Lasers Tackle More Than Sheetmetal

April 1, 2004
Power, software, and process improvements spell work for lasers.

Power, software, and process improvements spell work for lasers.

High-power resonators and 3D software and controls allow for complex laser processing in steel up to 1-in. thick.

Sporting powerful resonators, innovative 3D-cutting heads, and simultaneously controlled rotary chucks, today's lasers take on a variety of jobs from micromachining fine geometries on miniature components to cutting complex contours, weld-prep bevels, and holes in single setups. It is because of these abilities and other benefits that more shops are giving laser cutting a second look.

Laser processing is fast, has high material-utilization rates, and reduces work-in-process inventories. There are no tools to sharpen, maintain, purchase, or replace when broken and no need to purchase filters or dispose of coolants. Also, 3D-laser heads perform several operations simultaneously to eliminate waiting time between operations.

Today's laser systems get their power from resonators pumping out over 4,000 W, which makes easy work of cutting such materials as 1-in.-thick mild steel and 1 /2-in.-thick stainless steel. These powerful resonators increase cutting speeds and produce surface finishes approaching machiningcenter quality.

In addition to high-power resonators, multiaxis 64-bit controls and 3D software let shops easily handle 3D-laser processing. For one builder of oil-field equipment, using a 3D-rotary-laser head lets it reduce setup time for manufacturing down-hole components by 90% and process the parts faster and in fewer operations than machining.

With these results, the company realized an ROI on this system in less than 18 months.

To practically eliminate fixture-building time, some laser-system software programs automatically generate slot-and-tab sheetmetal-fixture designs, while fill-in-the-blank software for 3D-rotary-laser heads performs coping functions for cutting pipe contours and weld-prep bevels in one pass.

A laser's inherent ability to perform multiple operations in a single setup contributes to shorter total-processing times. Thus, delivery times are shorter, which reduces a shop's work-in-process inventory and bolsters its cash flow.

For example, a builder of automated equipment for making diapers and personal products gradually shifted production from its machining centers and lathes to laser systems. Of the almost 10,000 parts comprising each piece of equipment, 3,500 previously machined parts — over 30% — are now laser cut. Lasers reduce the shop's total-processing time by 33%, lower raw-material costs, and slash cutting times for individual parts as much as 87%.

Processing jobs on lasers requires less raw material. Typical material-utilization rates for lasers are considerably higher than those of machining centers. For instance, producing a 58-piece nest for creating six parts per assembly on a machining center typically takes two 4 3 8-ft steel sheets. The yield rate is 53% with 47% scrap.

In comparison, a laser uses one 4 3 8-ft sheet for a yield rate of 71% with 29% scrap. For this job, the laser's virtually clampless operation and narrow kerf lower material cost by half, and its efficient use of raw material means less inventory to keep in stock.

Laser-cut, 2D parts (from top): 0.375-in.-thick, mild steel with 36° and 48° angles cut at 60 ipm (40-sec cutting time); 0.25-in. stainless precision sprocket; and 0.060-in. stainless micromachined part with 0.1-mm slits.

Laser-cut 3D parts (from top): 0.75-in.-thick mild-steel bevel cut and chamfer; 0.25-in.-thick carbon steel with laser-cut, laserhardened, and chamfered teeth; preformed part laser trimmed and cut; hooks cut from I-beam to eliminate welding.

3D-rotary-head laser-cut parts (from top, left to right): complex rotary cuts in 3-in. square carbon steel tube with 0.25-in. wall; hydroformed part with multiangle laser cuts made in one operation; contours and coping in carbon steel tubing; slits in stainless steel pipe; tabbed tube used as self-locating welding fixture; and precision laser-machined stainless.

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