Challenging the Status Quo

With its handheld laser welder, IPG Photonics is shaking up the industry once again

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Twenty-some years ago, IPG Photonics Corp. came roaring onto the manufacturing scene with a brand-new technology that totally flipped the industry on its head. With its revolutionary fiber laser, IPG forever changed the way manufacturers and fabricators slice through the metals they use. And today, IPG may be disrupting the industry once again. The company’s LightWELD is a handheld laser welder that is faster, cleaner and easier to use when compared to traditional arc welding.

The speed of welding with LightWELD is incredibly fast because of the high concentration of the laser light, which also reduces heat input and the need for secondary finishing operations. The ease of use is made possible through intuitive controls and the inherent nature of fiber laser welding. And, when coupled with its air-cooled, integrated form factor, IPG has essentially created a higher quality version of manual welding that is just as portable and easy to use as any traditional arc welding equipment on the market.

For new users, making the transition to laser welding will be fairly straightforward. Establishing the right safety protocols will, of course, be on the to-do list, but fortunately, if the gun isn’t touching the welding surface, the laser will not fire. Either way, one can imagine that the welding booths of the future will be delineated by solid partitions instead of the conventional red curtains used in fab shops today.

In terms of a learning curve, people who have never welded before can pick up the required technique in no time flat. In an economy where finding skilled welders is a difficult prospect, LightWELD truly is a gamechanger.

The line of IPG LightWELD handheld fiber laser welding systems include the entry-level LightWELD, advanced LightWELD XC and the extended-range LightWELD XR.

Digging into the differentiators

Fiber laser welding isn’t a new concept, of course. For some time, the technology has been leveraged in large-scale operations, such as automotive, aerospace, and medical device manufacturing, in the form of automated cells and turnkey CNC-style systems. With the handheld device, however, many of the benefits are the same, including the ability to weld highly reflective metals and dissimilar materials and thicknesses. In general, though, users just get much higher quality welds with fiber laser technology.

“It really comes down to the power density,” says Dan Earley, LightWELD product manager at IPG. “With the fiber laser, we’re welding with photons instead of electrons. We’re able to squeeze those photons down to a much smaller spot size than the electrons in an arc welding process. Your power density on the material is something like 200 times higher than in arc welding processes.”

In a nutshell, the higher power density produces phenomenal results. Users experience incredibly fast travel speeds and throughput and get the advantages of welding with low heat input and a minimized heat affected zone, which results in less deformation and less requirements for post-weld work.

The challenge with such a highly concentrated beam, however, is the creation of a small spot size. With a smaller spot size, welders need to have tight part fit-up or overlap. Poor fit-up, however, can be overcome through a few techniques.

Watch the video to learn more about the extended-range LightWELD XR, which includes a cleaning regime. Welding and pre- and post-welding tasks can be handled with the same system, saving time and increasing throughput.

Earley says if the part setup is rough or if there are gaps in the assemblies, IPG will work with customers to overcome those challenges from a technique standpoint. As just one example, a wobble-welding weave can be employed up to 5 mm wide, which helps to flow more material into the joint. The system can also operate with a cold wire feeder to add filler metal; IPG estimates that over 75 percent of customers are using a wire feeder with their LightWELD systems. “If there’s an opportunity to reconfigure the joint geometry design for welding, we can consult on that, as well,” he adds.

In terms of models, potential users can choose from three machines, starting with the basic LightWELD 1500, which Dmitri Novikov, director of business development at IPG, describes as a “handy little system” that is incredibly lightweight and portable. The system features a 1.5-kW laser with front panel controls to easily adjust the laser power and wobble-welding parameters. Additionally, built-in optimized pre-sets give operators access to 74 stored modes for different material and thickness combinations, including capability to store their custom settings.

“The next step up is the more powerful LightWELD XC, which has the addition of an ablation or cleaning regime,” Novikov says. “Before you weld two parts, you need to make sure that there is no debris, no oils and just nothing fishy in the weld pool. Traditionally, you have to remove all of the debris from the weld with a separate tool or product, but with LightWELD XC, you can remove the unnecessary debris and then switch to the welding all in one system.”

Accessories are included in all LightWELD system packages. For LightWELD XR, users receive the welding gun, workpiece clamp, welding and cleaning nozzle tips, cover slides, welding helmet, safety glasses and an Ethernet cable.

The third option is IPG’s LightWELD XR, which is similar to the LightWELD XC, but with additional capability for welding thicker parts. For steel and aluminum, weld penetration up to 0.25” is possible, and for nickel alloys, penetration up to 0.20” is possible. These capabilities make LightWELD XR well-suited for aerospace applications, as just one example.

“LightWELD XR also works well with copper,” Novikov adds. “You cannot achieve nice welds with a traditional TIG system because you get spatter, which will make the seam look bad. This system, however, produces very nice weld seams. And because you can also add wire, all three LightWELD models work just like traditional welders.”

Learning laboratory

Even though the line of LightWELD products are intuitive, easy-to-use systems, questions do come up from time to time, and, of course, there is always room for improvement – especially when working with a new product. That’s why IPG makes its applications labs available to anyone seeking assistance.

These facilities – more than 20 located around the world and six in the United States – specialize in laser materials processing across a number of different applications and industries, including medical, automotive, emobility, electronics, and aerospace. Bill Kallgren, systems marketing manager at IPG, says that welding and cutting are the primary processes addressed at IPG’s applications labs, but customers can also come in to get help with laser ablation, selective material removal and precision hole drilling.

“Our application labs serve a number of functions, including R&D work to develop new lasers and beam delivery technology, training, processing customer-provided samples and factory acceptance testing prior to shipping new systems to customers,” he says. “Engineers also use the facilities to develop new processing capabilities, usually in materials processing markets in which IPG believes lasers can be leveraged successfully.
 
“We welcome visitors in our labs, but we can also provide demos remotely,” he adds. “For LightWELD, direct hands-on experience helps our customers get up to speed quickly on the use of the systems. Our distributors also have LightWELD demonstration capabilities.”

Potential buyers tend to be a little dubious about claims that the LightWELD products can weld up to four times faster than traditional TIG. And rightfully so – it’s quite the bold statement. In the end, however, demonstrations ultimately turn skeptics into believers.

In instances of poor fit-up, a wobble-welding weave technique helps to flow more material into the joint up to 5 mm wide.

“Handheld laser welding is significantly faster than traditional TIG and MIG, and a lot of people have trouble believing that the technology is real – in that it is both easy to operate and produces high-quality welds,” Kallgren says. “Ideally, they want to test it on their own materials to gain the confidence that it will do what they need it to.”
 
To schedule a demonstration, there are links on the IPG website to connect with the LightWELD team at an IPG facility or at a regional distributor’s location, and there are also mobile LightWELD trailers on the road that can visit customers and stop at regional trade shows for hands-on personal demonstrations. And, of course, there’s the good-old-fashioned method of calling IPG directly. Kallgren encourages interested parties to use the method that is most convenient for them.

For existing customers that have questions or need help with their new LightWELD system, inquiries should be funneled through the service department. Challenges working with unique materials or part fit-up can often be resolved remotely where the applications team can suggest various techniques or request that materials be sent in for testing. If it’s determined that training on LightWELD would be helpful, that, too, can be coordinated through the service department or through a local reseller.
 
“We can evaluate part fit-up and make recommendations to facilitate handheld laser welding, whenever needed,” Kallgren says. “For challenges surrounding unique materials, such as working with galvanized steel, we might recommend using relatively low laser power and a filler material to braze the parts together rather than weld them, which removes the protective zinc coating. For part fit-up, we might recommend changing the joint type or using filler wire to fill wide gaps.”

Required skill sets

No matter how many times it’s repeated, it can be hard to believe that someone with zero welding experience can pick up IPG’s handheld laser welder and make a beautiful weld on the first try. But, according to Earley, Novikov and Kallgren, it’s 100 percent true.

“For brand-new novice users, we will typically start you with a wire feeder,” Earley says. “It’s not necessarily intuitive, but the wire imparts a force when you’re welding, and it actually sets the speed for you. We call it laser cruise control. So, you just put the gun down on the joint, squeeze the trigger and the wire feeder starts automatically, pushing you down the weld joint at the right speed. All you have to do is guide it down the right path.”

Earley is quick to mention, however, that experienced welders might not do as well as a novice welder on the first try. “They have so much muscle memory built up that laser welding sometimes feels completely foreign to them,” he says. “But, for a business owner or decision maker with zero welding experience, when they see how easy it is and the quality of the results, they’re able to make the decision to adopt the LightWELD technology and bring it in-house fairly quickly.”

In terms of programming the system, that, too, is incredibly simple. In addition to giving users access to the bank of provided welding modes, users can also store their own customized parameters for later use. Less-skilled welders can then retrieve those parameters to produce the same results as a more experienced welder. And, switching between stored modes is instant and easy.

In terms of solving labor challenges, LightWELD can quickly make effective welders out of folks that have never picked up a welding gun before. But, it is also being used to augment workloads in environments where skilled welders are being spread thin. In these situations, simple monotonous work can be handed over to a less experienced welder with a LightWELD system while the more challenging, high-value TIG work, for example, can be given to a veteran welder.

With ease of use locked down, the main issue to overcome is remembering that unlike traditional arc welding equipment, laser welding involves sensitive laser optics that have to be maintained and cleaned. Despite an ingress protection rating of IP54, “ruggedized” applications aren’t necessarily low-hanging fruit for the new systems – although they are on IPG’s longer term roadmap. For now, precision sheet metal fabrication is the sweet spot for LightWELD, Earley says – handled by brand-new welders, nonetheless.

IPG Photonics Corp.

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