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Laser Technology
Friday | 03 September, 2010 | 6:32 am

Low-maintenance laser cutting

By Lauren Duensing

August 2010 - The smaller size, low maintenance and high beam quality of fiber lasers are helping persuade some end users who were reluctant to own a laser to make the purchase. And once their new fiber lasers are operational, the users are experiencing improved performance and lower operating costs with minimal upkeep.

Fiber lasers are "like the engine under the hood of a modern car," says Bob Lewinski, vice president of marketing and sales at Wayne Trail Technologies Inc., Fort Loramie, Ohio. "How often do you open the hood of your car anymore? The fact is you don’t. That’s what people love--keeping it simple and easy." Prospective customers who never wanted to run a laser cell are able to use them now, focusing attention where it should be--on their end products and not worrying about the laser itself, says Lewinski. Five to 10 years ago, some clients would not have purchased a laser system because of the overall costs associated with it, says David Krattley, vice president of sales for the metals market at Preco Inc., Somerset, Wis.

"If they needed a work cell with a 10-kilowatt CO2 laser, this would require a large area of dedicated floor space and a large chiller to keep the laser working properly. The process may also require the use of expensive helium as a cover gas, therefore leading to a low return on investment and high hourly costs. It was just not financially justifiable for some companies," he says.

"However, with fiber lasers, the use of less floor space and electricity, faster processing and less-expensive cover gases, the overall package becomes easier to sell," says Krattley, noting the benefits of fiber lasers "stack up."

Fiber lasers are efficient and can cut numerous materials, including aluminum, brass and copper, says Bill Shiner, vice president of industrial markets at IPG Photonics Corp., Oxford, Mass. IPG supplies Wayne Trail and Preco with lasers that the companies incorporate into different systems for end users.

"Our customers find the utility of the IPG laser to be very high. They find the maintenance of them to be exactly as we told them it would be, which is practically nil in comparison to lasers of any previous design. They are easy to use and highly dependable," Lewinski says.

High beam quality
"Preco has been in business for 30 years, and in the last five years with the availability of fiber lasers in higher powers, it has really changed the way we process some applications," Krattley says. "For example, in the past, [when] heat treating with a CO2 laser you would have to paint the surface black and use a much higher power than we are now capable of doing with a fiber laser half the size and no painting required.

"We operate several higher-power fiber lasers, including 4-, 6- and 10-kilowatt units for specialized welding, cladding and heat treating. In addition, we also have some lower-power, single-mode lasers for specialty cutting and micro-welding," he says.

"The IPG 10-kilowatt and 6-kilowatt lasers with very high beam quality allow us to do things we couldn’t do five years ago," says Krattley. "We chose these lasers because of their versatility, characteristics and the quality of the beam parameter product."

Preco not only integrates IPG lasers into client systems, but the company also uses six IPG lasers on the floor of its contract manufacturing-services shop and applications lab. With the IPG lasers in its lab, Preco is able to process and perform test studies for potential clients that submit parts. Using this data, Preco can provide the clients with a potential return on investment. For instance, "I am able to tell the client, ‘This is how much the equipment costs, this is how long it takes for your parts to be processed and here is the proof that the quality is up to your expectations,’" says Krattley, noting this is an important part of Preco’s selling process.

Fast speeds, thin foils
When Wayne Trail Technologies builds its current backlog, it will have used 25 IPG lasers. The company has integrated many lasers for clients, "but for the last nearly five years or so, the preponderance of lasers used by VIL/Wayne Trail has been IPG fiber lasers," says Lewinski. "The price, the performance, the size, the operating cost and the lack of maintenance requirement--you line all those attributes up, and you have to ask, ‘Why wouldn’t you choose a fiber laser?’"

The company is deploying a number of systems for the cutting of extremely thin coated foils made of aluminum, copper or other materials. The single-mode IPG laser at 2 kilowatts of power is able to accomplish high-speed, high-accuracy cutting in applications that previously would not have been possible, says Lewinski.

A proprietary client and application for Wayne Trail uses several IPG single-mode lasers "to get to speeds on these thin or thinner foils and coated foils that equal or surpass what could be done with conventional feeding and stamping techniques," he says.

When a company mechanically punches a thin-coated product, "there’s a lot of money spent and a lot of maintenance associated with the manufacture and operation of extreme high-tolerance tooling often made of special materials like carbide, with extremely close tolerances, because you need close-tolerance fitting tools to be able to cut ultra-thin material," says Lewinski. Additionally, the risk of damage to such dies is high, and the equipment typically has a large footprint, he notes.

In contrast, the single-mode laser with nearly perfect beam quality and sufficient power characteristics for high-speed cutting, coupled with the proper galvo-based high-speed, high-power scanner optics, enables a flexible cutting solution with essentially no (or minimal) tooling that an end user can program to the desired path, says Lewinski.

"Your tooling requirements tend to be only simpler tools or fixtures that are used to allow you to process these parts," he says. "A changeover becomes a fully programmable event with no requirements for dies or tooling and the cost and lead time associated with hard tooling. "This overall package can take up a substantially smaller amount of real estate and can do the work of multiple press/stamping lines."

Indeed, fiber lasers are setting records for speed with thin materials, says Shiner. "We’re finding in thin material the fiber laser for the same power level can cut three to five times faster than CO2. As you increase the thickness to the 25-millimeter range, the CO2 and fiber laser cut at comparable speeds."

Fiber lasers also are highly efficient because they use less energy and do not sit in any type of "simmer" mode, says Lewinski. "Where you have an IPG laser, you are talking between 25 and perhaps as high as 30 percent wall-plug efficiency. Coupled with no need for ‘simmer,’ the cooling demands, and therefore the operating cost, are very low," he says.

Unused energy turns into heat. Older high-power lasers require significantly sized cooling systems or chillers to keep them at a constant operating temperature. The chillers are large and require their own power source.

"In an 8 percent-efficient laser, 92 percent of that electricity goes up as heat. In a fiber laser, only 70 percent of that electricity goes up in heat and then only while the laser is actually on and working. While that still sounds like a big number, this efficiency level enables a tremendous savings in cooling requirements (capital equipment and ongoing cost)," says Lewinski.

Multiple applications
Fiber lasers with power levels from 5 watts to 50 kilowatts can handle a wide range of metalworking material processing. As a result, fiber lasers rapidly are gaining share in all markets using laser technology in manufacturing, says Shiner. A good example of this is in the automotive industry, where these lasers are used for the cutting and welding of high-strength steels, remote welding for seating components and various applications in the production of batteries for the new generation of electric automobiles, he says.

"Preco has a real mix of niche markets that we service," says Krattley. "We do everything from microprocessing to automotive or heavy equipment."

Fiber lasers are a very flexible tool, agrees Lewinski. "We have many repeat customers as well as new customers in just about every industry, from nuclear, solar and wind power to aerospace and the traditional automotive, appliance and white goods industries." It is a natural tendency for companies to pursue better utility and functionality for the capital equipment funds they spend, says Lewinski. "You want to get the most out of your investment, and when the solution, in this case, the fiber laser from IPG within a VIL/Wayne Trail Flex Lase system, performs better, weighs less and takes up less space than any competing technology, why wouldn’t you choose it?" MM

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