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2016 Was a Good Year for Lasers; 2017 Looks Even Better

Geoff Giordano
By Geoff Giordano Contributing Editor, SME Media

Earnings are up, adoption of fiber lasers is, too. And prices are lower on ultrafast lasers.

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Robotic laser welding and cutting of the front fascia and rear bumper of the Chevrolet 2017 Camaro ZL1 is handled by the Jenoptik Votan BIM system.

Strong 2016 earnings among top industrial laser providers, continued brisk adoption of fiber lasers, cheaper ultrafast lasers, and a host of novel applications and notable corporate acquisitions signal a big year ahead for photonics-based manufacturing.

With fiber lasers continuing to replace CO2 systems in cutting operations, experts see diode lasers eventually emerging as the leader for materials processing. Ultrafast lasers are playing a bigger role in refining traditional laser processes, while considerable research fuels advances in processes like joining dissimilar materials and additive manufacturing. Laser-based additive manufacturing, particularly for metal parts, is spurring major investment and advances in machines.

In short, laser-based manufacturing continues to set new standards of productivity and efficiency.

For instance, in the communications sector, the high-power UV light of excimer lasers anneals polycrystalline silicon to produce faster and more energy-efficient flat-panel displays for mobile devices. In the auto industry, Jenoptik earned an innovation award in December for a process of robotic laser cutting and welding of bumpers that replaced traditional punching and ultrasonic welding. Jenoptik’s Votan systems used to produce front and rear fascias for the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, are not limited on punch or die sizes, allow hole sizes to be changed on the fly, cut one hole per second and allow welding of dissimilar materials.

Laser Types and Applications

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The optical arrangement of a Trumpf TruDisk laser.

COlasers, longtime industry workhorses for cutting thick materials, remain viable, said Allen Nogee, president of Laser Markets Research (Scottsdale, AZ). “The [CO2 systems] that are taking the hit are the big high-power ones,” he said, noting that fiber systems are not a 100% replacement option given a factor of 10 wavelength difference, as well as differences in absorption and processing with thicker metals.

“I don’t ever foresee CO2 lasers disappearing,” Nogee said. “Maybe two-thirds of them will be displaced by fiber lasers in the long term. Plus, CO2 lasers used to be kind of clunky; they’ve been getting a lot better in the last few years, a lot easier to maintain. And when you get to the lower-power ones, companies that make them have been reporting pretty good sales this past year.”

While fiber laser sales keep growing, he said, with revenue from kilowatt fiber lasers surpassing CO2 in 2015, “there are still far more CO2 lasers being used every day to cut things.”

The growing popularity of fiber lasers, which are smaller, cheaper and easier to use and maintain, is illustrated by UK subcontractor Accurate Laser Cutting. In November the company spent nearly $1 million to replace its second and last CO2 system with a 10-kW Bystronic fiber system believed to be the first of its kind in the UK. The system cuts aluminum and stainless steel up to 30-mm thick, mild steel up to 25 mm, brass to 15 mm and copper to 12 mm. “Our ability to clean cut mild steel was limited to 3 mm using our CO2 equipment,” said company director Jon Till. “To now have the capability of five times that thickness is an incredible improvement.”

Another UK subcontractor, Grenville Engineering, invested about $600,000 in its first fiber laser cutter, a 3-kW Bystronic system, to replace a CO2 system in November. The system can cut up to 20-mm mild steel, 12-mm stainless and aluminum and 6-mm brass and copper, the company said.

To help develop and promote fiber lasers for industrial welding, SPI Lasers in the UK joined The Welding Institute in January. “One aspect of the relationship will center on the development of SPI’s novel [nanosecond (ns)] pulsed welding process that TWI will evaluate and add to its portfolio of joining processes,” according to SPI.

In the disk laser realm, leading producer Trumpf continues to release new systems in its flagship TruDisk line. “The beam quality can be as high as [that of] a fiber laser, but most applications cannot take advantage of this,” said Tracey Ryba, product manager for OEM lasers for North America. “The TruDisk is optimized around … cutting, welding, cladding [and] heat treating.”

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 IPG’s newest industrial grade ultrafast fiber laser with rack-mountable chassis and an optical head for up to 100 W average output power.

TruDisk sales have dramatically increased in the past three years, with expected sales this year near 2700 units of 1-kW or higher power, Ryba said, and there are already about 7000 in the field. “About 60% of current sales are doing cutting [and] 40% are doing other applications.” Many of those applications are automotive: welding seats, instrument panels and body panels of varying thicknesses; cutting A and B pillars and hydroformed undercarriage support tubes; drilling holes in fuel injectors. Other applications range from farm equipment to submersible pumps and pacemakers.

For Nogee, key trends to watch include:

  • Excimer lasers continuing to be vital for producing flat-panel displays and very precise, small holes thanks to their deep ultraviolet range. “Apple is going to release an OLED phone [the iPhone 8] and bought a huge number of excimer lasers from Coherent.”
  • “Very strong” UV lasers coming from IPG and Coherent; “in five years they may replace many excimer laser applications.”
  • Marking lasers continuing to get cheaper, as well as cheaper diodes driving down fiber laser prices.
  • High-power lasers produced by China.
  • The continued emergence of direct diode lasers for materials processing.
  • Pico- and femtosecond (ps and fs) lasers around $100,000.

In fact, IPG this year launched its YLPP-R Series of 10–20 ps ytterbium fiber lasers (30, 50 and 100 W) for precision material micromachining, as well as the YLPF-10-500-10-R ytterbium 500 fs fiber laser (10 W). The latter device offers less than one-minute startup time from its “warm” state, decreasing downtime for batch-to-batch processing, said Yuri Erokhin, vice president of strategic marketing. A small laser head offers flexible system design and simplified beam delivery, he said.

“Ultrafast fiber laser systems are an optimum tool to fulfill the requirements for an industrial application of glass and sapphire cutting,” IPG explained in a recent conference paper. “Our highly scalable architecture with respect to average power and pulse energy permits the user to optimize the machining speed and the cut quality of these materials. We have shown up to 150 μJ pulse energy per pulse and up to 143 W output power in a compact, efficient fiber laser system generating less than 20 ps pulses. Further scaling of average power up to 250 W is possible in a similar configuration.”

But “there’s no sense going to shorter pulses than femtosecond,” said Ron Schaeffer, CEO of custom fabricator PhotoMachining. “That’s not an industrially reliable thing to do because the broadband optics get extremely complicated, and there’s really no quality payback. The sweet spot is somewhere between 200 and 500 fs, and we’re already there. For somebody like me who’s made my living having a building full of lasers that are next-generation that people don’t have, I don’t know what’s next. Maybe it’s that once these fs lasers come down to the $50,000-to-$100,000 level, volume takes over. Instead of high profit on low numbers, we’re going to be building lots of fs systems.”

Schaeffer, who specializes in micromanufacturing of complex medical products like stents, explains that while his customers are satisfied with the work he produces with ns lasers, ps or fs lasers could produce better work—at higher cost. But the narrowing price gap among those lasers will make higher-precision work more affordable.

On the diode front, “everyone” is working on the technology said Ryba, who predicted those lasers will begin to supplant fiber and disk in three to five years. “The diode will become the primary laser source for most high-powered cutting and welding applications,” he said. Costs to produce low-brightness diodes are declining, he explained, and using diodes directly instead of to pump fiber or disk devices will further simplify lasers and slightly increase their wall-plug efficiency in a smaller footprint. Ryba said Trumpf will introduce some 1–3- kW diode cutting lasers next year. Meanwhile, the company foresees its “biggest year ever, dollar-wise” for CO2  lasers used to produce computer chips via EUV lithography; Trumpf is building two facilities in Germany to support the application.

One area diode lasers dominate is brazing, said Wolfgang Todt, vice present of US operations for Laserline. The company sells largely into the automotive sector for brazing roofs and tailgate decklids. Laserline’s new LDF platform, available at up to 50 kW, is geared to high-speed cladding and deep-penetration welding. “Tests show that spatter is less in [diode] welding of steel-welded blanks … where we clearly outperform disk or fiber lasers,” he said. For a range of applications, diode lasers are “very forgiving, very robust, very easy to integrate and operate and easy to maintain. For job shops and beginners transitioning from TIG or MIG to a laser, it’s one of the easiest transitions they can make without a huge learning curve.”

Lasers in Manufacturing: How and How Much

In preparing for this special section on industrial lasers we conducted a survey of manufacturers to get an idea of how and where lasers are being used.

Our survey sample correlated with what author Geoff Giordano reported on concerning the types of lasers being used. Slightly more than 33% of our respondents replied that they rely on fiber lasers most in their industrial applications. In second place, at 28.6%, were CO2 units, which Giordano notes are being supplanted by fiber lasers as the go-to tool for cutting.

Diode lasers were the most frequent choice of survey respondents at 13.1%, while disk lasers were favored by 3.6%. Grouped together under the heading of “Other” were an assortment of lasers, indicating not only the variety of lasers available but the range of applications to which they are applied.

“Other” was also the category that received the most responses (27.7%) when respondents were asked to name the industry they primarily serve. Somewhat more than one in five (20.5%) of those surveyed indicated that they are in the automotive industry, while 16.9% said they are in the aviation/aerospace industry. Next came heavy equipment manufacturers, at 13.3%, followed by medical manufacturers, accounting for 12.0% of those who responded. Each of the final three choices offered—energy, defense and communications—garnered less than 5% of those who answered the question.

The $64,000 Question—how much do respondents spend annually on laser machinery and related equipment—may indeed be a $64,000 question, as 57.5% of respondents reported that they spend under $100,000. One-quarter of those who answered the question spend between $100,000 and $500,000 per year, one in 10 spend between $500,000 and $1 million and 7.5% spend more than $1 million per year.

Far less is spent on laser-related consumables, including lenses, gas, cutting heads and so forth. A slim majority (50.6%) spend under $20,000 per year. Just a shade under 30% spend between $20,000 and $50,000, while 11.1% fall in the 50,000 to $100,000 bracket. About one in 12 (8.6%) spend more than $100,000 for consumables. 

New Directions

R&D efforts to exploit laser capabilities continue feverishly at national, corporate and university labs.

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), for instance, Adrian Sabau uses coherent beams from an Nd:YAG laser to simultaneously create complex microstructures on the surfaces of carbon fiber polymer composites and aluminum to optimize their adhesive joining. The unique automated setup “is what you would have on a production line,” Sabau said. The process, ideal for the automotive and aerospace industries, is “ready to go,” Sabau asserted, merely awaiting funding for applications that involve specific geometries and integration into customized workflows.

On the additive side, University of Tennessee Professor Suresh Babu, the UT-ORNL governor’s chair for advanced manufacturing, said that a student of his started an aerospace company, Volunteer Aerospace, after creating aluminum components on a Concept Laser X Line 1000 powder bed printer located at ORNL. That machine is also being used to print the heat exchanger of an additively manufactured excavator as part of ORNL’s push to facilitate commercialization of large-scale additive manufacturing. (The excavator’s polymer cab and metal boom are also being 3D printed at ORNL.)

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A laser engineer works with a picosecond laser system at PhotoMachining in Pelham, NH.

Meanwhile, Trumpf opened a Silicon Valley laboratory for laser applications, micro-applications and coating technology using continuous wave and short and ultra-short pulsed lasers. “This means we can examine each customer’s individual requirements and ideas on site,” said Peter Leibinger, vice chairman of the managing board of the Trumpf Group and head of the Laser Technology/Electronics division. “Add to that our many years of experience, and we can identify the optimum process and the right laser or generator for each application.”

Concept Laser has contributed two metal AM machines to Arizona State University’s new 15,000 ft2 (1394 m2) research and prototyping facility, which houses $2 million worth of 3D printing equipment on ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

At Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT), a host of applications using ultrashort-pulse lasers are expected to reach commercial maturity within the year, including:

  • Structuring of carbon fiber parts and components to make electrical contact
  • Scaling processes with multibeam technology
  • Micro-drilling of filters and screens in the outer skin of aircraft
  • Shaped cooling holes in turbine blades

Fraunhofer ILT also signed a multiyear deal in January with French ultrafast laser maker Amplitude Systèmes to develop technologies and products in the multi-100 W range.

Industrial laser markets

With four top-tier laser makers—Trumpf, IPG, Coherent and China’s Han’s Laser—reporting roughly $1 billion in revenue for the first time in 2016, the growing demand for industrial laser applications is clear. So robust is the industry that investor Brian Feroldi said IPG is a stock he would be unlikely to ever sell in a January article for The Motley Fool.

“It is not hard to understand why more companies are switching to fiber lasers,” Feroldi wrote. “They provide a higher beam quality, are easily scalable, take up less space, and have a lower total cost of ownership. Those factors have helped IPG take market share in applications like cutting, welding, materials processing, and more.”

Since the 2008 recession, the global laser market has grown at roughly 4–5% annually, Nogee said; Feroldi put the figure at 6%.

In his annual forecast, longtime laser industry analyst David Belforte said revenues for the industrial laser market grew 10.2% in 2016—and that the industry has enjoyed 11.7% compound annual growth since 1970. Revenue growth for key segments included:

  • CO2 lasers: -4% (projected 2017 growth, 0%)
  • Fiber lasers: 12% (projected 2017 growth, 8%)
  • “Other” lasers (including excimer): 54% (projected 2017 growth, 30%)
  • Micromaterial processing: 23.5% (projected 2017 growth, 18%)
  • Macromaterial processing: 4.5% (projected 2017 growth, 5 %)

“Micromaterial processing was the sterling performer due to the OLED annealing application that contributed to a 102.8% revenue growth for excimer/other lasers,” he wrote. “The upstart high-power direct diode lasers made an appearance at metal cutting tradeshows, contributing to a 7.1% revenue growth in the ‘other’ category.”

A rush of activity to expand laser processing capabilities saw, among other transactions: Coherent acquire Rofin; GE purchase 75% of Concept Laser with an agreement to fully acquire the company at a later date; Panasonic buy all shares of TeraDiode, maker of high brightness direct diode lasers for cutting and welding; MKS Instruments acquire Newport and its Spectra-Physics lasers; and Ametek purchase Laserage, a custom manufacturing shop specializing in medical products.

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