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Laser Technology
Tuesday | 14 April, 2015 | 9:55 am

Cutting through thick & thin

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Amada’s ENSIS fiber laser cuts 1-inch-thick mild steel with the same edge quality as a 4,000 W CO2 at nearly the same speed.

New technology promises to give fiber laser fans what they’ve always wanted

April 2015 - Fiber or CO2 gas lasers? Manufacturers faced with requirements to cut both thin and thick materials frequently wrestle with this question. But what if your equipment supplier told you that you could have your cake and eat it, too? 

Jason Hillenbrand says you can. The laser product manager for Amada America says ENSIS 3015 AJ is a product development that may prove to be the first significant leap forward in fiber lasers since the technology was adopted by North American metal cutting companies.

Fiber’s low operating costs and its ability to cut thinner materials at speeds three to four times faster than a comparable gas laser are just two advantages that brought the ecologically friendly machine to the industry’s attention. And while fiber lasers continue to breach markets previously held by high-power CO2 lasers, most cutting operations seeking the best of both worlds still favor a CO2 for processing thicker, heavier metals.

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“Fiber technology isn’t new anymore; most manufacturers have a general understanding of how the machines work,” Hillenbrand says. “But I think there has been a misunderstanding surrounding the idea that fiber lasers can’t cut thick material. Fiber has always been able to cut thick material; the issue has been edge quality and speed. While edge quality is a subjective matter, customers looking for good edge quality in thicker materials find that additional processing like grinding is usually required with fiber laser.”

Changing the game

Manufacturers are constantly driven by demands for quality and the need to eliminate secondary operations; two factors that have helped CO2 maintain a toe hold—until now.

ENSIS doesn’t just change power density in response to material type and thickness. The new fiber laser physically changes beam properties to perform high-speed cutting in thin materials yet provides the high quality and comparable speed needed to efficiently cut thick materials, says Hillenbrand. The Buena Park, California-based builder of sheet metal machines first introduced ENSIS at Fabtech 2013 and continued testing before taking its production-ready model back to Fabtech last year. Orders quickly followed and Amada is already installing the new fiber laser at customer facilities in the United States, according to Hillenbrand.

The 2,000 W ENSIS laser can cut mild steel up to 1 inch thick with the same edge quality as a 4,000 W CO2 at nearly the same speed. “We think this is a game changer,” he says. “Job shops will now be able to invest in one machine that is capable of high-quality processing of a full range of materials yet with the cost efficiencies and easy maintenance that fiber lasers have always enjoyed.”

ENSIS, he continues, can cut “thin material four times faster than a CO2 then seamlessly switch to cutting thick, heavy metal at the same quality and nearly the same speed as CO2 yet at a lower wattage. That means a job shop can reduce cost per part as well as overall operations costs. It’s a no brainer.”

Customers came to Amada with requests that it build this technology. “We frequently got the question, ‘When will fiber be able to cut thick materials? Right now I have to have two machines—fiber for thin gauge and CO2 for thick metals.”’

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Hillenbrand says Amada’s capacity for research and development and its partnership with a nearby designer gave the equipment builder the necessary tools to go to work on the problem. That partner, Milpitas, California-based JDSU, designs and manufactures laser components and subsystems for a wide range of OEM applications.

Warp speed ahead

To leap from its standard fiber laser to ENSIS, the two companies started with beam quality. With both fiber and CO2, laser science uses the characteristic or parameter M² to describe the ratio of the beam parameter product (BPP) of an actual beam to that of an ideal Gaussian beam (normal distribution) at the same wavelength. The value can be used to quantify the degree of variation between the actual beam and the ideal beam.

“There are a lot of variables that affect this value,” explains Hillenbrand. “But essentially when conventional lasers create a beam, its value is fixed. The lower the BPP the better a machine will cut thin material. The higher the value, the better the machine cuts thicker material. The BPP for a standard fiber laser is low—in the 2 to 3 range. With a CO2 laser the BPP value is in the 8 to 9 range, which contributes to excellent edge cutting quality in thick metal. Until now, what the fiber laser has lacked is the ability to provide the necessary beam quality to cut thicker materials comparable to that of a CO2. ENSIS actually changes its BPP value to accommodate the material, thick or thin, that needs to be cut.”

Conventional fiber laser cutting systems require the operator to change the focus lens or add optics in the cutting head to cut a full range of material thicknesses. ENSIS is engineered to automatically provide optimal beam configuration based on the material being cut.

“We’re currently cutting 20-gauge cold-rolled steel up to 1-inch-thick plate without touching the machine,” Hillenbrand says. “The operator doesn’t have to stop and change a lens, the nozzle or beam property. The machine makes all those adjustments automatically. It’s ideal for an automated processing environment.”

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Power savings

ENSIS generates the same amount of power with 60 percent fewer laser diodes and 75 percent fewer modules. “For the job shop that translates to the highest available wall-plug efficiency and a maximum light conversion efficiency of 75 percent,” Hillenbrand says. 

“ENSIS uses one-third of the electricity a CO2 system consumes while taking up less floor space. Operating costs and energy usage are further reduced along with maintenance because the Amada fiber engine doesn’t require gas, mirrors or other items typically associated with CO2 beam generation.”

ENSIS is also equipped with a new control that is simpler to use and promotes faster processing. AMNC3i allows the operator to use a 21.5-inch display screen to view programs from the server by reading file names or looking at a thumbnail view of individual nests.

“I recently visited a local customer who was making the transition from CO2 to fiber laser,” Hillenbrand says. “We talked about the full range of materials and he was excited that he didn’t have to compromise by having to make a decision on which way to go. He can install one machine and take whatever job comes through the door. The technology will open new markets for a lot of manufacturers.”

ENSIS has also expanded processing capabilities by giving manufacturers the ability to cut materials—such as copper, brass and titanium—that are difficult or impossible to cut on a CO2. “Each material absorbs wavelengths differently,” says Hillenbrand. “That’s why copper, for example, is so dangerous to cut on a CO2 laser. It reflects the beam instead of absorbing it. Fiber lasers eliminate that problem by creating a wavelength that is conducive to cutting materials like copper.”

Amada and JDSU continue to co-develop newer versions of the latest fiber technology. But in the tug of war for market share between CO2 and fiber technology, ENSIS, Latin for sword, has drawn a line in the sand. MM

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