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Laser Technology
Tuesday | 15 September, 2015 | 11:47 am

Beyond the expected

By Gretchen Salois

Above: CoolLine performs selective water spray cooling of workpieces being cut.

Switching cutting methods opens up new possibilities

September 2015 - From sun-soaked wildflowers in warmer months to subzero ice storms during winter, South Dakota’s frontier showcases nature’s extreme contrasts. After pushing into maximum capacity, Westland Manufacturing Inc. in Sioux Falls decided to re-evaluate its cutting methods in an effort to harness higher cutting power while maintaining acute attention to detail for applications as different as lawn and garden equipment, architectural components and machine gun parts. 

“We run a lot of different jobs,” says Jamie Boley, laser/machine shop supervisor. In addition to lawn and garden architectural components and machine gun parts, the company also completes parts used in electrical cabinets “and everything in between,” adds Boley. The work is done with punches and laser punch combinations as well as two new Trumpf fiber laser cutting machines.

The company owned a Trumpf Inc. CO2 cutting line, but decided it was worth investing in laser technology. “We sometimes have to manufacture copper-based alloys and need to be able to cut faster and have less maintenance to worry about,” Boley explains. So Westland purchased two TruLaser 5030 fiber lasers with BrightLine technology.

Job sizes for the fabricator vary; some jobs take a day or two to complete while other jobs are finished in a matter of minutes. It helps that Westland can now cut some materials twice as fast so workers can complete a lot of parts in less time. “Laser allows us to cut more intricate contours more easily than on a CO2 cutter,” says Boley. 

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The company noticed a reduction in secondary processing since installing the first fiber laser in December 2014 and the second in May 2015. “I can nitrogen cut faster and [at] greater thicknesses,” Boley says. “Before we used nitrogen, we cut with oxygen, which left an oxide layer that we would have to remove before we could apply powder coating. The fiber eliminates that [oxide removal step], sometimes saving us a day’s worth of time. That’s a big savings.

“While run time from either a CO2 or fiber laser is the same for 1⁄4-inch steel, the difference is that, after the laser, the material can go straight into the bending processes,” Boley continues. “But with the CO2, we have to factor in three to four hours just to remove that edge. The ability of the fiber laser saves us a tremendous amount of time.”

A brighter outlook

The beam diameter of the laser on the new machine is much smaller compared to the CO2 unit. This makes it difficult to extract pieces from the skeleton because the gap between the part and the skeleton is so much tighter, says Boley. However, to resolve this issue, Trumpf’s BrightLine feature makes the laser beam diameter larger so the kerf is bigger, making it easier to remove parts. “It’s particularly nice for 1-inch and 3⁄4-inch-thick parts and you get a nice, clean cut,” he says. 

Using BrightLine fiber technology means customers don’t have to choose between cutting thin material at high speeds or thick material with great precision. “BrightLine fiber is automatically able to adjust the laser’s beam diameter from very small to quite large, allowing us to control energy density dynamically,” explains Brett Thompson, sales engineer TruLaser at Farmington, Connecticut-based Trumpf.

Westland can use BrightLine tables for thinner materials, especially parts that are 3⁄8-inch and 5⁄16-inch-thick. “It cleans the cut even more,” adds Boley. “With an oxygen cut, it’s almost like a mirror. I couldn’t get CO2 cuts as clean. Fiber laser technology allows us to cut smaller holes. I’ve cut as small as a 0.206-inch diameter hole in 3⁄4-inch-thick hot-rolled steel using the BrightLine feature.”

In addition to BrightLine, Trumpf also offers CoolLine, which performs selective cooling of the workpiece during the cutting process. This allows job shops to achieve difficult geometries, better sheet use and significantly increases the process’s reliability when cutting thick mild steel, according to Trumpf. The cutting head’s nozzle sprays water around the laser beam onto the workpiece, cooling the material and reducing the effect of heat on the cutting process. 

“When you’re cutting, say, 1-inch mild steel, you’re transferring a lot of heat into the material,” explains Thompson. “You have to use a greater distance between individual parts to ensure reliability and enable the user to nest parts closer together without worrying as much about the effect of heat.”

If there’s damage to the nozzle, the machine will replace it automatically, he says. “So fabricators can automate without concern that when coming in after a night of lights-out operation, they won’t find a sheet full of bad parts.”

Each major component of the fiber laser machine is manufactured in-house. “There aren’t different parts integrated from different manufacturers; the laser, beam switch, fiber optic delivery cable, cutting unit and the rest” are Trumpf-made, says Thompson.

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Nonstop accuracy

The interface of the new laser is also an improvement to what Westland used previously. “We can do a lot of things at the control panel of the fiber laser that we couldn’t with the CO2,” Boley says. 

What operators find to be the biggest benefit is the ease of nesting even when a part doesn’t come out right. “If they’re running a nest of parts and run a bad part, they can pull that one part and nest it in on a drop piece of scrap or in an open area of a sheet. You don’t have to generate a new sheet for that new drop; that’s something we couldn’t do with the CO2,” Boley says. 

Westland runs 10-hour shifts four days a week with some jobs running overnight as demand requires. “Even during lights-out jobs you need to account for every slug of material,” Boley says. “If you’re running a part and get thousands of slugs, you need to take the time to make sure things don’t fall or tip up—you can set it up so it will run nonstop.”

The capabilities afforded by the TruLaser 5030 have opened up new opportunities for Westland, according to Boley. The company continues to see demand move upward and the laser is helping the fabricator push beyond its previous prowess. 

“There is one setup I do where I need to cut some holes on a welded tube assembly,” he explains. “That’s not a job you would normally task on a flatbed laser but it’s possible. Try it, see what happens—this laser is capable of many, many things.” MM

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