While the more exotic breakthroughs in industrial lasers tend to get the headlines, small to mid-size fabricators continue to harness the time- and labor-saving benefits of workhorse cutting, welding and marking systems from suppliers who combine intensive process guidance with smarter operating software.
Advances that include IPG’s hand-held LightWELD 1500 unit, higher throughput additive manufacturing systems and more robust blue wavelength lasers garnered plenty of accolades this year. The LightWELD was one of the three finalists in the manufacturing category of the annual PRISM awards presented by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.
While larger-scale cutting, welding and marking systems tend to be the focus at Manufacturing Engineering—and we don’t disappoint, catching you up on these systems later in this article—it’s worth discussing the “riches in niches” afforded by mastering more advanced photonics-based systems. Shops that invest in the right high-end equipment and navigate the stringent vendor validation process have found success in, for instance, medical contract manufacturing.
The other two PRISM manufacturing finalists, Boston Micro Fabrication (BMF) and nLight, Vancouver, Wash., introduced 3D printing advances to increase the speed and quality of industrial production. The AFX-1000 from nLight “was developed to enable the widespread adoption of laser powder bed fusion … metal additive manufacturing for series production,” according to a press release. The release stated that “nLIGHT’s AFX fiber laser has been shown to significantly increase build rates while maintaining excellent material quality and consistency. AFX achieves these results by allowing the beam size and shape to be tailored in real time, entirely within the fiber laser, and without the use of complex free-space optics.”
BMF ultimate won the 2021 PRISM for its microArch S240 micro-precision 3D printer tailored to short-run industrial production. The S240 “is built upon BMF’s patented Projection Micro Stereolithography technology or PµSL, a technique that allows for rapid photopolymerization of an entire layer of liquid polymer using a flash of UV light at micro-scale resolution,” according to a press release. “The superior production of intricate, exact, and replicable parts makes PµSL optimal for end-part and prototyping use cases across a wide range of industries, including medical device manufacturing, microfluidics, MEMS, biotech and pharmaceuticals, electronics, education, and research and development.”
For welding copper and aluminum components in lithium-ion batteries—particularly for electric vehicles—blue lasers have come to prominence thanks to metals absorbing the wavelength at greater rates than infrared light. Nuburu, Centennial, Colo., a 2017 PRISM nominee, won new patents this year for its welding and 3D printing applications.
Battery welding “is quite a popular area for laser welding studies,” noted Prima Power Laserdyne’s Mark Barry, vice president of sales and marketing for the Brooklyn Park, Minn.-based company. Generally, interest in laser processing for smaller precision parts is growing. A case in point is with the LASERDYNE 811, which was developed for a turbine engine production applications but is now being purchased by companies with applications in the automotive field.
Turbine engine manufacturing “took a tremendous hit during the pandemic,” Barry noted. “A number of engine programs ground to a halt. But we’re pleasantly surprised that in 2021, although there is still uncertainty with new engine programs, Tier 1 and 2 suppliers are inquiring about new equipment.”
More broadly, he concluded, “what’s interesting now is the increase in potential customers and engineers we haven’t worked with before who are very interested in the possibilities of laser joining. In the past couple of years we’ve seen more and more companies thinking about and implementing component designs that will allow you to consider laser welding. That’s due to laser speed, automation possibilities and consistency in processing, and the simple fact that industry can’t find qualified welders, so we have to reopen the door for considering the use of laser processing.”
Replacing TIG and MIG Welding
One fabricator’s side project—aluminum accessories for semi-trucks—prompted a significant investment in a laser welding system that has the company looking for more ways to use the new system.
Iowa Customs, Carroll, Iowa, a business spun out of Terad Fabricating, turned to Amada America Inc., Buena Park, Calif., when demand for its steps and lighting components took off, explained Dan Belz, FLW product manager for Amada.
“It’s tough now to get qualified welders, even in a metropolitan area—but when you’re in a rural area it’s that much more difficult,” Belz noted. “On top of that, good aluminum welders are tougher to come by; it’s not an easy weld.”
As Iowa Customs grew, the owner was spending nine hours a day TIG welding dozens of products. By purchasing an Amada FLW3000 ENSIS fiber laser system, “he got his days back. The FLW is welding not only faster but better because there is no post-processing; he can just send products out to get anodized,” said Belz.
Iowa Customs designs and builds its own fixtures, including for a 36 × 12 × 12" (91.44 × 30.48 × 30.48 cm) auxiliary lighting kit. “It’s fairly substantial-weight aluminum,” Belz said. “We tweaked their designs a bit for laser welding and helped quite a bit on the process. But they weld a lot; they are a smart shop, so they took off on the machine quickly.”
In transitioning from TIG to fiber laser welding, Belz explained, the part redesign entailed optimizing for tighter fitments. For TIG, the fixture is large and heavy because of the heat and wire being put into the process. “It became a sheet metal fixture—a little lighter gauge, a little more forgiving. We eliminated the wire, and you get a nice strong, clean fusion weld, and we virtually eliminated grinding and polishing.”
Additionally, now “the operator runs the table and the cutting laser; they went from one guy spending all his time welding to him doing something else and the laser operator maintaining and feeding the FLW.”
Meanwhile, targeting traditional TIG and MIG welding applications, IPG launched its handheld LightWELD 1500 laser welding system in November 2020. Designed as an air-cooled, high-reliability industrial unit, LightWELD has been adopted by fabrication shops, HVAC companies, heavy equipment manufacturers and leading aerospace companies, according to John Bickley, director of systems marketing for IPG. “Almost everyone that has light welding applications that are not suitable for automated manufacturing will benefit.”
Measuring 316 × 641 × 534 mm, LightWELD is smaller than some traditional TIG welders. The system output is adjustable up to 1,500 W average laser power, with 2,500 W of peak power, to produce single-pass welding of steels and aluminum up to 4 mm thick. Using a spot size of 150 µm to get both accuracy and a high power density for compatibility with reflective materials, LightWELD’s built-in wobble function allows seam width to be extended up to 5 mm. Additional flexibility to accommodate parts with wider fit-up gaps is provided by the optional automatic wire feeder.
As with all laser welding, LightWELD puts much less heat into the part and creates less heat-induced damage and distortion than traditional MIG and TIG welding. Users of LightWELD report weld times faster than traditional methods and joins that need little or no post-weld finishing. The combination of faster weld time, reduced heat effects and reduced finishing time results in higher throughput.
In comparison to traditional hand welding methods that require skilled coordination of travel speed, weave, wire feed rate and possibly foot-pedal control, LightWELD, with its programmable wobble width, is an easier welding technique to learn, and relative novices can easily produce good results after only a couple of practice parts, according to the company. IPG-recommended process parameters are provided for typical material and thickness combinations, allowing new users to be effective producers almost immediately.
In addition to the welding process, the laser can be used for finishing and cleaning. Using variations of the welding process, a “cosmetic pass” can further improve the finish and appearance of a weld seam, and a planned optional cleaning function will provide a pre-weld surface preparation capability whose application will not be limited to laser processed parts.
Ultimately, “LightWELD puts much less heat into the part and produces a high-quality, visually appealing joint in a shorter time,” Bickley concluded. “LightWELD welding is easily performed by relatively inexperienced operators, and will play a role in addressing the critical shortage of highly skilled welding capacity.”
Lasers in Hybrid Machines
The flexibility of having laser precision within a traditional CNC machining system continues to gain traction in streamlining manufacturing processes.
The Laser L2000 system from Marubeni Citizen-Cincom Inc. (MCC)—which combines turning, drilling and milling with fiber laser cutting, welding and etching—is particularly useful for customers who do not normally have bar-fed machines, noted Randy Nickerson, laser product manager for MCC, Allendale, N.J.
“Having a laser within our multi-axis machines allows you to not only do whatever turning (lathe) work that might be needed before or after the laser features, but it also gives you the ability to perform any deburring,” Nickerson explained. While typical parts might need to be turned on a lathe, finessed by a laser and brought to a bench for deburring, “our system on a nine-axis barfeeding machine with high-pressure coolant and mist control would be able to do all those functions more economically. This would eliminate the queue time between the lathe and laser and, in most cases, the benchwork time completely. That is a lot of savings and reduction in time to get a finished part.”
For a while, MCC’s traditional Swiss customers were passing on many of the laser cut opportunities “due to the lack of an efficient means of producing the parts,” Nickerson recalled. “That led us to investigate where those type of parts were being manufactured. This brought us to the laser product manufacturing sector; these companies were getting the parts after the lathe work was completed and doing just the laser features. We have turned some of those manufacturers into a new group of Swiss customers with the addition of the laser option.”
MCC has developed systems to insert precut part blanks into collets using a variety of loaders. “The use of bowl feeders, step feeders, robots and MCC-designed automatic loading and unloading systems offers our customers tools to address and improve their manufacturing process. This is significant especially when manufacturing complex components.”
Most applications MCC encounters “fall under 20 mm diameters, with some going below 0.5 mm in size. The small-diameter parts are very challenging because you cannot always run them from barstock due to the size and instability of spinning a long bar at high rpms.” MCC’s automation department designs and builds units to handle these challenges. “We have used bowl feeders to load parts under 0.5 mm and step feeders down to 1.5 mm in diameter. Many of these parts are tubes with a wall thickness as thin as 0.004" (0.102 mm).”
Laser powers are available from 100 W to 6.5 kW, and all are air-cooled, eliminating the need for a chiller. “We now also have a temperature and humidity sensor within our cutting head to monitor those levels and stop when one of those increases to the point that the unit could be damaged.”
Marking with Lasers
With tracking and traceability a growing part of monitoring the performance of genuine parts and products, as well as preventing counterfeits, laser marking is “a great industry to be in,” said Nicholas Kaczmarski, national sales manager for Beamer Laser Marking Systems, Flushing, Mich.
Stringent requirements for the firearms, aerospace and medical industries are fueling laser marking advances—particularly when it comes to engineered solutions incorporating customized automation to increase throughput while eliminating operator error.
With the firearms industry particularly busy, Kaczmarski noted that marking that had been performed in the same CNC machines in which components were made is being moved onto dedicated marking systems. Marking those parts in the CNC machine could take 30 seconds to two minutes, he explained; now, that time is devoted exclusively to part production.
While Kaczmarski expects the medical and automotive markets to pick up as those industries move away from the just-in-time inventories necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted that “we are starting to see a dramatic uptick in laser marking applications for aerospace.” Thanks to the Department of Defense’s marking standard Mil-Std 130N, as well as the FAA’s approval of laser marking, defense and commercial aerospace marking applications will be significant component of what Kaczmarski predicts will be an “exponential increase in the marking industry over the next 25 years.”
Roughly 70 percent of applications can be solved by a variation of one of Beamer’s standard solutions, Kaczmarski explained, “while 30 percent of all industrial laser marking solutions are solved by our engineered or inline solutions.”
In the case of one firearms customer, Beamer engineered a system that improved throughput by 20 percent by employing a 100-W galvo laser system and fume extraction equipment from partner supplier TBH GmbH, Straubenhardt, Germany. Beamer’s Marking Creator 3.0 software offers “a unique competitive edge” thanks to allowing users to change “a multitude of additional parameters” uncommon to typical marking software.
At Dapra Marking Solutions, Bloomfield, Conn., expanding the “laser marking window” has been a priority, according to Dave Noonan, vice president.
Dapra’s galvanometer-based marking systems are about to get an interface upgrade to allow operators to mark larger areas easier, Noonan explained. Differing from lasers mounted to overhead gantries, galvo units mark by deflecting beams with a mirror, allowing angles to be adjusted within the boundaries of a marking area.
“We often talk to people who have applications like a nameplate that’s 9" (22.86 cm), or who want to gang up multiple parts,” Noonan explained. “The problem is not that the technology doesn’t exist—we can do XYZ platforms—but the software side of the equation is where the rubber meets the road, and that’s where most laser interfaces that I’ve seen fail.” This will allow users to mark, for instance, within a 24 in2 (155 cm2) window as opposed to a more common 4 × 7" (10.16 × 17.78 cm) space. Dapra’s “much more simplified operator interface provides a customer the ability to mark much larger marking windows without requiring an engineer to set it up and run it.”
And, since the capability of XYZ marking platforms can often double a system’s cost, Dapra is working to make them more affordable, Noonan added.
“We feel like we’ve got a real winner here, because now we’re scalable. If you’re marking firearms and you want to do barrels and line up 10 guns underneath a laser head, whether the system is open style or enclosed—we can provide either—customers will have the ability to interact with any area on that firearm as it lies there.”
This wider-area, galvo-based marking capability will be available under a couple of system names, Noonan said. “We currently name our products by laser enclosure,” but the plan is to begin targeting machines to individual industries, including medical, aerospace, energy and automotive.
Security Equipment Maker Leverages Trumpf Laser Welding
A visit to Trumpf’s Smart Factory in Chicago was the beginning of a collaboration that has paid big dividends for Tanner, Ala.-based security equipment supplier Claborn Manufacturing.
Seeking to reduce hand labor and part weight for its 36 × 84” (91 × 213 cm) hollow metal security doors, Claborn has reduced weight by 20 percent weight, eliminated finishing steps and employed leftover thin pieces of sheet in the construction.
Originally, Claborn made its doors by using resistance spot welding to join hat sections onto each face sheet, and then using manual GMAW processes to weld halves together, recalled Product Design Engineer Ric Hall. Multiple plug welds requiring intensive labor to fill and grind before priming and painting further slowed the process, added Plant Manager Jeff Fulks.
At Trumpf’s Smart Factory, Masoud Harooni, laser welding product manager, demonstrated time-saving methods that catalyzed a redesign of Claborn’s doors for more efficient, repeatable production.
“All the seams on one side of each door had to be cut, MIG welded then ground,” Harooni explained. “Now, these are laser-welded seams. The first pass is for heat penetration, and the second is for heat conduction with a more defocused beam” that provides a more aesthetic finish.
Since their collaboration began, “Trumpf has sent application support to help us numerous times to help us overcome challenges,” Hall said. “When people see automation, they see the end product and see the robot executing everything perfectly, but it does take a while to get to that. You’ve got to fixture your parts so the seams are going to be in the same place over time.”
Trumpf’s TruTops Weld software lets Claborn load 3D part models into a virtual environment and precisely plot each weld; each door requires about 20 minutes of welding.
Creating a four-man team to design an optimal workflow was critical to Claborn’s success, Fulks explained. The team includes Hall, a dedicated programmer and two operators. “We focused a lot of attention on developing specific skill sets for each of those roles to research and develop our new door design while factoring in the use of the laser welder and robotic system,” Fulks added.
When the doors were finally submitted for ASTM physical assault testing, “we easily met the industry’s most stringent security grade,” Hall said.
Having optimized its process, Claborn also applies its Trumpf equipment—a TruLaser 1030 for flat cutting, a TruMatic 6000 punch and laser machine, and a 5000XL TruLaser cell with part shuttle system—to make ceiling and wall panels. The company is also exploring what other types of work its systems can handle.