Most folks don’t bat an eye at purchasing aftermarket parts for their cars, such as air filters, windshield wipers and spark plugs. Some of these purchasing decisions are based on price, but others are based on additional offerings not available within automakers’ current product lines.
When it comes to laser cutting machines, however, purchasing aftermarket parts might not come as second nature. Sure, a lower price point is enticing, but considering the initial cost of a laser cutter, more scrutiny must come into play.
Dave Cook, business team leader of laser consumables at Hypertherm Inc., says that for anyone considering aftermarket laser cutting consumables, there are a few factors to keep in mind. Those include product consistency, performance and availability as well as application support.
“Price consideration is definitely a big reason to consider aftermarket laser consumables, but consistent product quality would probably rank just as high,” Cook says. “One of the reasons people like doing business with us is our longevity in the market and our continuous improvement ethic.”
Hypertherm has been around for 50 years and has been in the precision machine consumables business since the beginning. Laser consumables were introduced about 20 years ago and fall under the Hypertherm Centricut product line.
“We have half a century of experience when it comes to precision manufacturing, continuous improvement and engineering rigor, so the expansion of our consumables line into laser made sense,” he adds.
Hypertherm’s most popular laser consumable products are nozzles, nozzle holders, lenses and cover slides – many of which fall within the company’s collection of hundreds of patents. If a patented consumable technology is released by a major laser cutting machine OEM, the team at Hypertherm works to come up with its own invention or workaround. Cook says there are very few technologies on the market for which Hypertherm doesn’t have a replacement part. In terms of product consistency, the company’s legacy in plasma technology is a major boon.
“Compared to plasma components, which can be very complex, some laser components appear relatively straightforward with fewer design features,” Cook explains. “But the features in a nozzle, holder or lens that are critical to function require laser process knowledge, precision manufacturing and rigor in your design and quality assurance processes to make the part work every time. To that end, we invest in engineering staff, computer modeling and analytical tools. We also conduct visualizations of how the assist gas flows through the nozzle, and computer flow modeling; by using computational fluid dynamics and additional analytical tools, we can guarantee product consistency and optimize model designs to improve cutting performance.”
For example, in recent years, laser cutting machine OEMs have introduced automatic nozzle changers and cleaners, propelling Hypertherm to address specifics, such as the plating used on the outside of a nozzle. After significant R&D activities, the engineering team concluded that abrasion resistance of the chrome plating is critical to product longevity. When a nozzle is automatically cleaned by a wire brush or scrapes against the workpiece during cutting, inferior plating materials can be easily scraped off.
“For a nozzle to be truly abrasion resistant, you need plating that is robust and adheres well,” Cook says. “So, we created our own. After doing abrasion testing, we developed a proprietary plating process with hard chrome plating. It was essential to get the right thickness, hardness, abrasion resistance and adhesion. It’s something that most people wouldn’t necessarily notice, but it’s an essential detail in terms of making it a robust and reliable product.”
Like plasma consumables, the laser nozzle is, as Cook puts it, “at the hot end, right where all the action is.” In addition to withstanding all of that heat, the gas must be precisely delivered, meaning all of the nozzle’s features are held to incredibly tight tolerances.
“From all of the tiny details to how well they function, we take the overall design and manufacturing process very seriously,” he says. “Thanks to the capabilities of our engineering and manufacturing team, we serve as a reliable and consistent global supplier.”
The lower price of aftermarket consumables is a compelling selling point, but Cook reminds customers that saving a few bucks becomes a moot point if the products don’t perform well. It’s critical that laser consumables offer high-quality cutting and long life.
“Continuous improvement is a way of life at Hypertherm, which has motivated investments in technical staff, lab capability and engineering analytical tools,” Cook says. “We are constantly striving to be more rigorous on the engineering side of things. This past year, we added more staff and technical capability to deliver the highest possible performance in all of our consumables.”
After Hypertherm’s engineering team has designed a new consumable product, next up is its manufacture. Here, too, Hypertherm sets the bar high.
“We focus on making sure all of our products are engineered with the right materials and the right assembly methods – be it with adhesives, traditional welding or laser welding,” Cook explains. “We also subject our products to rigorous inspections to make sure they will calibrate correctly. It’s imperative that a nozzle holder or a ceramic insulator ring, for example, has the right electronic properties and has passed the right kind of testing to make sure that it won’t fail on the shop floor.”
Beyond performance and reliability, aftermarket consumables must also live up to the current standards of modern laser cutting technology. When fiber made its market entrance, Hypertherm retooled its engineering approach. And when automatic nozzle changers were introduced, Hypertherm responded with its proprietary plating. The same has been true with a variety of additional laser cutting technology enhancements that are now on the market.
“In the early days of fiber technology, not much had changed from CO2 in regard to consumables, but gradually, we all figured out that you have to optimize the gas flows and nozzle geometries to get a better cutting outcome,” Cook says. “Over the years, we’ve improved and optimized our nozzles – whether it’s for 2-D or 3-D cutting. In particular, we’ve optimized the design of the high-power ring nozzles that are used for fiber laser cutting of steel plate to reduce gas consumption, improve edge quality and improve alignment.”
Hypertherm has also addressed other advancements happening in laser cutting, such as the ability to customize and shape the beam mode to address a range of cutting needs and applications. In the end, these design upgrades result in better results for the fabricator and in some cases, less gas consumption.
“We’ve focused on designing our nozzles to use less gas,” Cook says. “It’s the type of cutting edge work that we’re currently working on, which is very cool. If you could get the same type of performance with 25 percent less gas, for instance, you’re talking about a major savings in gas consumption over the course of a year. And it’s all possible by simply re-engineering the geometry of the nozzle.”
The issue with some aftermarket consumables is the lack of support a customer receives after the purchase. Major laser machine builders, however, can typically be counted on to help customers get the most from their consumables and troubleshoot issues if or when they occur. Early on, Hypertherm chose to take the latter approach to ensure that customers aren’t left in the lurch.
“Our distributors don’t always have the technical depth that they need to answer customer questions, so product and application support is something our team has that other aftermarket companies typically don’t,” Cook says. “That’s why we have industry experts that are in a product specialist role or in an application engineering role to not only troubleshoot issues, but also recommend the best product for customers’ varying needs.”
In terms of Hypertherm’s distributor network, availability is a major selling point. Most of the company’s distributors, especially in North America, are traditional gas and welding distributors, meaning they are already in these customers’ shops, servicing them for their welding, gas and grinding needs.
Laser consumables are a complementary offering that these distributors can provide, and considering they are already local and sometimes in these plants every day anyway, it can be quite convenient.
“We differentiate ourselves by delivering high performance backed with support and high availability,” Cook says. “An aftermarket laser consumable has to be a good value and sold for a reasonable price, but it also needs to have all of the design details that are required for consistent performance. We have always had a deep expertise in plasma, and as we’ve diversified into waterjet and laser cutting, we’ve brought that same kind of engineering rigor, continuous improvement culture and manufacturing excellence to the table.”