“We don’t think one size fits all. It depends on the application,” said Al Bohlen, national sales manager, Mazak Optonics Corp., to a crowd of fabricators attending a seminar during the company’s Laser Technology Days event in late July.
The days of a fabricating shop owner deciding he needs laser cutting capability and choosing the 1,500-W model that is painted his favorite color are over. The laser technology, equipment options, and material handling systems now need to be tailored to the fabricator’s job mix to ensure that the shop gets a rapid return on investment, according to Bohlen.
The product mix showcased in the Mazak Optonics showroom reflected that reality. The company unveiled two of the latest models of its Optiplex CO2 laser cutting machines. One features a 6-kW laser for those fabricators that consistently cut materials about 1 in. thick or greater, and another model has a 4020 configuration, which can accommodate a 4- by 2-meter sheet, or the more familiar 6- by 12-ft. for U.S. fabricators.
In all, Mazak had 14 active laser cutting machines on display, including its Optiplex 3015 4-kW fiber and the Fabri Gear Mk II tube and pipe cutting system. The showroom also had automated material handling systems operating in conjunction with the laser cutting machines to give visitors an opportunity to see the impact that operator-free laser cutting can have.
The nature of laser cutting within the metal fabricating industry is likely to undergo further change, Bohlen said, with the continued acceptance of machines powered by a solid-state power source, not the traditional CO2 resonator. Machine tool builders are continuing to discover on a regular basis just what the technology can deliver.
As an example, Bohlen pointed to the developments that have occurred with the use of solid-state lasers in cutting thicker materials. Bohlen suggested that there is no real speed difference between fiber and CO2 lasers when cutting mild steel up to 0.875 in. using oxygen as an assist gas. That’s only one area of cutting, but it is representative of the strides made by fiber lasers, particularly with the larger power sources now more common on the latest generation of equipment.
The technology advancements are also evident in the sales of the machines.
“Fiber represents all of the growth in the laser industry [in North America] in 2012 and continues the momentum into 2013,” Bohlen said.
But technology continues to develop in CO2 machines as well. Troy Aldridge, a Mazak Optonics regional sales manager, discussed the impact that automated setup, which is found on the Optiplex family of CO2 lasers, can have on a fabricator’s overall throughput.
Because the automated setup takes care of cutting torch and nozzle change, calibration, and setting of the focal distance, the operator can move quickly between jobs, knowing that the machine is set up specifically for the material being cut. Aldridge said that too often fabricators won’t changeover to a new lens or nozzle because they don’t want to spend the roughly 26 minutes needed to make the switch. As a result, they sacrifice performance and end up using more assist gas.
Using this type of automated setup, a fabricator can increase product throughput by 25 percent over a year’s time and see a dramatic reduction in gas consumption, Aldridge said. Additionally, the equipment operator doesn’t have to intervene as much during cutting, freeing him up for other shop floor activities.
“If you have material automation, you are only half way there,” Aldridge reminded the fabricators that might have thought that “automation” only applied to material handling.
There’s no doubt that metal fabricators have a lot more to consider when it comes to laser cutting technology. The laser cutting options are almost as endless as the types offabricating jobs that come through the front door.