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Laser Cutters Get Flexible, Economical

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media
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Bystronic made its ByStar fiber sheetmetal cutting machines more flexible with a tube-processing option that takes minutes to set up.

Job shops want high-end features on lower-cost machines

Several fiber laser-cutting machine builders are focusing on making their products more flexible and economical while at the same time including features usually found on higher end machines—all with the needs of contract metal fabricators in mind.

“A large amount of the market is new job shops,” said Hank White, national product manager, MC Machinery Systems Inc. (Elk Grove Village, IL), which sells Mitsubishi Laser machines, among other machine tools. “They want something they can get at a lower price that still has a lot of options and features.”

In addition to Mitsubishi, companies that have recently added advanced features to more economical machines include Mazak Optonics and Murata.
Mitsubishi introduced an entry-level laser cutter that has some of the tools as its more expensive machines but with the same motion systems and controls.

Mazak Optonics Corp. (Elgin, IL) borrowed real-time monitoring capability and a high-speed drive system from a 2016 model and added them to two other models in 2017. Murata Machinery USA Inc. (Charlotte, NC) borrowed linear drives from a high-end machine for one of its more affordable models.

What is Flexible?

While economy is measured in dollars and cents, flexibility is harder to pin down.

Some manufacturers of laser-cutting machines want their products to be more flexible and economical for contract metal fabricators.

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Mitsubishi’s new SR-F series from MC Machinery has lower-cost, entry-level machines that can be automated.

“Flexibility can amount to different things to different folks,” said Andrew Dodd, North American sales director for BLM Group USA (Novi, MI). “One of the things our machine does, for example, is move from different tube sizes with an automated changeover.”

BLM’s laser cutters can switch cutting from a 6″ (150-mm) round aluminum tube to a 3″ (75-mm) square stainless tube by changing over (in two minutes) a couple of supports within the machine.

“So, there’s that level of flexibility,” Dodd said. “If you’re a contract manufacturer and you don’t know what you’re going to make tomorrow, when you buy the standard machine you get all those capabilities.”

Meanwhile, BLM Group has customers that make, for example, the same chair 24/7. Flexibility for them means the lengths of tube a machine can take, or how holes in a chair can be placed differently. Flexibility means integrating a machine with a robot that can unload the part and take it to a welder.

“Where perhaps the ultimate flexibility comes in is with five-axis laser cutting,” Dodd said. “We call [our version] the LT-FREE. You can basically put a hole wherever you want and cut any feature within that assembly by a combination of the laser-head movement and where the part is held.”

The LT-FREE can be configured to maximize part access and productivity. Loading during part processing is possible. The machine software can program tube and stamped parts offline. Other recently introduced machines have similar flexibility.

A new Bystronic model can cut sheet metal as well as tubes. Amada has a low-power machine to cut thin and thick plate, allowing manufacturers to choose a lower-wattage machine that acts like one of a higher wattage.

Amada America Inc. (Buena Park, CA), BLM Group, Bystronic Inc. (Elgin, IL) and Mitsubishi make CO2 laser cutters and machines with fiber lasers. One might think a job shop would go for the higher versatility of a CO2, according to an executive at Bystronic’s UK parent company. But he discovered that’s not necessarily the case (see sidebar).

Not Everyone Needs High-End

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Mazak Optonics’ Optiplex 3015 is answering customer demand for higher wattages and speed, and for enhanced networking capability.

Murata downsized its original fiber laser and tweaked its drive system to make a laser-cutting machine that’s more economical and job shop-friendly. The result is the Muratec LS 3015 GC. Murata’s original LS 3015 FC’s linear drives for the X, Y and Z axes have an accuracy of ±0.0004″ (0.01 mm) in positioning and repeatability, which are required for the aerospace and medical industries, and for complex assemblies. The new GC model has a helical rack-and-pinion drive on the X and Y axes, with an accuracy of ±0.0012″ (0.03 mm) in positioning and repeatability, but still uses a more highly accurate linear drive on the Z axis.

“Our original model, the FC, is our top-tier laser machine,” said Rick Dorman, Murata’s North American sales manager for fabrication products. “With the GC, we’ve been able to find the sweet spot between speed, quality and affordability. Not everyone needs the total precision and high-end capabilities of the FC, and with the GC you’re getting the speed and quality that you need with a much higher accuracy level than other lasers on the market.”

Laser Cutters Meant for Automation

Mitsubishi’s SR-F series offers lower-cost, entry-level machines that can be automated. “Like our more expensive machines, they are automation-ready,” MC Machinery’s White stated.

He added that about 50% of the laser cutters from Mitsubishi run with automation in a “set-it-and-forget-it” mode. Sheet times for its fiber lasers average less than a minute.

“If you rely on an operator to keep that machine running across the day, you’re going to see huge drops in throughput,” said White. “If you automate it, you’re actually using that machine tool the way it was meant to be used.”

The SR-F can be outfitted with either a 2, 3, or 4-kW fiber laser. The series has many of the same tools and the same motion system and controls as Mitsubishi’s higher-end machines, including its best-selling eX-F laser. The SR-F is built on the same platform as Mitsubishi’s SR CO2 cutter. The SR-F’s footprint of 9.8 × 4.9′ (3 × 1.5 m) is also similar to its CO2 machines.

The company had contract metal-fabrication shops in mind when it designed the new SR-F series, White said. “We plan on selling quite a few of these systems based on the demand.”

Fewer Modules, Purer Beam

Amada America upgraded its ENSIS fiber laser cutter from 2 to 3 kW and added a 9-kW fiber-laser machine to its LCG line within the last year.

The ENSIS wattage upgrade was enabled by advances in technology and fits with the company’s thinking on offering power modules in 3 vs. 2-kW increments, said Dustin Diehl, laser product manager.

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This 3/8″ thick part was cut with oxygen on Mazak’s Optiplex Fiber III 8kW laser.

“We think that with our simple process of having much fewer modules than our competition, it creates a purer beam,” Diehl said. “Every time you stack those modules to achieve a set amount of power, it can actually deteriorate the quality of the beam. That’s where we see some of our machines that are rated at a lower power rating that still perform as [well as] someone else’s higher-rated machine.”

The ENSIS patented variable-beam technology lets it cut thick plate (e.g. 1″ [25.4-mm] mild steel) with a high edge quality using only a small amount of power. The model is great for job shops because it offers the flexibility to cut whatever comes in the door, according to Diehl. “It clearly takes you throughout the spectrum of what a laser can do, from very thin sheets to very thick plate,” he said.

The 9-kW LCG joins 3 and 6-kW fiber machines in the LCG lineup.

“In the higher-wattage applications, it might be more job-specific or material-specific,” Diehl said. “For example, if you’re an OEM and you make light agriculture equipment and you only use a narrow range of materials, such as 7-gauge, 11-gauge or ¼” (6.35 mm), basically it’s just a matter of how fast you want to cut.”

One of Amada’s customers that wants to cut fast uses the LCG 9 kW unit to produce light agricultural equipment, , such as riding lawnmowers, tractors, tillers and seed planters. Another customer needed the additional power to achieve good edge quality on the thicker stainless steel medical equipment it makes, Diehl said.

Flexible Tube-Processing Option

Bystronic increased the flexibility of its ByStar Fiber sheet metal laser cutters by adding a tube processing option to cut tubes with diameters from 1.25 to 12.5″ (31.75–317.5 mm). “The chuck is already there. You just have to take the cover off to expose it,” said Frank Arteaga, head of product marketing, market region NAFTA. “Then you take the tail stock and you pull it out. It’s on a guide and you lower it into place. There’s no lifting. It’s just sliding and lowering. And then, effectively, you’re ready to go with some additional minor quick connects for air and exhaust.”

Different extensions on the outside of the machine enable the cutting of tubes longer than the machine table. Arteaga pointed out that the machine’s linear drive and triangular cutting bridge contribute to a 40% higher acceleration while cutting, compared with conventional square bridge and rack-and-pinion designs.

The company also has a new app, ByCockpit, which “basically is for real-time information for sheet metal processing. It analyzes and visualizes process data and helps identify opportunities in the production process,” said Arteaga.

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BLM Group’s five-axis fiber laser-cutting machine, the FT-FREE, has a range of configurations to maximize part access and productivity.

ByCockpit runs on all mobile devices. It has about 30 widgets, including ones that show an overview of the shop’s entire production; overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) determined by machine availability, parts output, and the quality of cut parts, and allows comparison to previous production cycles; detailed information about materials in stock, and more. Users can configure their ByCockpit by dragging and dropping selected widgets on their mobile device’s screen.

Push for Productivity Monitoring

Mazak Optonics is answering customer demands for higher wattage, speed, and enhanced networking capability in its Optiplex 3015/4020 Fiber III machines.

“They both have the same capabilities, as far as the types of material they can process, the thickness of material and the speed at which they cut,” said Tim Tapper, applications manager. What it comes down to in choosing between the two is sheet-nesting efficiency: The 3015 has a 5 × 10′ (1.5 × 3-m) cutting bed and the 4020 has a 6.5 × 13′ (2 × 3.9-m) bed.

Mazak has added an 8-kW power option to both machines and a new PreviewG control, along with fast rack-and-pinion drives. Previously, the control-and-drive package was only available on its Optiplex DDL model.

“There’s this big push toward productivity monitoring and the PreviewG is capable of linking up with our Mazak iSmart Factory technology,” Tapper said, referring to Mazak’s real-time process monitoring and analysis software. “So, it allows offline viewing of what’s being run on the machine and remote interfacing.”

PreviewG also offers the option of performing programming on the control for re-cutting rejected parts. An operator can retrieve CAD data from any previous job, specify which parts need to be recut, enter the size of a remnant sheet and quickly create a program for those extra pieces without having to go back to the programmer.

The 8-kW power option meets the demand for increased cutting speeds, greater cutting capacity for thicker sheets and enhanced cut quality.
“You’re getting a better-quality cut across the board, but specifically in the thicker ranges of materials,” Tapper stated.

SIDEBAR: Fiber or CO2? Know the Pros and Cons When Choosing

Since they were introduced in the 1960s, fiber laser-cutting machines have advanced faster than their CO2 counterparts. That may be why they represent “mostly everything” sold by BLM Group USA (Novi, MI), while laser sales at Bystronic USA (Elgin, IL) are “predominantly” fiber and the sales of Mitsubishi Lasers at MC Machinery Inc. (Elk Grove Village, IL) are 70% fiber.

That leaves a smaller, but still viable, market for CO2 laser-cutting machines, even for manufacturers that sell more fiber laser cutters (see main article).

How does a job shop decide? CO2 lasers are favored for cutting nonmetallics, including wood and plastic, along with thicker gauges of stainless steel and aluminum, said Dustin Diehl, laser product manager at Amada America Inc. (Buena Park, CA). Also, look to CO2 lasers for better edge quality with a smoother finish and no dross on the underside of a cut part.

Diehl said fiber laser cutters are better for working with metals with a shiny finish such as brass, copper and galvanized steel. Fiber cutters also offer huge gains in cutting speeds. “They still don’t match the edge quality of CO2, but productivity is four to five times greater,” Diehl said.

Fiber laser machines are also easier to use than CO2 units. “They’re simple to install and very simple for the customer to look after,” said Andrew Dodd, North American sales director for BLM.

Lasers used to be something you had to be an expert in, but through the years their use has been simplified, Dodd said. Not so for CO2 machines. They have to be aligned within micron accuracy.

Bystronic UK Managing Director David Larcombe said (in a 2013 article in Industrial Laser Solutions for Manufacturing) that a 3-kW fiber cutter uses one-third of the power of a 4-kW CO2 machine. This may be of more interest in Asian and European countries where electricity costs more than in the US. However, all manufacturers may be concerned about their “carbon footprint.”

When Larcombe surveyed Bystronic UK customers over three years, he found that over 70% of fiber laser customers are subcontractors (job shops), with the remainder being original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

“This is surprising, as one would expect OEMs to be more confident about deciding to purchase a fiber laser machine where the advantages and disadvantages vary greatly, depending on the products to be cut,” he wrote. “Subcontractors can never be sure what the next job will be and what material thicknesses will need to be processed. So theoretically, the versatility of a CO2 machine would be more attractive.”

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