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Laser Technology

A higher power

By Lynn Stanley

Above: A patented airplane-like manipulator provides extremely rigid construction for stable positioning of the focusing head and precision cutting.

Manufacturers migrate toward automation for unmanned operations along with higher cutting speeds

September 2017 - The black art that once shrouded fiber laser light beam technology has been unmasked. Manufacturers are “over the newness of fiber lasers.” Instead, these equipment owners are turning their attention to material handling and higher power for faster cutting.  Hamilton, Ohio-based Salvagnini America President Bill Bossard explains. “Fiber lasers are no longer a mystery to the markets they serve,” he says. “The equipment has now been adopted across the board by a wide range of markets.”

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Salvagnini’s L5 fiber laser can cut material of any thickness without compromising throughput.

The reasons are plentiful. Compared to CO2, fiber laser machines’ streamlined footprint offers less clutter. Removal of components like bellows, mirrors and beam path translate to reduced maintenance and the costs associated with consumables. With its fingers on the pulse of its customers, Salvagnini’s list of upgrades for its L3 and L5 models is numerous. Recent advances include pierce detection, cut confirmation, edge sensing and automatic nozzle changing to name a few. One of the first companies to develop and introduce fiber technology to the market, the forward-thinking OEM has also been a proponent of automation.

Salvagnini set the stage a decade earlier with its development and introduction of the MCL Cartesian Sorter/Manipulator. The equipment marked a milestone for manufacturers that previously had to rely on manual labor or robots to retrieve, unload and place parts.

“Over the last two to three years, I would estimate about 80 percent of our customers are talking about some form of material handling as opposed to five years ago when at least 50 percent of the manufacturers we talked to were thinking about investing in a stand-alone machine.”

Analysis

As an educator, the OEM has been vocal about the benefits of equipping a fiber laser to pace itself. “What is noticeable to me is that customers have begun to be proactive about automation in terms of the machine configuration they want to invest in,” notes Bossard.

One contract manufacturer discovered the value of automation first hand. Running a stand-alone L3 fiber laser, the company was interested in expanding its cutting operations with the purchase of a second machine. “We sat down and talked with them about their needs,” says Bossard. “We conducted a time study analysis and recommended they consider a tower equipped with auto load/unload versus another fiber laser. Throughput tripled on a daily basis.”

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Salvagnini’s automation system includes unloading, separating and stacking parts as well as nozzle changes.

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The migration of manufacturers toward automated loading and unloading capabilities with laser operations is growing as companies see the competitive advantages, “especially when they can run laser operations on second shift without manpower.”

But the need for speed hasn’t diminished either. Cutting speeds have increased significantly and cut quality has improved. “If I choose a higher power fiber laser so that I can cut material faster, then combine it with a material handling option, my machine is no longer paced by how fast the operator can unload parts and load sheet,” explains Bossard. “For example, if it takes five minutes for an operator to pick parts, fold the skeleton and load sheet but the laser—due to faster speed rates—finishes cutting in four minutes, I’m losing production time [and dollars] because I’m not ready to cut.”

The ability to feed more sheets with automation that can service a fiber laser table in two minutes so that the table is always ready means the machine is pacing itself. Delays and bottlenecks are eliminated. But not everyone needs higher power, Bossard points out.

Tailored choices

“It’s not a universal requirement,” he says. “If you make light fixtures with the new LED technology, HVAC products or office furniture, higher power isn’t going to buy you anything because of the relative thickness of the materials used to make these products. On the other hand, industries like contract manufacturing need the availability of faster cutting speeds because of the vast cross section of work that may come through the door.”

Salvagnini’s L3 fiber laser cutting system with a maximum of 6kW of firepower has the flexibility to cut thick or thin materials. The machine can perform as a stand-alone unit or a fully functioning component of a flexible manufacturing system with part unloading and scrap destruction and removal. 

The L5 system has a single-optic focusing head that provides high-quality cutting for all material thicknesses without compromising throughput. Both fiber laser models use an airplane-like manipulator—it’s patented—to achieve extremely rigid construction for stable positioning of the focusing head and precision cutting.

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The L30 compact tower is Salvagnini's newest addition to its material handling line and was built specifically for lasers.

Both models can also be integrated with Salvagnini’s automatic, system for unloading, separating and stacking parts. The automation system can be custom configured to support other systems downstream, making flexible, batch-one processing possible as well.

Applications dictate cutting speed requirements, but material handling is “becoming critically important for manufacturers as a whole. Everyone is looking for a way to produce more pieces per man-hour,” Bossard observes. “Everyone is trying to move toward some type of unattended operation.”

To tailor automation to the needs of the customer, Salvagnini starts with standard building blocks then begins to add technology and function that will fit floorspace and production requirements.

Over the next three to five years, Bossard predicts in addition to automation, manufacturers will continue to demand higher power fiber laser applications. “It could mean developing new laser technology with beam shaping,” he says. “It might also mean that developments are more laser-centric versus investing in machine advances.”

One thing that won’t change is manufacturers’ goals to reach long-term operation on a continuous basis. For machine builders, Bossard believes each is tasked with the same goals.

“There are two things a builder can do,” he says. “Provide customers with cost competitive machines to help them reduce capital equipment costs. And second, keep customers’ machines running at an extraordinarily high rate better than anyone else.  Anything else is just trimmings.” FFJ

Sources

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