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Laser Technology

More than just focused light

By Greg Farnum

January 2009 -New lasers, like new cars, are often sold on the basis of speed and power. Suppliers of metalworking laser systems have much to boast about on both counts. Equally important though, is the way today's faster, more powerful lasers utilize and integrate with the other systems in their environment.

An important feature for laser systems is speed that is largely synonymous with the use of linear drives.

"Linear drives have become popular, because they are the fastest, most accurate, most reliable way to move the laser," says Rick Neff, laser product manager for Cincinnati Inc. Cincinnati is a veteran in this respect, having introduced its first linear drive system back in 1996. "We now have our third generation of linear drives on our machines, and the lessons learned in that time have enabled us to create an exceptionally robust drive system," he adds, citing Cincinnati's new CL-850, a 5-kW laser system whose linear drives can deliver accelerations in excess of 2.5 G.

"One of the key developments in our field has been the move toward linear drives instead of ball screws," agrees Mike Palmer, laser product manager for Finn-Power International. "It ties in with the need to process parts faster in order to reduce piece-part costs. That's a pressure that is felt by all metalworking shops, and one that the laser, with its inherent flexibility, is ideally suited to respond to." Palmer cites one familiar application that calls for laser drilling 500 to 700 holes. Formerly, it took from 10 min. to 15 min.; with a linear drive equipped laser system, it's done in 2 min.

"We redesigned our stand-alone, L6 laser system, a 4-kW machine with a 5-ft.-by-10-ft. table, to use these drives to maximum efficiency," he adds, noting that a machine's frame must have superior rigidity to contain the forces unleashed by these higher speeds.

That's a point not lost on James Rogowski, product manager of 2-D laser, Trumpf Inc., who warns that "the fast starting and stopping--the 'jerk factor' that you get with linear drives--should be considered. What does that do to a machine frame two years into the life of the machine? If the frame isn't built well enough you could have a problem with the frame, or problems with the motion system." Plus, with the added speed of linear drives comes extra cost. Shops should consider whether they need the extra performance offered by linear drives before they invest. "Hole intensive applications with a lot of starting and stopping, where you are constantly trying to accelerate and decelerate, are particularly good candidates for linear drive," says Rogowski.

Trumpf, in its product offerings, has sought to balance the performance and cost aspects. Rogowski adds, "We offer linear drives on our L3050, L4050, L6050 models (5-ft.-by-10-ft., 6-ft.-by-13-ft. and 6 -ft.-by-20-ft. tables, respectively). These are high-speed, high-powered 5-kW or 6-kW lasers, but in the X-axis we have dual rack and pinion drives because we try to keep the cost in check."

"Everything revolves around part processing time, especially now when even smaller shops are competing in a global market," says Jason Hillenbrand, laser product manager for Amada America Inc. "And that's a matter of speed. Speed, though, comes in different forms in lasers, such as in acceleration (where Amada's FOL linear-drive flying-optics model boasts a blazing 5Gs), traverse speed, processing speed, setup time for both the software and the mechanical functions and the time it takes to change the cutting head. All these factors impact part processing times, which directly impacts piece-part costs."

Too hot to handle?
As for power, a 5-kW laser system was once an exception. Now, nearly all of the major metalworking laser suppliers offer 5-kW or 6-kW systems. "Clearly, greater power seems to be one of the trends in the field, enabling users to process thicker materials and get greater application versatility out of their machine investment," notes Cincinnati's Neff. The versatility stems in large part from the marriage of wattage and linear drives. By moving the higher-powered beam over the worktable faster, linear drives enable today's 5-kW and 6-kW machines to process multiple holes and complex contours in thin sheet efficiently. Versatility is also enhanced by newer, laser-machines tool designs.

"In the past, when people thought of 6-kW lasers, they thought of those very large table, gantry machines where the resonator moved over the table," notes Hillenbrand. "These weren't particularly suitable for the smaller shop. Now, we're seeing 5-kW and 6-kW lasers available with 5-ft.-by-10-ft. tables that give shops greater flexibility."

Higher power, however, can be a tricky thing. Ira Cole, senior project engineer with W.A. Whitney Co., now part of MegaFab, notes that there are design challenges in employing higher power levels. Whitney offers the 6-kW PlateLaser and PlateLaser-II, along with other laser cutting systems. "Some companies have tried to expand their systems from 2 kW to 4 kW or 5 kW, using the same optics, and have run into problems in keeping consistent quality in hour after hour of cutting." The reason is a higher heat level that develops in the center of the lens, shortening its life and affecting beam quality. Whitney has responded with large, thick copper mirrors that are water cooled and automatically adjusted in response to real-time beam monitoring. The result is better beam quality during extended high power operation and longer life for optical components. Cole cites as an example a Whitney customer in France who uses one lens a month, compared with a company using a similarly high-powered machine from a competitor who goes through one lens a week.

Though Whitney is proud of its innovations in laser optics and beam control, a number of other companies boast accomplishments on this score as well. These advances stem from an overall improvement in laser optical components, as well as in the sensors and software employed in beam monitoring and control. The result is greater beam consistency over extended periods of operation.

Not just lasers
These comments paint a picture of an effective, robust and evolving technology, but lasers, like every other machine tool in today's shop, are of limited use if they operate alone. Laser system suppliers recognize this; that's why advances in laser processing are now as likely to take place off the machine as on it.

Take material handling for instance: "Material handling for laser systems has seen a lot of activity in recent years," says Neff. "We've taken what we feel is a comprehensive approach to this issue with our Modular Material Handling System (MMHS)." Cincinnati's MMHS employs four basic systems with a choice of options that provide the flexibility needed to suit various requirements. They can be configured for everything from automated load/unload of a single laser to full automation of high-volume production using material storage towers to serve multiple lasers running complex mixes of parts and materials. "It can present material to conventional machines as well," notes Neff. "The idea is to allow shops to customize and grow their system as needed."

Prima North America Inc. offers several material handling systems, including its LaserServer. Here again, the keyword "modular" is encountered. In its basic configuration the LaserServer consists of two fixed load and unload tables, a sheet-separation system, a sheet thickness measuring device to ensure reliable load/unload, a system controller geared to enable remote monitoring of production and sheet inventory and a robot that can handle both sheets and scrap. Optional components such as sheet storage towers and shuttle tables to replace the stationary tables provide both additional capacity and greater automation.

Mike Palmer characterizes Finn-Power's ensemble of material handling products as "a building block approach, with products pre-engineered to incorporate into different levels of automation. We can provide everything from material handling for a single machine to a material management system for the entire sheet metal inventory of a shop." He says, "The reason this is so important today is the global situation, with shops now competing against Mexico, China and other low cost producers."

Competition between laser companies in another area of automation--the digital domain--is also fierce. Machine controls are now largely Windows based for simplicity and ease of networking and are often touch screen to further simplify things for the operator. Built-in monitoring functions abound, and some level of diagnostic capability is becoming common. Bystronic's new ByVision control for its family of lasers offers 3-D-simulation of cutting routines, as well as other features. Prima's new 3-D laser cutting systems now come with v5 LaserCut software embedded in the controls, giving them an array of automatic programming and visualization capabilities. Mazak claims the automatic features on its new HyperGear laser system's control will permit the lowest possible setup time with no operator intervention.

The battle is intense and the claims are impressive. Even allowing for a little salesmanship, there's no denying that today's laser systems are more intelligent than those of just a few years ago, and the computing power located in, or accessed by laser controls, will continue to increase.

"To compete in the global market, you have to lower your cost structure on every piece of sheet metal," reiterates Palmer, "and the way to do that is through automation." FFJ

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