With advantages in cutting speed, quality, maintenance and operating costs, more and more fabricators are finding room on the shop floor and in the budget for precision-cutting fiber lasers. For those in the market to upgrade their cutting capabilities, there’s certainly no shortage of machines from which to choose.
Everyone knows the big brands – those with deep advertising pockets. But regardless of the marketing campaign, there are several things to keep in mind when considering a fiber laser cutter.
As anyone who knows metal fabrication can attest, Cincinnati Inc. (CI) is no stranger to the shop floor. The U.S.-based machine tool company has built its reputation on innovation, endurance and performance. With more than 100 years under its belt, CI has engineered a number of cutting and bending advancements while manufacturing and shipping more than 50,000 machines.
With a well of experience to dip into, CI is uniquely able to break down the various features to consider when purchasing a new fiber laser. Known to many for its press brakes, shears and, recently, additive manufacturing, CI has been manufacturing laser systems since 1986 and has quietly become a serious player in the laser market. In 1996, the company began offering linear drive motors for laser systems; and in 2010, the first line of fiber lasers, the CL-900, was introduced.
At first glance, a CI fiber laser might look like any other. But that’s where the similarities stop and where the important distinctions begin.
Many, if not most, fiber laser OEMs have adopted the “stock car” mentality of hanging sheet metal on a tubular frame. While this sleek lightweight design may be great for speeding around a track, it doesn’t do much for a piece of equipment sitting on the shop floor. On the other hand, the approximate 40,000-lb. CI fiber laser has a solid plate construction.
With 3/4-in.-thick plate construction (and 1 1/4-in.-thick plate on top to support motors), the machine’s sturdy construction is especially beneficial when cutting thick plate or when holding tight tolerances. Furthermore, this stability translates directly into durability and lower maintenance.
Jim Sullivan, vice president at N.J. Sullivan, a sheet metal shop in Dulles, Va., that owns a CI fiber laser machine, explains the necessity of a robust machine frame.
“CI fiber lasers, like all of their machines, are built like a tank,” he says. “We cut 1/2-in.-thick plate on a regular basis and have no concerns whatsoever about tweaking the table. The fiber laser is extremely durable.”
Seen at Fabtech 2016 in Las Vegas, this Cincinnati Inc. fiber laser cutter highlights the various considerations fabricators must keep in mind when they’re in the market for new equipment.
Not only should a fiber laser cutter be built to last – it also needs to deliver exceptional cutting speed. While a sturdy machine frame is necessary to support fast cutting speeds, the drive system is also key. In fact, CI was the first OEM to use linear drive motors in laser cutting systems. The result? New levels of speed and endurance.
Introduced in 1996, the linear drive motor gave productivity an instant shot in the arm. Because they are water-cooled, these motors can operate faster and longer than air-cooled motors.
“The water-cooled linear drive motor closes the laser/turret press gap,” explains Drew Schneider, CI’s product applications manager. “These motors allow for faster rapid traverse speeds, which equates to more productivity and lower maintenance as air-cooled motors tend to overheat more frequently.”
Today, after 20 years of continued development, every CI laser cutter is equipped with the company’s fourth-generation linear drive motor system, offering combined rapid traverse speeds of 12,000 ipm and accelerations up to 3G.
In addition to faster cutting, another key selling point, according to Sullivan, is the laser’s versatility. N.J. Sullivan boasts a 54,000-sq.-ft. facility to serve a variety of industries ranging from aerospace and agricultural to food service, utilities and nearly everything in between.
“While the lion’s share of our work involves cutting 16- to 12-gauge materials, we regularly process materials ranging from plate to coated materials, galvanized materials and aluminum,” Sullivan says. “The CI laser is noticeably faster all the way around, but with cutting thin material (less than 12 gauge) we’ve seen about a 70 percent improvement in cutting time. And with no mirrors, nozzles or lenses to change and maintain, we benefit from low maintenance and no wasted time moving from one job to the next. This saves us several hours a week in setup time alone.”
Whether you’re buying a new car, cell phone or mattress, all manufacturers claim to design their products with the user in mind. CI fiber laser machines contain a number of innovative design elements that remove some of the burden from the operator.
For example, the cutting head was created specifically for use with fiber lasers to improve cutting reliability and reduce operator involvement. Because the short infrared wavelength of fiber lasers is ultra-sensitive to contamination, the cutting lens needs to be placed deep within the cutting head and protected by cover slides, also known as lens protectors.
This design feature offers protection from dust and process splatter. Cover slides are inexpensive items that are simple to remove and replace. This means that operators no longer have to clean, replace or handle expensive cutting lenses.
Beam centering through the cutting lens and nozzle is also critical. With previous systems, teaching the operator to center the beam through the nozzle was more of an art than a science.
Centering is now aided by a unique camera system that the operator attaches to the bottom of the cutting head during setup. The camera displays the position of the beam directly on the control screen as it passes through the nozzle. This allows the operator to monitor adjustments live on the machine’s control screen. This feature makes beam centering fast and assures that it is correct.
Further reliability of the cutting process is achieved when temperatures of optical components inside the cutting head are monitored while cutting. When an alarm can warn the operator if the temperature of any component inside the cutting head is outside of normal, he or she can avoid issues with cut quality. That’s because an abnormally high temperature of any one optic indicates the optic is dirty and needs cleaned or replaced.
Another feature of sophisticated cutting equipment comes in the form of the user interface. For CI equipment, a touchscreen user interface, complete with Windows 8 software, allows even new operators to hit the ground running.
To expand on the ease of use, CI equipment is supported out of the company’s global headquarters in Harrison, Ohio. Nothing is outsourced or sent overseas that may cause delayed response or language barriers. Furthermore, the company utilizes a remote access tool, Team Viewer, to connect with a customer’s machine control and better assist with any issues.
Just as machine construction, cutting speed and ease of use are essential considerations to keep in mind when purchasing a laser cutting system, operating costs are equally important. To keep those costs down, CI began researching and developing air-assist laser cutting as early as 1998. Since that time, the use of air as an assist gas has continued its steady growth in popularity among fiber and CO2 laser users alike.
“Mode quality was a major limitation when compressed air was first introduced for CO2 lasers,” CI’s Schneider explains. “However, laser mode quality has improved significantly and today air-assist laser cutting is a very efficient and popular method for cutting a variety of materials. Many OEMs, job shops and fabricators are using air-assist laser cutting with steel, stainless steel and aluminum.”
Air-assist laser cutting carries with it a substantial return on investment for those employing fiber lasers or those cutting stainless steel. Schneider explains how it works.
“Air is an especially good fit for fiber laser cutting,” he says. “The intense heat of fiber lasers, combined with injected air, creates cuts without producing an oxide formation on the cut surface. This means that secondary cleanup operations are significantly reduced or even eliminated.”
As any fabricator using nitrogen will tell you, it’s a costly gas. In some instances, the cost of the gas alone can run as high as 90 percent of the total operating cost. Air is considerably less expensive than nitrogen and oxygen. Another advantage of air is the faster cutting and increased throughput it delivers.
CI and some of its customers have run cutting tests on the full range of materials and thicknesses.
“For material above 10 gauge, we’ve found that nitrogen produces faster cuts,” Schneider says. “However, in the mild steel range of 10 gauge (0.135 in.) and thinner, air is roughly 3 percent faster than nitrogen. In the stainless steel range from 3/4 in. down to 20 gauge (0.036 in.), air is about 22 percent faster. And in the aluminum range from 0.190 in. down to 0.032 in., air is approximately 14 percent faster.”
CI’s fiber lasers come fully loaded with the standard software programs needed to import, nest and cut parts. For anyone in the market for a fiber laser cutter, this is an essential inclusion as purchasing these programs piecemeal can be costly. Functioning similar to an MRP system, the CI Scheduler program schedules and nests parts, serving as a management tool for companies employing just-in-time or lean manufacturing principles.
For fabricators that need specific functionality or extended capabilities sometimes only found in third-party applications that may or may not be compatible with a fiber laser machine, CI addresses that, as well. While many are left to fend for themselves, CI developed a formal third-party vendor collaboration program to sift through integration and interfacing issues to help remove the guesswork.
This collaborative program is called the CI Gold Partner Program, which consists of a network of value-added third-party software suppliers. The program verifies applications are tested, compatible and consistent with CI fiber laser requirements.
“Suppliers become Gold partners by meeting our rigid requirements and receiving formal approval from the CI Product group,” explains CI marketing manager, Matt Garbarino. “Our customers benefit by having more software choices for programming machines, validated third-party post-processors for CI Lasers and the ability to purchase programming software for various brand equipment and improved access to the latest software and product features.”
If all fiber lasers were the same then selection would be reduced to the quick scan of a price list. But, these precision-cutting machines run the spectrum in terms of features, functionality, speed, durability and cost, allowing fabricators to select the machine that best fits their needs and budget.
Regardless of size, type or brand, fabrication equipment represents a significant investment. And with shop floor space at a premium, fabricators are taking a closer look at the ins and outs of every machine purchase. Simply put, fiber lasers, like all fabrication equipment, must make an immediate, lasting and measurable contribution to the bottom line.
“For job shops like ours, reliability, speed and agility make all of the difference,” Sullivan concludes. “Our CI fiber laser allows us to cut a variety of jobs and meet tight production deadlines without sacrificing quality. In our competitive industry, this is absolutely critical.”