Caren B. Les, firstname.lastname@example.org
HAMBURG, Germany – The world market for laser cutting machines is expected to exceed $3.8 billion by the year 2015, according to a report from Global Industry Analysts Inc., based in San Jose, Calif. Released in February 2010, the publication is titled Laser Cutting Machines: A Global Strategic Business Report. Manufacturers of the machines are under pressure to increase productivity because of growing globalization, according to the company. Integrating computer-aided design and manufacturing software is viewed as key to international competitiveness.
The report notes that manufacturers have focused on developing lasers that deliver more power at lower cost, resulting in the 200- and 400-W models that are now widely available and that enable faster cutting in select applications. The laser beams produced by the laser cutting systems are now better shaped, enabling galvo cutting machines to steer beams at faster rates while providing suitable cutting quality.
Laser cutting machine manufacturers are working toward making their machines adaptable to materials of various thicknesses for niche jobs, where lot sizes differ according to job order, according to the report.
Fiber and CO2 lasers
Founded in 1975, Rofin-Sinar Laser GmbH of Hamburg has delivered lasers for the cutting industry since 1982. “We offer CO2 and fiber laser sources to our OEM partners, integrating them into their machines,” said Markus Rütering, product manager of laser sources at the company. The amount of laser power used has been up to 5 kW in recent years, he said, adding that customers are getting more specific in their choice of lasers and that it is important for them to ask the right questions to make sure that they obtain the best laser for their jobs.
“All in all, the CO2 lasers are dominant in the market in terms of numbers, even with fiber lasers winning some market share,” Rütering said. He commented that fiber lasers would likely gain a 25 percent share of the market. “As long as fiber lasers are priced as they are today, and as long as they are limited in stainless steel cutting to approximately 3 mm or 8 mm (high- and standard-quality cuts, respectively), they will not overtake the cutting market. Fiber lasers are also used for cutting brass and copper, but the number of jobs involving these materials is small,” he said.
Fiber lasers are well accepted for jobs cutting thinner metals, and they have the advantage of easier beam delivery. They have some limits in cutting thicker materials, need a more sophisticated approach for safety enclosures and are still more expensive compared to CO2 lasers, Rütering added.
The CO2 laser will likely remain the technology for cutting all thicknesses in steel and aluminum, as well. The DC series diffusion-cooled CO2 slab lasers from Rofin’s Hamburg factory are offered from 1 to 5 kW for cutting applications. Approximately 5000 of the DC lasers are installed in cutting systems on a global scale, Rütering said.
They are complemented by the SC series 100- to 600-W lasers from the company’s UK-based factory. These are also showing a record 5000 shipped units, most in cutting as well. The lasers are used in all sheet metal applications, die-board as well as the transparent thermoplastic, poly(methyl methacrylate) and other plastics.
Overall, Rütering predicts that laser cutting systems will become more dynamic and the linear axis will be used more often. “As for challenges, the market share can be improved if performance is increased for the same price. Basically, it is price vs. performance, compared with other established technologies such as plasma and flame cutting,” he said.
“In terms of major trends in the industry, flexibility and efficiency are going to be the determining factors for success in any business field,” said Stefan Schreiber, product manager at TruLaser Group, Trumpf Inc., headquartered in Farmington, Conn.
The TruLaser 1030 laser cutting machine from Trumpf is suitable for use by entry-level fabricators and OEMS that manufacture in small batches. Photo courtesy of Trumpf.
“For laser cutting, this means the cost-per-part is what users are really looking at, and this will drive technology and applications. A producer of CO2 laser, disk laser and fiber laser sources, Trumpf has positioned itself to serve this market demand,” Schreiber said. He explained that the field of applications for disk and fiber lasers is similar; they both use a 1-µm wavelength.
Schreiber predicts a trend toward new machines that will meet specific requirements for specific applications – and that there will be less emphasis on developing a single machine with many capabilities, as has been the practice in the past.
“The primary challenge has been, and remains, the ongoing quest to develop ever more innovative technology and machines, including supportive CAD/CAM systems and calculation modules to help fabricators create cost-efficient parts.”
“Getting from a drawing to a cost-effective finished part in as little time as possible is the challenge for every fabricator,” said Schreiber, adding that integrated software functions such as Trumpf’s TruTops Unfold are used to convert complex 3-D sheet metal designs into production-ready 2-D views. “In addition, single-cutting-head technology in a machine eliminates head changes and reduces the potential for operator error. Automatic nozzle changers support that even more. Higher levels of automation reduce manual intervention during the production process, allow for cost savings and lights-out fabricating – resulting in a more streamlined and efficient operation.”
With its single-cutting-head strategy and a 5-kW CO2 laser, Trumpf’s “workhorse” TruLaser 3030 is designed to increase productivity and flexibility when cutting sheet thicknesses up to 25.4 mm. The machine’s long X-axis works with a maintenance-free gearless torque motor, while the Y- and Z-axes are driven by linear axis motors, which increase the simultaneous axis speeds from 8499 cm/min to 14,001 cm/min, according to the company. The FastLine process, now a standard feature, generates a flow transition between the piercing and cutting processes, reducing processing times by an average of 20 percent in thin sheets, Schreiber said.