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CO2 Lasers: Still in the Game

Jan./Feb, 2011

New features combined with reduced maintenance and faster cutting make sure CO2 lasers can still make the cut

With all the current hype about fiber lasers, it’s not surprising for many people in the metalworking industry to think that CO2 lasers have become outdated.
However, just the opposite is true; CO2 lasers are still very much in the game.

“I think that a lot of people have a misunderstanding. The assumption is being made that the manufacturers of CO2 technology have just been sitting on their hands doing nothing,” says Jason Hillenbrand, laser product manager, Amada America Inc. “And that’s just absolutely not the case.”

Hillenbrand’s comments summarize the current situation of the manufacturers of CO2 laser systems – they have been working diligently to continuously improve their products, resulting in many new developments in the technology.

Fiber lasers have their advantages, but to Hillenbrand, they can’t be seen as the ultimate laser technology.

“Part of the problem is that you see a lot of these comparisons comparing fiber lasers to 10-year-old CO2 lasers,” he explains further.

Though fiber lasers are still a valuable addition to fabricating technology, CO2 lasers have been evolving over the past 10 years, and many of the new developments to their technology increase productivity, reduce costs by streamlining setup processes, lower labor costs, increase machine uptime and cut energy consumption, among others.

Amada America

According to Hillenbrand, Amada America has taken strides in improving the features of its CO2 lasers, yet still offers fiber laser technology to its customers, as well.

“Our whole goal is to make our customers here in the U.S. more competitive with the global market, not just their competitor down the street,” he says.

One improved feature of the Amada/Fanuc CO2 laser is reduced energy consumption. When idle and not physically cutting parts, the system uses 30 to 35 percent less energy.

This has other effects, as well. Reduced energy consumption leads to less demand on the CO2 lasing gas and that means other components in the system run cooler, equaling longer service life. Also, because of this, the chiller uses less kilowatt hours as it doesn’t need to run as often.

Less demand on the CO2 leads to longer mirror life and extended life of the main components overall.

“We’re trying to attack laser costs from two different angles,” Hillenbrand comments. “We’re trying to reduce the cost input from electrical and gas consumption, along with consumable items, and we’re increasing the life of a lot of our main components.

“We’ve actually doubled the life of most of those components,” he continues. “Therefore this decreases the maintenance intervals and results in the part being produced having a reduced price.”

Energy consumption and increased component life are just two of the strides forward that Amada has taken. The company has found ways to increase machine uptime by reducing the amount of time needed to set-up the nozzle on the laser. Nozzle change time used to take 51 seconds, but Amada was able to shave a full 21 seconds off that process. This adds up when nozzles need to be changed often during a shift.

In addition to these innovations, Amada has improved lens changing on its F1 laser with its “no lens change” feature. With this feature, the F1 laser is set-up with either a 5-in., 7-1/2 in. or 10-in. focal-length lens, depending on the material. From there, the laser can cut all types of material without ever needing to change the focal length or lens. Combining the no lens change feature with the nozzle change feature, Amada has created another way to reduce part costs.

Yet the reduction in costs doesn’t end there, either. The Amada/Fanuc laser resonator is also extremely low-maintenance. It never needs to be replaced mentions Hillenbrand. In addition, all consumables on the laser system have set replacement costs and scheduled maintenance intervals, which makes the maintenance process much smoother and more cost effective.

Beyond the cost savings, Hillenbrand also points out a CO2 laser-specific advantage in that they can “cut the full spectrum of materials with way better edge quality than you can get with a fiber laser.”

Amada has new developments related to cutting and edge quality, as well. These include a high-frequency process that allows for increased electrical hertz during cutting, as well as new cutting processes that yield a better finished edge when cutting thicker stainless steels.

“The edge quality [created from these new cutting processes] is absolutely incredible and it’s better than anything you can get using any other type of laser processing method,” Hillenbrand remarks.

This process takes place on a typical 4kW machine that’s able to use somewhat less nitrogen gas during cutting, while also increasing the cutting speed by almost 50 percent.

Hillenbrand reveals that while working with Fanuc, Amada learned how to better stabilize the laser beam that translated into faster cutting times and better edge quality, meaning the customer “has to do less secondary processes to the edge, which gives them a better fit and finish for the final product.”

Hillenbrand emphasizes the importance of the CO2 laser to job shops overall.

“The CO2 laser is still the machine especially for job shops or contract manufacturers in that, not only can you cut materials well, but you can also cut the thicker materials that fiber lasers can really only do sometimes,” Hillenbrand says. “[Even when fiber lasers are able to cut the thicker materials], their edge quality is still not to the consistent quality of that of a CO2 laser,” he adds.

Prima Finn-Power Inc.

Two of the new developments from Prima Finn-Power Inc. are focused on innovations in automatic processes for their laser cutting head.

“We need to make our machines smarter and the operation less technical [for the operators] by taking the skill level away from the process and the machine’s operator and placing it within the machine’s control system,” says Mike Millette, Prima Finn-Power’s CO2 laser product manager.

One way that the company makes the machines smarter is through its automatic focus finder feature. When replacing the lens in the laser cutting head, operators are able to run a routine that automatically finds the focus for it. In this way, the cutting results stay consistent because the guesswork is taken out of the process.

Another feature that Prima Finn-Power offers is its automated nozzle centering. The nozzle is adjusted by the laser system after cutting a piece based on the measurement of the gas flow and the optical center, rather than the optical center alone. Millette points out that this is something that other manufacturers don’t do, and ultimately they help the customer increase productivity by saving on setup time.

In addition to these two features, Prima Finn-Power also has optical beam-size control on its laser. This feature allows the focusing lens to change the size of the beam, making it possible to cut a much wider range of materials and saving the operator from changing the lens.

Millette explains that the company has also created exclusive improvements to the laser machine’s base, as well. The base is made of Stonecast material, which is composed of a mixture of epoxy, fiberglass and granite, creating “a very structurally sound base [that makes it so] you don’t have to rely on any type of specific foundation.”

Because the base is so structurally sound, it can withstand large temperature variations caused by the surrounding environment without growing and is also an excellent vibrational dampener.

“If you have other equipment that is surrounding the laser, such as a turret punch press, our base will actually dampen vibrations before they ever reach the cutting tip,” says Millette.

These advantages also ensure that operators don’t have to deal with the frustrations of having to constantly readjust the laser’s parameters to compensate for temperature changes and vibrations, thus saving them time and increasing productivity.

An exclusive feature called closed-loop control adds a final advantage to Prima Finn-Power’s laser offering.

“[With closed-loop control], the first time an operator sets up for a particular material, he monitors the quality that he gets from the cut,” Millette explains. “If he gets a good-quality cut, he can store all the parameters of it in a database.”

This process can be repeated for all types of materials. Therefore, when an operator cuts material with saved parameters, he can activate the closed-loop quality control device, and it will monitor the cutting process to make sure it’s staying within those saved parameters. If the cutting process strays outside them, the control device will automatically make corrective adjustments.

Bystronic

Bystronic’s latest CO2 laser offerings are its BySpeed Pro 3015 and BySprint Pro 3015. The BySpeed Pro 3015 is powered by a 6kW ByLaser CO2 laser resonator and features a faster shuttle table, as well as 30 percent faster piercing capability with the company’s Regulated Pulse Piercing (RPP), over the previous Bystronic offering, Control Pulse Piercing (CPP), which had already offered a 50 percent improvement over conventional pulse-pierce technology.

The BySpeed Pro’s 3015’s cutting head can be quickly changed, while its nozzle features automatic cleaning. An optional 3.75-in.-focal-length cartridge that can increase feed rates by up to 15 percent for material thicknesses below 0.062 in. is available, as well.

A conveyor system is featured on the laser to carry away small cut drops. Customers have the option of adding a secondary outlet conveyor for depositing drops directly into a metal drum, too.

Optional additional material handling and automation solutions are offered by Bystronic for the BySpeed Pro 3015.

Bystronic’s BySprint Pro 3015 has a 4.4kW ByLaser CO2 laser source that features, according to the company, maintenance-free solid-state power supplies and a magnetic-bearing turbine.

The laser source also features reduced energy consumption, as the excitation is automatically switched off when the protective door is opened or when the machine is in standby mode. In addition, when in standby mode, the magnetic turbine speed is reduced by 50 percent, thereby saving additional energy.
Due to the BySprint Pro 3015’s compressed air cutting capability and its 3.75-in. cutting head, thin sheet (under 0.060 in.) cut times can be reduced from 15 to 40 percent, when compared to the 5-in. cutting head.

With the ByLaser 4400’s high power, the BySprint Pro 3015 can handle cutting thick plates up to 0.750 in.

TRUMPF Inc.

TRUMPF Inc.’s newest development comes in the form of the latest model of the TruLaser 3030. According to the company, the system “combines innovative technology and high laser power with a new design concept and optimized operation.”

The TruLaser 3030 offers up to 6kW of power, cuts a maximum sheet thickness of 1 in. and increases shop productivity in several ways. One such way is by reducing maintenance. The machine’s X-axis features a maintenance-free gearless torque motor, and its Y- and Z-axes are run by wear-free and oil-free linear motors. This increases the simultaneous axis speeds from 3346 IPM to 5512 IPM.

The TruLaser 3030 also cuts processing time by an average of 20 percent when processing thin sheet materials. This is made possible by its FastLine process feature which, according to the company, “generates a flow transition between the piercing and cutting processes.”

As a result of all the previous features, the machine is able to further increase productivity by processing a greater number of parts in the same amount of time as before.

One final advantage of the TruLaser 3030 is its energy efficiency. All of the previously mentioned technology reduces the amount of power used per part, which results in less overall power consumption. In addition, when the laser on the machine is not being used, it enters an optimized standby mode. This feature saves 15kW of energy when the resonator is sitting in standby mode.

MC Machinery Systems (Mitsubishi)

MC Machinery Systems, a brand of Mitsubishi, has recently included new functionality in its CO2 laser products to help the customer save money on repairs.

“You spend just about a half million dollars on the laser-cutting machine, then you get an operator that perhaps isn’t really highly skilled, and he makes a mistake and crashes the machine. That’s a costly replacement,” says Pat Simon, marketing manager for Mitsubishi. “It’s frustrating for a customer to replace a laser-cutting head when a mistake like this is made.”

To prevent these types of crashes, MC Machinery Systems has implemented new collision detection sensors on its laser cutting head. The laser head itself has a breakaway feature. If it does collide with a part, it can snap off harmlessly and then be reattached without needing replacement.

“The breakaway head will negate having a catastrophic failure that costs an arm and leg for the repair,” remarks Simon.

Another way that the company helps its customers save money is through its gas-efficient CO2 laser resonator. According to Simon, when looking at a 6kW laser, the typical CO2 laser uses approximately 40 liters of laser gas per hour, but Mitsubishi’s laser uses 4.5 liters per hour.

“This goes right to the bottom line,” says Simon.

The company has two additional developments. One is a special technology for stainless steel called Brilliant Cut. According to its Website, the technology is able to “produce a cutting surface roughness equivalent to the typical machined finish.”

The other is called Jet Pierce, which is a technology that improves small-hole processing. Jet Pierce makes it possible for material to be “pierced faster and more aggressively,” resulting in decreased part-processing time and raised productivity.

The companies represented above are not the only ones offering innovations in CO2 laser technology. The May/June edition of eFabShop Magazine will review the newest developments from Mazak, Cincinatti, Ermak and LVD Strippit, helping you to choose the right CO2 laser machine for your needs.

Amada America
Prima Finn-Power
Bystronic
TRUMPF
MC Machinery Systems (Mitsubishi)