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Laser Technology

Bright lights

By Lynn Stanley

Above: nLIGHT’s fiber laser products are easy to service, reliable and provide fail-safe processing of highly reflective materials like this copper sheet due to modular architecture and key components like its pump diode and back-reflection isolator technology.

Designs spur quick adoption of technology by metal processors in need of performance and cost efficiencies

March 2017 - The expression “dark horse” first emerged on the racetrack in 1831 to describe a thoroughbred that was unknown to race organizers and oddsmakers. In politics, it can refer to a candidate who comes from behind to capture a win. In the industrial fiber laser market, dark horse nLIGHT Inc. is quickly becoming a front-runner.

The company builds high-power semiconductor and fiber lasers, along with semiconductor pump diodes and specialty optical fibers—the engines behind nLIGHT’s fiber laser source.

“Fiber lasers have revolutionized kW materials processing and will continue to grab market share,” says nLIGHT Director of Worldwide Applications Lynn Sheehan. “As a new player to the market, we believed we could offer a unique technology solution that could compete in performance and price.”

FFJ 0317 laser image1

The vertically integrated Vancouver, Washington-based company launched its first fiber laser product—the nLIGHT alta, a next generation of industrial fiber lasers with power levels up to 3000 W—in March 2015. The same year the company built an industrial fiber laser manufacturing facility. In less than 24 months, nLIGHT developed and brought to market nine new fiber laser products. In August 2016, the company shipped its 1,000th alta fiber laser machine and introduced its new high-power fiber laser platform at Fabtech 2016, pushing forward with 6 kW and 8 kW models. 

Speed to market

“Most equipment suppliers take 10 years to do what we have accomplished in approximately 20 months,” Michael Atchley, director of product marketing for nLIGHT, claims, adding, “We’re the fastest growing fiber laser manufacturer in the world.” 

Some of the reasons behind the quick adoption of nLIGHT’s fiber laser equipment include modular architecture that supports rapid product development, easy-to-service equipment and fail-safe processing of highly reflective material.

“We listened to customers,” says Sheehan. “We talked to them about their challenges with legacy fiber laser sources and then leveraged our considerable experience to address those gaps.”

“We’ve invested 15 to 20 years on developing component technologies so that we could provide a total system,” says Atchley. “Vertical integration has been a critical component to our ability to meet the performance, quality, and cost requirements for a competitive laser source.”

As part of that total system approach, nLIGHT next tackled pumps. Industrial fiber lasers are typically pumped by single-emitter-based pumps. To raise the pump’s power and brightness levels, the laser manufacturer introduced the first fiber-coupled, multi-single-emitter-based pump source in 2005. It spawned a new generation of pumps in 2013 to meet the needs of high-volume applications. The pump diodes are housed in standalone modules. 

FFJ 0317 laser image2

“Function and performance are certainly important, but serviceability is critical for manufacturers today,” Sheehan says. “We wanted to design intelligent modularity into our products. We understand that every hour a fiber laser is down is lost production and lost profit. We engineered our laser products with modules, so that a field service engineer can replace the module with a new one in about two hours. It’s so easy we can train our customers to perform their own service.”

Chip technology improves incrementally, a flexibility that also supports advances within pump diode production. “Because we have our own chip factory and design team, every time a semiconductor chip design is improved upon, we can implement that upgrade right away,” Sheehan says.

Problem solving

“We’ve developed a bank of intellectual property and trade secrets for the designs and processes we use internally when fabricating our optical components,” Sheehan notes. “Our customers see the results; such as high performance, reliability and enabling features that are not available with other fiber laser sources.”

The back-reflection isolator makes nLIGHT’s fiber lasers immune to back reflection and allows uninterrupted processing of highly reflective materials. Life tests on the component demonstrated stable, 98 percent attenuation of back reflection with no degradation. The back-reflection isolator also provides hardware protection to support processing of reflective materials. Most legacy fiber lasers rely on software protection that is designed to disable the laser in the event of back reflection. “Our component contains no lens or free-space [air] optics,” Sheehan says.

Built to withstand the grease, grime and dust generated by other machines in a production environment, “We designed our laser source to be worry-free,” Sheehan says. “Heat is water cooled and contaminants are managed by sealing critical laser components. It’s economical to run and has minimal maintenance requirements. You just plug and play.”

FFJ 0317 laser image34

An nLIGHT semiconductor chip designed and produced in the company’s own chip factory.

Scalable technology

“Customers have identified uptime as being a critical requirement,” says Atchley. “Factory efficiency has been impaired by having to wait for lasers to be analyzed for failure and returned to service depots. Our modular design allows quick and simple access to key components so that lasers can be serviced in the field.”

System integrators are equipped with the skills to service their own lasers. Manufacturers are able to improve tool uptime and gain a value proposition they can pass on to their customers.

nLIGHT orchestrated its fiber laser product development to engage integrators in four key markets: low end, medium power cutting (500 W to 1.5 kW), high power cutting (2 kW to 8 kW), welding and additive manufacturing. “One of the hottest niches is battery welding for the automotive market,” says Atchley. 

“A scalable technology platform allows us to accommodate future requirements,” he continues. “Components like nLIGHT’s resonators give fabricators options they’ve never had before to optimize their processes. FFJ

Sources

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