The big and the small of the laser industry -- higher powers and shorter wavelengths -- are enabling new and expanding possibilities in a range of manufacturing industries.
Aaron J. Hand, Managing Editor
Like TV's Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor, industrial laser users demand more power from their tools. Higher powers expand the capabilities of the lasers, including their ability to cut and weld thicker metal materials.
Although North American exports of industrial laser equipment and systems fell about 3 percent last year to $565.2 million, high-power CO2 laser cutting systems came on strong. According to the Association for Manufacturing Technology's Laser Systems Product Group in McLean, Va., more than 55 percent of industrial lasers shipped in 1999 were for cutting purposes. With their flexibility and ease of use with programmed cutting patterns, CO2 lasers have been growing in popularity for cutting sheet metal and dies. Nd:YAG lasers, with peak powers in the kilowatt range, are suited to drilling holes and spot welding.
Of course, what's considered high power is relative to the application. Whereas various cutting applications require outputs of anywhere from 500 W to 4 kW, the automotive industry uses lasers of more than 4 kW to weld such items as gearboxes, engines and body parts. CO2 lasers have been common for such welding jobs, but carmakers are finding that Nd:YAGs are better suited to the robotic welding of large contoured auto-body panels. Because the Nd:YAG's 1064-nm wavelength transmits through glass, its energy can be delivered through optical fibers, offering more flexibility and precision. Nd:YAG lasers have also been useful for marking applications in the automotive industry.
In fact, that industry is a major user of lasers, spending about $320 million for laser systems worldwide in 1998, according to VDMA's Lasers for Materials Processing group in Frankfurt, Germany.