BY Kip Hanson
When cutting thin materials, fiber lasers run circles around CO2
The Problem: Differentiating itself from competitors
The Solution: A fiber laser to cut larger parts in metal, brass and copper
CO2 lasers have long been the 800-pound gorilla in many fabricating shops.
But manufacturers are beginning to ignore that hairy ape in favour of fiber lasers, which are often faster and cheaper to operate than their established cousins.
One such shop is Edalica Metal Services Ltd., Mississauga, ON, which recently purchased a fiber laser cutting machine, the Fibermak, built by Turkish firm Ermaksan Machinery and distributed in Canada by Ferric Machinery, Mississauga, ON.
Koen Verschingel, owner of Ferric Machinery, says fiber technology offers many advantages. “Consider energy use—fiber lasers consume roughly one-third as much electricity as do CO2 lasers. So aside from the 60-70 per cent savings in daily operating costs, there’s no need to install an additional breaker or run a new power feed as we’ve seen in some CO2 shops. You can usually just plug in a fiber machine and go.”
Maintenance is another big feather in a fiber laser’s cap. Verschingel explains that, because CO2 lasers require mirrors and a rotating turbine to perform their metal cutting magic, they incur higher costs and downtime: replacement and cleaning of o-rings, filters and optics, as well as mirror alignment and adjustment of the power supply and other components means you’ll be servicing a CO2 laser more frequently than the family car. “With a CO2 laser, you have to start rebuilding it at 12,000 hours, at a cost of $10-$15K per cycle. By comparison, the lifetime on a fiber laser generator is upwards of 100,000 hours, with virtually no maintenance required during that time,” says Verschingel.
There’s also no need for laser gas with a fiber machine, further reducing operating expense. Says Verschingel, “average cost on a fiber runs around $5/hour, while CO2 can run 2-1/2 times that.” Consider as well the increased productivity of a fiber machine—according to the Laser Institute of America’s website, a 3 kW fiber laser can cut 1 mm thick stainless steel at about 30 m/min, whereas a comparably priced 5 kW CO2 machine achieves only one-third of this speed. There’s also no concern with cutting reflective material such as brass and aluminum on a fiber laser. Cut these materials on a CO2 laser and the reflection from the shiny surface might blow up the laser resonator. With all these factors stacked in favour of a fiber machine, why would anyone consider CO2?
Like anything else in the metalworking world, the answer depends on the application. Many of these pro-fiber numbers assume you’re cutting relatively light gauge sheet; material over 12.7 mm (1/2 in.) thick is the Achilles’ heel of fiber lasers, and its sweet spot is anything 3.18 mm (1/8 in.) thick or below. Still, that was plenty of reason for Edalica Metal Services’ Al Therriault and co-owner Edmund Nazarian to purchase the 2 kW Fibermak EFB fiber laser from Ferric Machinery.
Setting itself part
Edalica, a fabrication job shop in Mississauga, ON, has been in business since 2000. Beginning with a single CNC punch press and 2000 sq. ft., it has since added a brake, shear and rolling machine, and just last year moved to a 10,000 sq. ft. facility. “We do pretty much anything from metal,” says Therriault. “Our biggest customers are in the paper industry, and we make a lot of conveyor components. We’ve had a Mitsubishi CO2 laser for a number of years now, but we wanted to have capabilities that other people don’t have. The machine from Ferric has an oversize table— 2 x 4 m (6.5 x 13.5 ft)—so we can run larger sheets. We’re also looking forward to cutting brass and copper, opening the doors to new customers. The bottom line is this: there are a lot of laser shops out there, and you need to differentiate yourself from the competition.”
The results so far indicate Edalica will have no problem doing just that. Therriault cites one example in 16 gauge stainless steel: test cuts done while laser shopping showed currently available CO2 lasers could cut at 200 ipm. “We’re cutting 500 ipm today on our Fibermak. It’s pretty impressive.” The company also dispelled some of fiber’s “thin material only” worries by successfully cutting 16 mm (5/8 in.) thick mild steel and stainless steel half that thick. One additional bonus is that, with the Fibermak’s lower appetite for energy, the utility bill has dropped substantially, even though the new machine has only been in place since August. Therriault isn’t the only one happy with the new machine. Operator Manjit Gill says the Fibermak was very easy to learn. “The technology is totally different than our old CO2 machine, but operating it is basically the same. You just need to load the program and tell the machine the material and thickness. That’s it. The service tech spent half a day or so with me during installation and I’ve been running it ever since.”
Edalica’s story with fiber lasers is just beginning, but so far, it points to a happy ending. Of course, a super fast machine like this isn’t always the best solution. For shops with high production volumes, the reduced cycle times seen here might lead to bottlenecks downstream in the manufacturing process—it’s no good increasing output on the laser machine if the parts pile up in front of the press, waiting for a secondary operation. That’s why it’s critical for any shop to look at the big picture on any new machine purchase, and Edalica was no exception. With the increase in productivity from its new laser machine, the company recently added a 2591 mm (102 in.) two axis Ermak Power Bend to keep up. “Adding a CNC press brake was the next logical step for us,” says Therriault.
It’s also important to consider the type of parts you’re going to produce. Verschingel explains the Fibermak has linear axis motors, enabling the machine tool to drive the laser head at 170 m/min and accelerate at up to 3 gs. This is great if you’re cutting refrigerator doors all day long and you can pour on the coals. But for very small or complex parts, the speed advantage you might normally realize with a fiber laser could be cancelled out by the fact the machine cannot accelerate fast enough to reach maximum cutting potential. Again, it’s all about picking the correct machine for your application.
One final consideration for would-be owners of fiber laser machines is safety. Laser cutting machines have evolved to the same level of operator protection as any other piece of equipment used in a modern manufacturing company, and it’s a certainty that any machine tool builder will deliver 100 per cent CCOHS-compliant equipment. It’s what happens after installation that is of concern here. The Laser Institute warns that it is standard practice in many shops to replace scratched or damaged viewing panels on their CO2 lasers with homemade polycarbonate ones. This is fine for the wavelengths produced by CO2 lasers, but polycarbonate is transparent to the beam produced by a fiber laser: using anything other than the manufacturer’s replacement glass could lead to blindness.
With CO2 lasers used in industrial applications for over 40 years, fiber lasers are the new kid on the block. With their high cutting speeds, low operating costs and the ability to cut reflective materials, they are sure to eat up a big chunk of the market share for laser cutting machines. Happy lasing. SMT
Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]