Throughout history, light has played a key role in our evolution as a modern society. From ancient campfires and kerosene lamps to modern lightbulbs and LEDs, without light, our society could not possibly have advanced this far.
Today, light is used in a wide variety of applications. At an industrial level, one common use of light as a tool is in light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, better known by its acronym: laser.
The laser at its core is quite simple. It’s a device that emits a beam of coherent light through a process of optical amplification. These devices are everywhere: in grocery stores scanning barcodes and in common household consumer products, such as Blu-Ray and DVD players. In manufacturing, lasers are used in a wide variety of material processing applications, including laser cutting, engraving, marking, micromachining, lithography and laser welding.
History of laser welding
Laser welding is sometimes mistaken for a new technology. While it does not trace back to the Bronze Age – when welding was first recorded – laser welding has been around for more than 50 years.
In the 1970s, laser pioneer Marshall Jones invented novel methods of welding dissimilar metals at General Electric, using a laser to rapidly weld copper and aluminum and later other dissimilar metals, including molybdenum and tungsten. In the 1980s, Jones and his team created fiber optic systems that made lasers more convenient for industrial applications.
In the mid-1980s, TRUMPF, a relatively small German technology company at the time, began showcasing itself as a laser manufacturer by developing and producing CO2 lasers. The company produced its first compact laser resonator in 1985 that featured radio-frequency excitation and one kilowatt of power.
Since then, the 100-year-old company has employed its laser expertise to build high-quality laser processing machines. Today, the company offers laser welding systems with fiber lasers improved operating costs, processing speeds and precision and less maintenance.
Making the case
In the decades that followed, laser welding has proven to be one of the most consistent, precise and productive welding methods available. Welding speed, low distortion and reduced post-processing, among others, are some of the demonstrated benefits of laser welding. Some might consider the price tag often associated with a good quality system to be a drawback of laser welding. Certainly, the technology demands a close analysis of current processes to ensure a maximum ROI, but parts with long weld seams or a lot of weld seams or parts that require a lot of grinding are ideal applications for laser welding.
Most, if not all, automobile manufacturers use laser welding in their manufacturing processes, and due to the rise in popularity of electric vehicles (EVs), laser welding has been adapted for use in the production of their batteries, as well.
Despite these recent boosts in popularity, however, laser welding is still not a common welding method used by most fabricators. But, as time passes, more fabricators are willing to embrace laser welding technologies, particularly as OEMs are turning to job shops with laser welding capabilities to help manufacture their products.
Shifting the paradigm
Sometimes, large OEMs are more eager to invest in laser welding systems than smaller fabricators. Because these manufacturers own their product designs, it is much easier for OEMs to adapt their products to suit laser welding and maximize their ROIs. It can also be a little easier for them to justify paying for a laser welding machine with all the bells and whistles.
Without deep pockets or process control, how can a small to medium-sized fabrication shop invest in a laser welding system? Good-quality handheld laser welders are a possibility. Handheld laser welders can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000, depending on options, brand, etc., and can make it easy to get started with the technology.
These handheld options offer clean welds and fast welding speeds at an accessible cost. There are some areas in which handheld laser welders fall short, though. Because handheld systems must be safe enough for a person to operate hands-on style, typically they can’t offer the higher laser power outputs that traditional robotic systems have.
Automated laser welding technologies create another option – and one that is particularly useful for fabricators looking for higher power and quality improvements. Robots are more precise than humans and can take advantage of higher power outputs by running faster, with more consistent quality. Speed and quality can cost more, and a drawback of these automated systems is the price point – or at least it was. Because fabricators are slowly starting to adopt laser welding and its benefits, laser machine tool manufacturers are developing new entry-level automated laser welding technologies with innovative, technological enhancements.
Accessible, quality welding
Despite laser welding’s advantages in terms of speed, quality and capability, the cost and complexity of laser welding systems were barriers to implementation that many could not overcome. Until recently, fabricators were limited to more complex laser welding systems better-suited to highly flexible, high-volume production of large components.
One of the first turnkey, user-friendly automated laser welding systems, the TruLaser Weld 5000, was introduced to the market about seven years ago. The highly flexible and productive automated machine delivers high laser power outputs up to 8 kW, nine welding positioners, the ability to laser weld with the addition of wire, tolerance compensation via a part measuring system, and, in its latest generation, the laser can oscillate in any pattern and even laser mark.
Such laser welding systems are now found all over the world, primarily in the facilities of larger fabrication shops, OEMs and some automobile manufacturing plants. The easy-to-use systems offer an impressive range of features, but the costs and floorspace required are still sometimes a challenge for smaller fabricators.
Increasing quality requirements, smaller batch sizes and labor shortages have fed the need for laser welding alternatives that are easier to operate, entry level or automated. Much of what to look for when purchasing an automated laser welder depends on the specific application or production situation, but a good system is always going to have: a good laser source, a robust high-accuracy robot, a good quality worktable and machine safety devices that make it safe for its operators.
Delivering on all of those qualities, the TruLaser Weld 1000 laser welding cell is also one of the options that is well-suited for the high-volume, low-mix production so prevalent in fabrication shops today. It was designed specifically to make laser welding easily accessible to smaller and medium-sized job shops, while stepping up quality, compared to handheld laser welding systems.
In addition to quality and ease of use, two other features to consider when looking at laser welding systems are flexibility and the ability to connect to production software. Production software is an important consideration, particularly with the growing trend toward automated manufacturing and Industry 4.0. A system that is easy to connect with production software will facilitate workflow tracking, planning and analytics.
Some laser welding systems are also built with flexible designs that deliver additional productivity. For example, a machine with multiple selectable workstations allows for simultaneous loading/unloading and welding. In a two-station design, the robot can weld on one station while the machine operator loads, unloads or preps parts on the other station. When the robot finishes its cycle in two-station mode, it can process the part that is on the other station and the cycle repeats, with the operator loading parts again on the adjacent station.
Thanks to the rapid growth of the EV industry, the increase in automated manufacturing processes and the growing need for quality, laser welding is on the rise again. Traditionally out of reach for many manufacturers, laser welding is now more accessible than ever before thanks to machine tool companies rapidly developing new products for smaller or mid-sized fabricators.
New cost-effective options, such as the TruLaser Weld 1000, also make it easy for fabricators to get started in laser welding. There has never been a better time in history for fabricators to realize the advantages of laser welding, than now.