1/2015

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