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Laser Technology

GPS coordinates

By Lynn Stanley

Versatile CO2 cutting machines navigate new markets and applications as customers seek multi-purpose equipment

March 2016 - Climate change, habitat loss and rising global temperatures are putting wild animals at risk. Scientists studying the phenomena have discovered that some birds—like the painted bunting and purple martin—are finding ways to adapt by changing migration patterns to arrive at different places at atypical times. In the world of capital equipment, one species of laser—the CO2—would appear to be facing a similar threat. With fiber lasers rapidly encroaching on its territory, some feel the carbon dioxide laser cutting machine is all but extinct.

But when you ask Robert Boyes, senior product line manager for Laser Machine Tools, a business unit of Coherent Inc., if the CO2 laser is dying out, he replies with a resounding “No!”

“We met with a customer at Fabtech who said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know anyone still made CO2 machines,” recalls Boyes. “After talking with him about the flexibility of a CO2, he bought one from us. He told us he routinely got jobs that he had to turn down. He doesn’t have to do that anymore.”

FFJ 0316 laser image1

Coherent’s CO2 laser cutting machines can handle a variety of jobs and materials.

Headquartered in Santa Clara, California, Coherent manufactures lasers and laser-based technology for a customer base that touches nearly every end-use market. Laser Machine Tools is co-located with Coherent’s CO2 business unit in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Migration

“Fiber laser is generating a lot of buzz today,” concedes Boyes. “Coherent does make fiber lasers. We recognize the market opportunity and necessity for fiber.” 

Worldwide, fiber lasers surpassed 50 percent of the total industrial laser market with revenues expected to hit $1.9 billion in 2016, states a report issued in February  by Strategies Unlimited, which conducts market research on lasers, LEDs and lighting. CO2 machine sales fell 5 percent and 2016 revenues are projected at $587.3 million. Solid-state lasers are flat, according to the report.

Wide-ranging unit prices per machine type might influence the sales ratio with “US-based purchases a bit more even,” says Boyes. “The point is still relevant: Fiber lasers are here to stay.” 

Despite the decline of CO2 lasers’ popularity, Boyes affirms that the cutting machines aren’t dead. They are—like the birds—just migrating to other markets and applications. In some cases the CO2 is going where fiber lasers cannot. In particular, the technology meets growing demand for organic materials processing. It also finds use as a complementary process to other operations like waterjet cutting. The reason for the CO2’s continued survival? Versatility.

Coherent offers four power levels in its CO2 models: 150, 250, 400 and 1000 W. “The 150 W is appropriate for processing film materials, thin foils and producing engraved awards,” says Boyes. “We also offer a CO2 with 9.4 microns, which is suitable for material absorption for clean cutting on components like connector assemblies and Kapton flexible circuits. Power density on a fiber is greater on the 1 micron wavelength, which is what enables high-speed cutting of the same thickness metals, but they can’t cut organics, which leaves market space for customers who need to cut both.”

Fiber lasers are great when you need to cut a lot of metal quickly, Boyes continues. “But if you are a contract manufacturer, an R&D operation, a medical device manufacturer or defense supplier, you need a machine that can handle a variety of jobs and materials.”

Coherent CO2 cutting machines have been used for a range of applications from 0.08-in.-thick steel sprockets, polycarbonate overlays for durable keypad applications, tools used to retract skin during surgery and wood blocks cut for a national toy manufacturer’s puzzle tables. The laser supplier also supports AutoDesk’s Pier 9 Artists in Residence (AIR) program, which gives artists, makers and fabricators access to a variety of tools. 

“The program has 525 artists in residence—more than 200 members have been trained by the AutoDesk team and are capable of running our 400 W machine,” Boyes says. “Our equipment is a stock unit for the program. It can cut up to 1⁄8-in. mild steel, stainless steel and aluminum. Furniture-sized materials such as wood for engraved table pieces are also suited to the CO2.”

For the consumer market, the CO2 can take on insulating materials for components like motor lamination housings. Assemblies made from ABS, Kapton flexible circuit substrate, acrylic and metal can all be processed on the CO2

“It allows a manufacturer to have just one machine that can cut all these different types of materials,” says Boyes. “It also means a fabricator can use one tool for a variety of parts in a subsystem.”

FFJ 0316 laser image2

Coherent employed the flexibility of its CO2 technology in-house when it designed and cut a special wrench on the carbon dioxide laser cutting machine to meet a customer request.

A day in the life

On a given day Boyes may get email requests for cutting ceramic, rubber or stainless steel. “I’ve gotten requests from military and job shop customers who want to process metal and rubber gaskets with the same machine. Another recent inquiry was for gas valve ID plates cut from stainless. An applications engineer looking for quick changeover from the medical film material he was testing also made contact,” he says. “It’s a day in the life of a CO2.”

Such diverse requests point to another service Coherent provides. “You have to be customer centric,” Boyes says. “It requires a considerable amount of individual knowledge shared among our sales and applications teams. That’s why we request samples upfront for analysis because we very often receive materials and job parameters from customers that even we have never seen before.”

Coherent also supplies tool kits for the CO2 business. When a customer requested a special wrench, Coherent was able to design the tool in its lab and cut it out on a CO2 machine instead of outsourcing it. The company soon found other customers had need of the tool so it began including the wrench in its tool kit as well as using it during production of laser sources. 

“We’ll also take CAD files and material to verify a part application for a customer to help them determine whether or not a CO2 is the right fit for their job,” Boyes says. “Criteria can include edge cut quality, presence of a heat-affected zone, cosmetic damage to the substrate and repeatability. We want the customer to know that the cutting machine is going to do what they need it to do.”

For customers that operate in a high production or changeover environment, Coherent can perform time trials. The ability to test multiple files and materials allows customers to evaluate their processes for greater throughput and economies of scale part-to-part.

The laser manufacturer performs one other service that adds value to its CO2 lasers. Each machine cuts and engraves its own nameplate before leaving the production floor—recording ID number, maker and supplier information. “When customers ask us if the machine they purchased has ever performed a cut we tell them yes,” Boyes notes. “It is a unique opportunity to final-test the CO2 by using it to make its own nameplate out of anodized aluminum and then engrave it with the individual details specific to that machine.”

Coherent CO2 lasers can raster engrave and vector cut—capabilities few other metal cutting machines can perform.

“In a recessive economy people are looking for tools that are flexible,” Boyes says. “When they consider a capital equipment investment they want to be sure they will get the most out it. The CO2 cutting machine gives a customer the opportunity to say, ‘I can do this—but I can also do that,’ which helps them quickly recoup their initial investment.” FFJ

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