Fiber lasers in sheet metal fabricating have made significant strides since emerging on the market some ten years ago. Amada's ENSIS 3015, seen at top, has the ability to cut thin materials, as seen on the left, and thick materials, as seen on the right. IMAGE: AMADAClick image to enlargeChoosing the right fiber laser is not just about power, but rather what a shop’s goal is for productivity throughput


What took CO2 technology 30 years to evolve its power ranges to meet fabricators' production demands, fiber laser technology has surpassed in the last seven years. 

Industry standard for CO2 power leveled off at about 4,000 watts in the mid to late 90s. Since the fiber laser made its debut, power levels have exceeded that reaching 9,000 watts and higher. “When you look at the fiber laser industry, it really started to gain traction around 2011,” says Dustin Diehl, laser product manager for Amada. “People were comfortable with CO2 and it was an educational process to get people on board with the new technology.”

Prima Power 2D laser product manager Mike Millette agrees. “Early day fibers had some issues with cutting thicker material, but in the last three or four years we’ve put new controls in place and new optical chains to make them even better than a C02. Deciding what laser was right for a customer used to take up half of a visit. But now customers don’t have to decide between the two anymore.”

When Amada debuted its machine in 2010 it was probably less than five per cent of sales that year. But as of 2018, it’s over 99 per cent of its machine sales. Diehl says, “with the fiber lasers doubling and tripling in power… what that’s doing is doubling and tripling your productivity and output. But what fiber lasers have also done is push the more downstream operations to become more efficient.”

Prima Power's next generation Platino fiber laser. IMAGE: Prima PowerClick image to enlargePower Struggle
With so many power ratings and different fiber lasers available today, it can seem daunting for shops to navigate which one is right for their production needs. “We see a lot of customers that are questioning wattage ratings because it is a new technology for them,” says Diehl. “Is a four better than a three? Is a nine better than an eight? We try to get them to look beyond wattage and more on the value that you’re getting with the new machine. A lot of times with those wattage ratings, depending on the material you’re cutting, there may not be a significant difference in the cost per part, for instance. Or with feed rate numbers, there’s a lot more to it than inches per minute. There’s more to look at with a machine than just a rating.”

It’s about looking at volume levels and predicting how many shifts are needed. “They’re going to choose more or less a machine platform that’s going to be a reference to the productivity levels they predict,” says Brett Thompson, a sales engineer for TRUMPF. “From there, you’re going to determine laser power based on the volumes and the sort of materials that are going to be cut. So if I’m cutting a lot of thin gauge material, I might not be interested in a high power laser. Most of it has to do with what kind of throughput you are trying to push.”

And it’s all about productivity and quality. Thompson explains that when looking at TRUMPF fiber laser technology, such as its different series that range from one through five, it’s referring to a series number and productivity level, not a quality level. “The entry level machines have quality components, high accuracies, long term durability and as far as the laser source is concerned, it’s identical. What we’re looking at is drive speeds and the number of features that can be added to the machine. As you go up from a 1-series to a 5-series, you get more processing capabilities, such as sensors to measure beam quality to regulate focus position real time and a system to visually inspect the nozzle post-collision. What we’re doing is achieving higher throughput while simultaneously ensuring consistent part quality and process reliability; this is key to proper automation.”

 TRUMPF's TruLaser 5030 fiber equipped with the new Smart Nozzle automation and Quick Swap features.Click image to enlargeThe technology has also advanced to handle thicker materials and, in some cases, mimic the capabilities of CO2. It’s all about wavelength and beam delivery. 

Thompson explains that TRUMPF’s BrightLine fiber allows the size of the beam and spot to be changed dynamically. “When you’re cutting thin material, you’re using a very small hot dense beam. But when you get into the thick range spectrum, we can create an enormous beam; four times the size of that small spot size. We can still cut quickly, but we’re spreading that heat over a larger area of the material. And the stability and edge quality is maintained.”

Amada’s ENSIS technology also allows for the beam mode to be changed. “We can duplicate the mode of a CO2 laser and cut thicker plate with a good edge quality,” says Diehl. “With our ENSIS technology we can dial in the exact mode for an entire range of materials. Each material has a sweet spot. This technology allows the spot density to change depending on the material, while producing great edge quality, increasing feed rates and lowering gas consumption.”

The Big Picture
Shops need to look at production flow, possible bottlenecks and the flexibility to expand, not to mention accounting for the significant speed increase in cutting times—some lasers are cutting at 3,000 inches per minute. 

“A lot of job shops say they have to go to a fiber laser because it’s so much faster,” says Millette. “I’ll take a walk through a shop and if they have two manual press brakes, I’ll tell them that based on what I see, a fiber laser is going to be sitting idle for two days while you’re trying to bend parts. We show them the bottlenecks. You can spend all this money, but you’re not going to get any more parts out the door at the end of the day. You have to look at what your constraints are. Is it bending? Is it your paint line or welding? Make sure you’re not wasting money on a fast machine if you can’t utilize the true speed of it.”

If there are visible bottlenecks with other downstream processes, a combination machine might be the right choice. Companies like Prima Power look at complete solutions and can combine processes such as bending or punching and laser cutting into one system. 

Its Combi Genius series, for instance, combines a laser cutting cell with servo-electric punching technology. “If you’re doing a lot of forming or putting ribs in a part, you can’t do that with a standalone 2D laser,” says Millette. “You would need a turret and forming tools. And for customers with strange features on the exterior of a part, the Combi laser punch gives you that capability and the ability to do laser cutting.” 

Service with a digital smile
Automation is also a major consideration and how that can be expanded to meet growing production needs. “All of our systems are automation ready,” says Diehl. “If the budget doesn’t allow it this fiscal year, all of our machines start out as simple building block type systems that can grow and expand as your company does.”

It can be as simple as adding an automated load or unload system. Or as your company grows, you may want to get more “lights out” production time on off-shifts and add a 10-shelf tower or multiple lasers. 

Another interesting aspect of such high tech automation is that many fiber laser machine builders understand that time is money for a shop and can remotely monitor the machine cells to help companies avoid any costly downtime. 

These machines are easily integrated into shops’ MRP and ERP systems, and depending on what fiber laser technology you go with, there could be a team of engineers monitoring the machine in real time to offer support and service on the fly. 

When choosing a fiber laser, Diehl advises to look at what kind of service and support you will get from the manufacturer. “You want to make sure that you’re fully supported with this new venture and that it will be someone you work with on a regular basis.”

Fiber lasers are solid state, so maintenance of the actual laser source is nonexistent. But there are maintenance requirements around the working area of the cutting unit. TRUMPF can directly access its lasers and machines remotely, which ensures minimal downtime during service calls. Additionally, TRUMPF offers its Smart Glasses, which Thompson says “provide a direct connection to the customer via augmented reality. If a breaker flips and you don’t know where to find it, a TRUMPF service tech can walk the customer through the process while sending documents and creating visual overlays for the customer in real time. This has had a big impact, allowing our customers to realize maximum uptime on their equipment.”

Prima Power is also offering a digital support service with Google glasses technology and iPads. “This way we can monitor and identify issues and get something sent out to our customer faster than a service guy could get there,” says Millette. “It’s more proactive than reactive. And it stops any communication issues. They can show us what’s happening and we can tell them what to do. It stops the verbal back and forth.”

For many fabrication shops, the only pressure—throughput and quality aside—is whether or not they’re cutting as fast as or faster than the shop down the street. And Millette says, “if a job shop doesn’t have a fiber laser yet, you can’t compete if you don’t take that leap.” SMT

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