Fiber lasers now make up about 98 per cent of laser sales, says TRUMPF's Nick Stanczyc, sales engineer for the laser product group at the company.  TRUMPFClick image to enlargeby Noelle Stapinsky

The right fiber laser technology will boost productivity and lower operating costs

Over the past decade, fiber laser technology has evolved quickly and outpaced many other cutting systems on the market. Today’s fiber lasers are delivering precise and clean-cut qualities, increasing productivity, lowering operating costs and processing a wide range of materials. To sum it up, it’s flexible, which just so happens to be exactly what fabrication shops need to keep up with their customers' orders and stay ahead of the competition.

The technical team at Salvagnini point out two main circumstances they’re seeing in fabrication shops: companies with older laser equipment that has fallen behind in speed, cost of ownership and cut quality; and new shops looking to start off with the most current cutting edge technology. “Both of these situations lead directly to fiber laser technology,” says Clay Chase, product specialist and technical sales support for Salvagnini. 

Some key indicators that it’s time to upgrade from older technology, according to Chase, include: the need to reduce labour costs, as well as existing part cost and process time; if the shop is losing orders due to long lead times; if the cost of manufacturing is high; and having the flexibility to produce parts that others may not be able to. 

“In the laser market today, about 98 per cent of sales are fiber lasers compared to C02 lasers,” says Nick Stanczyc, sales engineer for TRUMPF’s laser product group. “A lot of the major switch that we’re seeing has to do with the associated costs and capabilities of these machines. With CO2 lasers, you have a much higher operating cost due to lower electrical efficiency and a wide variety of consumables and spare parts that are needed. Material type and thicknesses are also limited due to the type of laser.”

LVD Strippit's Phoenix fiber laser cutting system processes ferrous and non-ferrous materials in a range of thicknesses without manual intervention.Click image to enlargeIn terms of the flexibility of a CO2, the material range that can be processed is limited. “You’re not able to safely process any reflective materials—mirrored stainless or different grades of aluminum—or any copper or brass,” says Stanczyc. “It’s because of this that we’re seeing a shift over to fiber lasers, as you’re able to safely process a wide variety of materials. You’re able to do this at a lower cost and more productively with a fiber laser due to the wavelength of the light that is emitted. It’s much smaller on a fiber laser, and therefore absorbed into the materials three or four times greater than that of a CO2 laser, creating a massive cut speed advantage, especially in thin material.”

According to Stefan Colle, LVD Strippit laser product sales manager, job shops are usually looking for maximum flexibility because they don’t know what their customers are going to ask of them. “They want a machine that can cut thick and thin materials. That being said, of course, what’s important with a job shop’s machine is that it is productive and they can compete with other shops. That means they want to make sure they have enough power to cover the majority of work that is out there.” 

The Powers That Be
When choosing the right machine for your process, there are many considerations, such as the size or format, what kind of power is required and, of course, the shop floor footprint and overall production flow both upstream and downstream of the new fiber laser cutting cell. 

According to Colle, most job shops are happy with a six kilowatt fiber laser machine, as it’s able to cut one inch mild steel, stainless and aluminum. “It gives them that window or opportunity with a range of materials that normally a shop would be confronted with. And the standard size that most look for is a 5x10 machine. A shop wouldn’t go any bigger unless they are dealing with materials that are more than 10-feet in length.” 

The fiber laser market has undergone significant technological strides, says Salvagnini's Clay Chase, including smarter automation, IOT connectivty, smarter algorithms for machine dynamics and deeper nesting calculations.Click image to enlargeLVD’s Phoenix fiber laser machine can process ferrous and non-ferrous materials, including copper and brass, in a range of thicknesses without manual intervention. Its advanced cutting head is designed for thicker materials. “We’re offering automatic focus and zoom capabilities that allows shops to consistently cut thicker plates without any trouble. The zoom capability gives you the flexibility to widen your curve, so when you’re cutting thick material you can get enough of a curve width to evacuate the molten material.”

TRUMPF offers several different formats, as well as a wide range of power options. “Whether a customer needs a 5 x 10 ft machine, a 6 x12 or a 8 x 20, there are a lot of different sizes available to suite different needs. But shop availability and what they are cutting will have a large impact on the machine that they select,” says Stanczyc. “Any of our machines that are four kilowatt and above will all come standard with our BrightLine Fiber—a patented two-in-one fiber optic delivery cable that allows us to change the size of the beam quite drastically. It allows us to easily and reliably process the thicker materials such as one-inch mild steel, and even thicker if you chose a machine in the 10 kilowatt range.” 

And compared to a waterjet or plasma cutting technology, the speed, accuracy and cost savings are substantial. “A six kilowatt machine, for instance, uses about 30 per cent less energy than a four kilowatt CO2,” says Colle. “Not only are we cutting faster and drastically decreasing maintenance costs, but we’re also seeing a huge gain in energy efficiency.”

The Floor Plan
To plan for a machine with a five feet by 10 feet footprint, Colle says an area at least a 20 feet by 30 feet will be required. “If you don’t, we can help design it a little tighter, but in general, that’s the footprint you need to include the light guards around the shuttle table to make the machine safe.”

Chase adds, “if I’m a shop owner, I want to look at the investment of new equipment holistically, which I would attempt to capture in a cost per part calculation. One of the easiest ways to reduce that number is to use some form of automation, as this can reduce WIP, non-value added time like moving parts by hand and sorting, and reduce lost or damaged parts.”

Considering other automation built around the fiber laser can enhance the production advantages. Salvagnini offers a range of unique automation options for the array of materials a fiber laser can cut. “It’s important to consider both upstream and downstream effects of adding a new system into a current shop,” says Chancy Cockrum from Pioneer Machines Sales, which represents the Salvagnini brand, among others. “For example, if we look upstream we should consider that we would use more material as we’re cutting faster. This may cause us to reconsider our steel supplier, perhaps order another forklift, and shift operations around. Looking downstream, we will probably be producing more parts. From the onset this sounds great, but we need to consider what we do with all of these parts. Do they need to be welded, painted or assembled? If so, do we need to invest in additional equipment in those areas as well?”

Chase adds, “training is always a critical point in the successful implementation of new technology. It goes without saying that it should be given as much priority as possible. Salvagnini has a fully staffed, bilingual training department, which can be done at our facility or yours.” 

Growing Beyond
Recent advancements in fiber laser technology are ongoing and endless. As suppliers see more productivity demands, enhancing the technology to meet manufacturing needs is
top of mind. 

“With the ever advancing pace of technology and computational power, there have been a lot of advancements in recent years,” says Chase. “The market has seen increased power output from fiber sources, better/faster/smarter automation, IOT connectivity, smarter algorithms for machine dynamics, and deeper nesting calculations as a result of the increased computational power available.”

Salvagnini offers advanced nesting software along with order processing software to allow the owner flexibility in processing and scheduling orders. “This greatly reduces the chances for mistakes,” says Chase. “With our Stream software and flex cell technology, the job shop can track orders, process times, have the flexibility to process jobs from sheet metal to heavier material types, and process a kit over batch that would have added extra handling and processing costs.”

For 2020, LVD has enhanced its shuttle table. Colle says the company replaced the hydraulics that lifted the table up and down with a new electric motor design that gives shops the ability to go up to one-inch full sheet capacity on a 5 x 10 machine. “If they want to marry that eventually with automation, all the automation is now adapted to lift one-inch material on a full sheet size.”

And LVD’s Cadman software is a fully integrated package that allows shops to program all machines—laser, punch press and press brake. There’s also a module that will help shops easily integrate these machines into ERP systems. “For shops that really want to work on efficiency and make sure the throughput is there with maximum efficiency, all of this is possible with our software packages.”

At TRUMPF, advancements with its Highspeed Eco technology have led to game changing cutting speeds and gas savngs. Stanczyc explains. “We’ve recently seen a huge demand for cutting thicker materials with nitrogen, especially mild steel. Typically you’d cut mild steel over ¼-inch with oxygen. But when you cut with oxygen, you get an oxide layer on the part. By cutting with nitrogen, the part comes off the machine as a finished part. However, the limitation of cutting with nitrogen is that it’s expensive. So TRUMPF created HighSpeed Eco, which consists of a patented three-piece nozzle and a different set of technology tables to further increase cut speeds while drastically reducing gas consumption.”

“This is a touchdown nozzle,” he continues. “So it rides on the top of the surface of the material that you’re cutting. We can trap all of that nitrogen in the sleeve of the nozzle in order to use it all in the cut. Typically, if you don’t have this technology, you’d be pumping high gas pressure to complete the cut and a lot of that is wasted as it escapes out of the sides. With this technology we were ableto reduce gas consumption by about 70 per cent. We’ve also seen a massive cutting speed increase with this technology.” 

And at FABTECH last year, TRUMPF formally released Active Speed Control (ASC), which incorporates a camera into the cutting head to monitor the cut. 

“With this we are able to regulate the speed of the cut and increase or decrease it depending on different factors, such as material or surface condition; paint or rust, which lasers don’t like; and thickness variations.”

When getting into the fiber laser game or looking to upgrade, it’s important to know what materials you’ll be working with or will be in the future, and selecting the right power source that will help grow the business. And, of course, the space you allot for the new technology is critical to expand with automation. Perhaps there will be a need to automate loading and offloading, or maybe an automated storage tower is in the cards. But what you don’t want to do is create a downstream bottleneck in productivity, as ultimately the throughput to meet customer demands is not only the key to remaining competitive, but also truly the end goal. SMT

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