This article originally published in the April 2021 issue of FAB Shop Magazine.
As the demand for fiber lasers has steadily outpaced that of CO2 technology, more OEMs from around the world are building laser cutting machines to meet the need. As a result, fabricators have an ever-growing number of makes and models of fiber laser cutting machines from which to choose – ultra-high-speed, high-power, fully automated systems to very cost-competitive “just the essentials” basic machines.
Recently, the latter have become so economical and readily available that many fabricators that outsource their laser cutting work are taking a hard look at adding a “no-frills” fiber laser to their shops to reduce production costs, increase flexibility in their product design, and better control lead times and product quality.
The “essential” laser
Fabricators are turning to the no-frills fiber laser for what it doesn’t bring. Minus the significant price tag and “non-essential” features, this type of laser cutting machine gets the job done as cost-effectively as possible while delivering the core benefits of fiber laser technology: the ability to process a range of ferrous and non-ferrous materials, achieve high accuracy and operate with minimal maintenance required.
This type of fiber laser is typically offered with a 2-kW or 4-kW power source, has a smaller 4-ft.-by-8-ft. work envelope, leverages PC-based control, uses a laser head with fewer automated features and is built on a cantilever design. To keep its economy, specifications are lower in terms of maximum positioning speeds and simultaneous axis speeds.
Features such as additional safety guards, dust collectors and assist gas filters are extra. Some basic fiber lasers feature a simple pallet changer/shuttle table and others even offer simple automation systems for load-assist operations or full load/unload units.
A low purchase price for a fiber laser is attractive, but the application must always be the chief consideration. To evaluate whether a no-frills fiber laser is a good choice, it’s important to understand the application requirements and to ensure the capacity and performance of the machine aligns with the needs.
Generally speaking, a low-cost fiber laser meets the cutting needs of light-gauge materials from 22-gauge to 1/4-in. mild steel, stainless steel and aluminum. If the parts being manufactured have a low price point, a feature-rich fiber laser at a high price tag would actually increase the direct cost per part. In this application, a basic machine is ideal.
As with any machine, the laser power determines the cutting speeds. A 2-kW or 4-kW power source is able to cut all ranges of materials that a more expensive machine would cut using the same power level.
Design and build
The laser cutting machine design and build is critical to reliable system performance. Evaluate the core components of the machine – the power source, laser head and CNC control system:
Power source: The fiber laser is the most critical and expensive component of the laser cutting machine. Look for a field-proven laser source known for high stability and long-term performance. In the low- and medium-power fiber laser market, a number of recognizable manufacturers offer tested cutting technologies.
Laser head: The laser head optimizes the cutting function of the fiber laser. A laser head that provides automatic adjustment adjusts the focus position as needed to generate consistently high-quality cuts and keep cutting continuously without operator intervention. Look for a proven brand that can provide long cutting cycles. Keep in mind that a lower cost laser does not have a wealth of automated features such as zoom focus built into its cutting head.
CNC control/drives: The CNC control, motors and drives work together to control the laser cutting machine. The integration of these components offers a high degree of CNC system reliability as well as higher processing speed. Some basic lasers use well-known brands such as Siemens that are also recognized for their energy efficiency.
Increasingly, material handling systems are considered necessary to efficiently keep pace with the throughput of a fiber laser. Historically, these systems used hydraulics, but today’s faster material exchange systems are servo driven. That said, for those who will be adding an automation system, look for a table change time of under 30 sec.
While a “no-frills” fiber laser may be attractively priced, don’t neglect to consider maintenance and service. The machine’s service needs should factor into the cost of ownership.
Even a basic fiber laser requires preventative maintenance to deliver good cutting performance. Service intervals must be completed to keep the machine in top working condition. Be sure that the machine manufacturer provides readily available maintenance and service support, including applications assistance. In this regard, established machinery suppliers score better than newcomers to the market. Established OEMs have a ready network of trained field service staff familiar with and capable of maintaining critical components such as the power source, chiller and cutting head.
Also, be sure spare parts are readily available and that prompt service intervention from a trained and qualified technician can be provided should the need arise. Without such support, maintenance costs and downtime for machine servicing could impact the ROI and the lifespan of the machine.
Finally, it’s important that the fiber laser OEM have process knowledge. This is particularly relevant if the fabricator’s staff is new to fiber laser technology and requires training or subsequent applications support. Though a basic fiber laser should be easy to start up and use, assistance may be required. The fiber laser has made fast and bold advancements in less than 10 years in power source, CNC control, software, and other features and components, and only an experienced machine manufacturer can guide the team to successful use of the technology.
While the basic, “no-frills” fiber laser might seem like a plug-and-play solution, like any other capital equipment purchase, it should involve a careful review of machine construction and features, justification for the application and consideration for dedicated maintenance, service and applications support to make it a sound investment for the long term.