Laser Technology

Wavelength benefits

By Russ Olexa

October 2009 - As lasers are introduced to the marketplace, laser system manufacturers are taking advantage of new technologies to give their customers features and benefits to cut, weld and drill materials like never before.

One such company is Salvagnini America, Hamilton, Ohio, which is now offering solid-state, diode-pumped fiber lasers from IPG Photonics Corp., Oxford, Mass., for its 2-kW laser system. It will be able to cut up to 5/8-in.-thick steel.

Prior to the new IPG Photonics laser, Salvagnini used Rofin’s fast-axial-flow CO2 slab resonator, which is still offered today for higher-power lasers.

When Bill Bossard, president of Salvagnini America, was asked why the company decided to go this route, he said, "I have a really smart owner and technical department in Italy, and they’ve been watching this fiber technology for about four years. They’ve been doing a lot of research on it. In March 2008, they decided to put the IPG laser source on one of our lasers. Six months later, we debuted this machine at the EuroBlech show, and in March 2009, we began shipping it to customers. It was a quick move on all of our parts to put this fiber laser source on our lasers and make it available.

"When we introduced Salvagnini’s laser 15 years ago, we always used a Rofin resonator," he adds. "The first several years, they were the fast-axial-flow CO2 resonators, but since about 2001, we’ve used the slab resonator from Rofin. There are a couple of things that are pretty attractive about the fiber laser: It’s really fast, the costs are six times lower per hour than a CO2 laser resonator, and there aren’t any moving parts to wear out, which means significantly reduced maintenance both in terms of time and dollars."

For Salvagnini’s product lines, Bossard says there are two components to the company’s laser products. One is the machine itself, and the other is the power source or resonator. The fiber laser takes away the complexity and maintenance of beam path alignment, mirrors and collimators. Because it’s solid-state, the laser’s power source offers a dramatic change from CO2 lasers. The laser beam itself is transferred through fiber-optic cable.

Compared with how a CO2 laser cuts, "We’re seeing the power that we’re using for cutting steel 1/8 in. thick and thinner is much less, and we’re getting about twice the cutting speed of a comparable 4-kW CO2 laser," says Steve Aleshin, laser product manager at Salvagnini. "It’s a significant increase in speed, but when we get to thicker steel, the speed advantage starts to go away."

The speed advantage comes from a couple of things, says Aleshin. The wavelength of the laser allows a laser-beam spot size about half the diameter of a CO2 laser, which produces a higher power spot density. Also, the frequency of the laser is better for cutting steel because it’s absorbed better.

"In addition, the wavelength allows us to cut materials like brass and copper that you can’t do with a CO2 laser," says Aleshin. "The wavelength of this laser has no problems with these materials, whereas the CO2 wavelength bounces right off them because of their reflectivity."

Power requirements
But how do the power requirements compare with a CO2 laser? Aleshin says the cost to run the resonator for a basic 4-kW CO2 laser is about $3.19 per hour, with the chiller adding an additional $2.21 per hour, for a total of $5.40 per hour. To run the fiber laser, it costs 56 cents per hour. Because it’s going to be a much smaller one, the chiller costs 21 cents per hour, for a total of 77 cents per hour. Assist gas usage will be similar, and there’s no resonator gas.

Long-term maintenance will be different for the IPG Photonics fiber laser, too.

"We talked at great length to IPG about the reliability of their laser," says Bossard. "A couple of things have come out of these discussions. IPG has been testing these lasers for close to 10 years. They have accumulated more data on component performance and system performance than I think anybody in the world. Based on their test for one of their automotive customers, the mean time between diode failure is somewhere around 330,000 hours. Therefore, the expected life of the system is more than 100,000 hours. If you compare this to three eight-hour shifts per day, it gives you about 16 years of use. There’s no annual maintenance to be done on the resonator. There are no turbines, blowers or internal radio-frequency tubes to replace."

Salvagnini’s first diode laser will be a 2-kW system that the company has designed around a new laser machine. Bossard says the company is introducing this power source on its L1X laser.

"This machine has the most mechanical improvements and new design features of any of our other laser products," he says. "It has a new shuttle table, cutting head, software, sensors and enclosure that will fit well with the fiber laser source."

When asked about a learning curve to operate the laser, Aleshin says that, primarily, only the speeds will change.

"We have similar types of input parameters," he says. "It will have similar gas flow and focus parameters, but the main thing will be the speeds. These will be a small learning curve for someone who has been using a CO2 laser."

However, Salvagnini introduced new software for the fiber laser’s control system. It offers cutting parameters that automatically adjust for changing features and reduce the amount of heat absorbed by the material from the laser, enabling the process to take advantage of the laser’s speed. It also offers the proper cutting parameters for various thicknesses of materials.

At 2 kW, the Salvagnini fiber laser will be able to cut mild steel up to 5/8 in. thick, 1/4 -in.-thick stainless steel, 3/16 -in.-thick aluminum, and 3/16-in.-thick copper and brass.

When asked about downsides to this type of laser, Bossard says, "There are always pluses and minuses with new technology introductions. This laser will offer competitive cutting up to 5/8-in.-thick steel, but it will be less competitive when cutting 5/8 -in.- to 1-in.-thick steel. The other thing that’s interesting about the fiber laser, and it’s because of its wavelength, [is that] it doesn’t like plastic. There is, however, a program under way at Salvagnini to develop cutting parameters to effectively handle material with a vinyl coating."

According to IPG Photonics, its laser is 100 percent solid state. It has a wall-plug efficiency greater than 28 percent, and its cabinet size is usually a quarter to half the size of a traditional CO2 resonator of the same power. It can deliver its beam 200 m from the source.

Diode life is greater than 500,000 hours, with no yearly maintenance costs. It also has a small focal area that allows precise cutting or welding and provides a longer focal length so the head can have a greater Z-axis variation and be farther away from the material.

Terry Hansen, president of Ultra Tool & Mfg. Inc., Menomonee Falls, Wis., decided to take a chance on the first Salvagnini L1X laser to pursue more metal fabrication work, as the company primarily does contract stamping and tool and die work.

"We have experience with a CO2 laser, having one on our floor for the past 10 years," he says. "I think what attracted me was the reduced maintenance and the lower operating costs that should keep us in a competitive mode for some time. Also, the laser’s overall footprint is smaller.

"It’s an upgrade for us in terms of the table size, too," he adds. "We have a laser that has a 4-ft.-by-4-ft. bed, and this will give us 4-ft.-by-8-ft. one. It’s much more of a production laser versus the one we have, which is more of a niche laser for low-volume work." FFJ


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