November 2008 - There’s a revolution afoot in central Florida, but it doesn’t involve changes to political, cultural or socioeconomic institutions. Rather, it’s more along the lines of the Industrial Revolution, which paved the way for advanced technology and new ways of doing business. Today’s fiber laser revolution might not change the course of history, but it’s definitely making an impact in manufacturing technology. And Laser Photonics LLC, Lake Mary, Fla., is among the leaders in this rising field.
"We’re definitely on the forefront of fiber laser system development for industrial applications," says Todd Hockenberry, executive vice president of sales and marketing. "We’re a systems company--we build equipment around the fiber laser. Our forte is that we understand the application of fiber lasers for industrial applications."
Just as fiber lasers are a relative newcomer on the manufacturing technology scene, Laser Photonics was founded in 2002. The company sold its first systems two years later, and since then, it’s sold more than 500 fiber laser systems in more than 35 countries, including Qatar, Russia, Brazil and China.
Both Laser Photonics and the overall laser industry have been experiencing a great deal of growth, according to Hockenberry, and they’ll likely continue to do so. This has to do with the comparative youth of fiber laser system development.
"From a general standpoint, the laser business is a healthy business right now because there’s a lot of growth--the overall laser market has been consistently growing for a number of decades, probably about 30 years," says Hockenberry. "We’re continually coming out with new products and new applications, and things like the fiber laser start to open up doors to allow more end users to buy the equipment. It’s become much more accessible, so it makes laser technology available to a wider range of companies and applications. From a business standpoint, fiber laser system development is relatively early on in its maturity in the marketplace--and this isn’t a mature marketplace yet. There are a lot of new products coming out, a lot of new uses."
Accordingly, fiber laser technology is constantly evolving to meet the demands of established and emerging industries, says Hockenberry. The latter includes semiconductors and solar power applications, which are just two of the myriad industries Laser Photonics serves. Others include aerospace, automotive, medical, oil and petroleum, and military and defense.
"These lasers are useful across a variety of industries," says Hockenberry. "I would say the bulk of our industrial business is with metals of some sort, but we’ve also marked, cut and welded plastics."
As such, fiber laser systems can be used for a wide range of applications, which fall into three categories: marking, cutting and welding. Hockenberry says cutting is the largest dollar portion of the laser market, and marking has the largest unit volume.
In regard to marking, he says the closest comparison to fiber lasers are Nd:YAG lasers, which get their name from a synthetic crystal material, yttrium aluminum garnet. Both lasers can be used for low-power marking and cutting, ranging from 5 watts to 100 watts.
Hockenberry says advances in technology have made fiber laser systems the better choice for many reasons, including maintenance, reliability and cost-effectiveness in terms of both initial capital and cost of operations. He says this also applies to high-powered cutting fiber lasers, such as Laser Photonics’ Titan series, versus CO2 lasers. Hockenberry likens the difference between fiber laser systems and older systems to that of an MP3 player and a radio.
"They both do the job, but which would you buy now?" he says. "It’s the advanced technology, and we can compare fiber lasers to MP3 players--they’re both smaller and more efficient with more flexibility. The fiber lasers require no maintenance, and that’s one of the huge advantages we have. We also have a small footprint and air-cooling for our marking lasers. Plus, they have a long life."
Hockenberry says the fiber lasers’ ease of use also sets them apart from Nd:YAG lasers and that the difference is often analogous to having a large, offset printing machine as opposed to a desktop printer. "It goes from something custom and complicated that requires a lot of maintenance and specialized knowledge to operate to one that’s very much out of the box and, literally, you can plug it in and start using it to mark parts," he says.
Mark it up
Hockenberry says lasers are commonly used to mark metals with bar codes and 2-D data matrix codes, which are prevalent in the aerospace and automotive industries. Additionally, lasers have been used to mark logos and pictures, such as electrical semantic drawings on metal box covers for electrical components.
"You have the ability to mark virtually any metal now with a permanent mark, and I think that’s key," says Hockenberry. "One of the fundamental reasons you would use a laser is permanency--it withstands harsh environments over time. That’s why the automotive industry likes it. The Defense Department has mandated that many of the items it uses have to have permanent identification. Much of that is done with a laser. For years, the aerospace industry has mandated that most high-value or safety-related items need to be permanently identified and marked. Many times, that’s done with a laser."
This is the case with Goodrich Sensor and Integrated Systems, Burnsville, Minn., a company whose major worldwide markets include commercial transportation, military aircraft, helicopters, regional business aircraft, and propulsion and space systems.
Goodrich Sensor and Integrated Systems purchased its first FiberTower XP Plus from Laser Photonics in the spring of 2005, having learned about the system at the International Manufacturing Technology Show. The FiberTower series consists of fiber laser material processing systems that can be used for direct parts marking, unique identifier (UID) marking and deep engraving.
The FiberTower XP Plus is also a Class 1 enclosure system, which means it’s designed with safety interlocks so that the laser can’t be used in a way that would be unsafe for the operator. A feature add-on to the model that Goodrich Sensor and Integrated Systems has is the rotary indexer. This allows the system to rotate the parts to mark on various surfaces. It’s also used for fixturing and can eliminate the need for custom holding fixtures.
Scott Cocchiarella, principal manufacturing engineer at Goodrich Sensor and Integrated Systems, says the FiberTower XP Plus provided a cost-savings opportunity to the company, allowing it to bring labeling into its facility. The specific applications for the system include UID bar coding, which is a form of 2-D data matrix bar coding.
Goodrich Sensor and Integrated Systems uses the FiberTower XP Plus to label nearly all of its new products, the majority of which are made of stainless steel. Others are made of plastic and other materials. In regard to increasing productivity, Cocchiarella says that by doing the labeling in-house, the company has been able to cut one day to three days out of its overall process. And because Goodrich Sensor and Integrated Systems was so pleased with its FiberTower XP Plus, one system just wasn’t enough.
"We’ve been really happy with our laser labeling system," Cocchiarella says. "We’ve recommended the purchase of another system for other company facilities, including one in the Twin Cities and one in Vermont. So we’ve got a backup here in the Twin Cities for our existing FiberTower system."
Before the original system made its way to Goodrich Sensor and Integrated Systems, Cocchiarella underwent training with Laser Photonics to learn how to operate the FiberTower XP Plus. He says the training was helpful, especially after he returned to Minnesota and helped train other company engineers on the system. They, in turn, trained people on the floor. Hockenberry says this accessibility characterizes the FiberTower series, as well as all of the company’s products.
"The bottom line is that 10 years ago, you had to have engineer-level people run a laser and maintain a laser--they had to be experts in lasers," says Hockenberry. "You don’t need to be an expert to run this laser. [Fiber lasers] are easy to use, they’re easy to set up, they’ve become easy to manage and they’re reasonably priced, so they can proliferate through many different companies and products."
He emphasizes that Laser Photonics is eager to meet any demand its customers have in regard to fiber laser system development, tackling new challenges that arise from outside industries’ evolving technological needs.
"From a systems standpoint, we’re continually developing new systems to solve new problems using fiber lasers," says Hockenberry. "For example, [regarding] semiconductors and solar power--as technology changes, and as new industries grow--we’re going to develop systems around the fiber laser technology to address their issues, which are constantly changing. We’re constantly pushing forward with new ideas for using lasers for industrial processing, whether it’s marking, cutting or welding." MM