Laser processing is widely recognized as delivering superior results for many marking, cutting, welding and other material processing tasks. This is especially true for higher value, smaller and more physically delicate parts, such as those encountered in medical product manufacturing. Here, the ability of lasers to process materials with higher precision, less part distortion, minimal heat-affected zone and better cosmetics makes them advantageous compared to other methods.
Laser-based machines of the past have several other factors that caused limitations to their use. For example, compared to ultrasonic welding, TIG welding and other technologies, laser-based machines are often more expensive. Laser processing also requires a high degree of specialized expertise if its full benefit is to be realized. Additionally, many companies haven’t had the in-house capabilities to maintain laser machines at peak operating efficiency. This makes them dependent on outside vendors for service, which creates the possibility of lengthy equipment downtime.
Fortunately, however, there has been a noticeable change in the dynamic over the past few years as advances in software, microprocessors, sensors and lasers have combined to deliver a new generation of systems that are simpler to use, more reliable and easier to maintain, all of which reduces cost of ownership. Understandably, the development of more sophisticated software control systems was required to achieve these strides.
At Coherent, one such system called Laser FrameWork, serves as a good example. The new, highly sophisticated system integrates these important advancements into one single user experience. In doing so, enhanced productivity and reduced costs for laser processing are delivered tenfold.
Defining the user experience
User Experience (UX) is the term used for the holistic journey users take as they use a product. The UX includes operators’ direct interactions with the product as well as the broader scope of how that product fits in with their overall task completion process. This means that planning to use the product, and other steps before and after the product is used, are all part of the UX.
The User Interface (UI) is a significant component of the UX for software and systems that utilize software. The UI is every aspect of the software, which includes everything from the layout and content of screens to the navigation and menus, the commands, available options, overall functionality and more.
Laser FrameWork was created to address the drawbacks of the laser machines mentioned previously. Specifically, it was designed to:
- Simplify operation
- Lower operating costs
- Integrate smoothly with other production systems
- Eliminate unplanned downtime
- Reduce operator training requirements
- Speed job creation
The Coherent design team knew that creating a single, integrated UI was the best way to hit the above goals. Furthermore, a unified platform manages all operational and diagnostic functions, enables communication with other systems and is easily extensible. Modularity and extensibility are important from a cost standpoint because it future proofs the hardware as well as the customer’s investment in training personnel to use it.
Productivity and ease of use are the end result of using a single UI in Laser FrameWork. On top of that, the user doesn’t need to utilize different software packages, deal with their various UIs and worry about porting data between various software modules.
Central to the Laser FrameWork UI is a simple job creation and workflow tool built on a concept called the “recipe.” The recipe is a sequence of process steps that are necessary to perform a specific laser application. Included in the process steps are all actions the system can accomplish, which include operating the laser, vision tasks, data exchange, system diagnostics, process monitoring, and part motion and handling. Finally, a “job” includes a recipe and additional data for how it is to be performed. For example, the number of times to execute the recipe or instructions for where and when to obtain process input variables.
Each recipe is created within Laser FrameWork through a series of simple drag-and-drop operations. And each step in the process is placed on the timeline in the desired order, most of the steps of which are defined in advance. The functionality for creating a new process step or modifying an existing one is similarly simple; all the required parameters for a function are provided in a setup menu and the user fills in values or selects from predefined options.
Laser FrameWork contains a user rights management protocol, too. This allows a process developer more privileges for creating and altering jobs than an operator, who might just be permissioned to execute already prepared jobs.
There are several other key areas of functionality within Laser FrameWork that are worth reviewing briefly, including machine vision, process and system monitoring, and connectivity and automation.
There are numerous benefits in laser processing due to the inclusion of machine vision, which is directly integrated within Laser FrameWork. For example, users can cut costs because machine vision eliminates the need for specialized tooling. It can also compensate for the way parts have been placed in the working chamber; this speeds workflow and reduces errors.
In a marking application, for instance, machine vision can identify the position (in three dimensions) and orientation of parts in a tray and automatically adjust machine operation accordingly. Parts can be laser marked with the system, automatically finding the correct location on each part for the mark. It can adjust the pattern so that the final mark is properly oriented and not distorted, even if the part surface isn’t perpendicular to the laser beam.
Vision can also be employed after processing for part inspection, process validation and documentation purposes. Again, setting up vision tasks, such as identifying a particular feature on a part and using that as point of reference, are easily accomplished and essentially all menu-driven within Laser FrameWork.
Critical for any application that requires high-quality results is real-time, in-line laser process monitoring. This is also the way to achieve product-to-product and batch-to-batch consistency. Furthermore, early detection of laser process variations provides the opportunity to stop or correct production before a bad part is assembled or, worse yet, shipped to a customer.
High-speed cameras and optical computer tomography (OCT) are two techniques most commonly used for in-line process monitoring. But cameras can’t see anything below the part surface, and OCT is expensive to implement.
But there is a more economical way around this issue that is highly effective. Coherent developed a method for real-time process control called SmartSense+ and the capabilities for using it are integrated into Laser FrameWork. Specifically, the SmartSense+ process monitor combines low-cost optical and acoustic detectors with sophisticated AI signal processing software. This approach provides a dynamic view of laser processes on and beneath the surface.
The characteristics of the focused spot put the ultimate limit on results in any laser cutting, welding or marking process. This makes frequent measurement of beam quality essential to maintaining process quality. But the only place to get truly accurate beam measurements is exactly at the point of focus inside the machine, which is a hard area to locate on many laser systems. In fact, many commercially available beam diagnostics systems are too large to fit in that space.
To solve this problem, Coherent offers an embedded beam diagnostic system, called BeamInspect, in many laser machines. All the tools needed to control and use BeamInspect are built into Laser FrameWork. These allow the user to define and perform measurements, log and analyze data, and control laser position and focus.
Beam measurements can be performed at a more frequent rate because they are available, easy and fast. Measuring the beam between every run is practical. This can be a very powerful tool for speeding system setup, reducing scrap, avoiding costly downtime and allowing preventive maintenance to be scheduled when it’s most convenient.
Connectivity and automation
Production equipment doesn’t stand alone. For example, it has become more common recently for laser machines to communicate with other systems in a manufacturing environment. This might include enterprise resource planning systems, manufacturing execution systems or other host computers. In regard to laser marking, the laser system might have to obtain individualized product data, including serial numbers or other identifiers, from an external system. Similarly, many other machine functions and operations may be triggered by signals from another source.
Laser Frame Work can easily implement all this functionality. A variety of communications protocols can be accessed and configured through the UI menus, and it supports all the major TCP/IP protocols, such as HK, MJC, SECS/GEM, ProfiNet, OPC-UA and MQTT.
While laser machines often produce better outcomes for precision material processing tasks, they haven’t always offered a value proposition that’s sufficiently attractive for manufacturers. Now, the latest generation of laser systems aims to change that. Laser FrameWork is an important step in that direction; it makes laser machines easier to use, configure, connect, improves reliability and reduces cost of ownership.