October 23, 2003
Aficionados of laser welding technology at times must feel a little like telephone vendors beamed back to 1603. They know almost everyone is going to use them in the future, but getting buy-in today can be like hawking loans at 25 percent-lots of interest and few takers.
While some laser welding equipment manufacturers are thriving right now, others still fight a battle as old as the technology itself—gaining acceptance for equipment that carries a hefty initial price tag (albeit one that can save money over time). Consequently laser welding has enjoyed admiration but not the market penetration of other welding processes, and hence the market has not tested the technology in nearly as many applications as it might have.
"Essentially we don't see a lot of new applications [in the near future], but we see a huge amount of customers that lasers are new to," said Bill Lawson, chief technology officer for Preco Laser Systems, Somerset, Wis. "Our feeling is that 90 percent of the people out there doing welding who could benefit from laser welding aren't doing it, and they don't know they should be doing it.
"The biggest new application is just manufacturing plants saying, 'How can we make better parts cheaper? What processes can do it?' Laser is one of the ways that you can answer that."
Take pacemaker batteries, for example, said Mark Berry, vice president of sales and marketing for Laserdyne and Convergent Lasers, a resonator manufacturer with a brand-new office in Chicopee, Mass. Electron beam welding once held the fore in that application; now lasers rule.
"That's where laser welding slowly but surely finds its way into factories—[jobs] that are difficult to do with conventional welding," Berry said. "Or in certain cases, it just makes plain old economic sense." For example, the operating cost for a 2,500-W laser can be as low as $5 an hour, he said.
Making the effort to train customers and show them successful applications really is the only way to put lasers on top of buying lists, according to Michael Sharpe, engineering manager in the Materials Joining Segment at FANUC Robotics America Inc., Rochester Hills, Mich.
"Although technically feasible ... laser welding in North America is underutilized," Sharpe said. "The high throughput of the laser is outweighed by the perceived complexity."
Laser welding's market penetration in the U.S. could be better, and is likely to improve once domestic companies begin to notice the advances their European counterparts are making with it, particularly in the automotive arena, Berry said.
Scott Jamieson, a 37-year veteran of the welding and cutting market and owner of Jamieson Mfg., Torrington, Conn., said the reluctance of big customers to hand out long-term contracts is perpetuating a "circle of no-confidence" and hence keeping fabricators out of the new machinery market. He also believes the rush of work going to Asia is only going to increase with the advent of Internet commerce and the increasing quality of parts coming off Chinese machinery.
"I do not see a turnaround," said Jamieson. "I see survival of fittest, that's it.
"They're buying good equipment now, and they're making quality [parts]," he said of Chinese manufacturers. "In the past, that was the big question mark with China. They're building good equipment, and they have people they're paying 50 cents an hour or less.
"Really, it's almost impossible to make something competitive anymore."
Showing customers what their products would look like laser-welded helps. Preco, an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that also runs a job shop, can demonstrate the process for potential customers before they drop $500,000 on a system—a nifty tool the company uses to cut through a general hesitancy among fabricators to embrace technology they're not 100 percent comfortable with.
But slow times can remedy that reluctance, according to another OEM that targets customers who are in the part design stage.
"The whole idea is to show them what is possible," said Tom Kugler, applications manager at GSI Lumonics, Farmington Hills, Mich., a manufacturer of Nd:YAG lasers. "At the end of the day, they're all from Missouri—we've got to show them. As long as they have enough curiosity or they've got a problem that drives them to it or they've got a mandate to change, most people—especially in times like these—look for new technology.
"We like to work with people in the early stages of development," he added. "It's not uncommon for customers to spend two or three weeks with us to develop their product and process, so that when [the laser system] lands on their floor, they're laser-literate. Startup at their place is so much simpler."
Hartmut Zefferer, products and applications manager for TRUMPF, Farmington, Conn., would agree that this is the time for people to take a good look at laser technology.
"Difficult economies are the time when significant improvements are most needed," Zefferer said. "Improvements in laser welding offer chances for new and unconventional product and production solutions."
Richard Green, products manager for CONCOA, Virginia Beach, Va., said there seems to be a saturation of laser services right now, which has eroded the billable hourly rate for those services.
"However, original equipment manufacturers can take advantage of the lower system costs being offered today," Green said. "With increased competition, companies are struggling to maintain utilization of their laser machine tools. To this end, operating costs are being scrutinized. CONCOA will be introducing a new gas management system that will reduce residual return loss of assist gases."
Diodes. Direct-diode and diode-pumped lasers are ready to surge, but many see that as a future instead of current scenario."Diode lasers are being talked about more as an alternative to CO2 and YAG," said Dean McClenathen of Custom Machines Inc., Adrian, Mich.
Lawson added that he sees new light sources offering much more flexibility in the future, with direct-diode lasers a top contender. Direct-diode sources use solid-state technology to make laser light more efficient, turning 30 percent to 40 percent of electricity in to light out.
Zefferer noted that his company's Nd:YAG lasers now are available in lamp-pumped and diode-pumped versions, resulting in lower maintenance costs than other lasers.
"Operators won't need to touch the resonator until after more than 10,000 laser-on hours," he said.
Controls. Recent improvement sin process controls and software on laser systems allow operators and OEMs to further hone an already-precise process.
Kugler noted his company's most recent offering, a patent-pending method of modulating the laser beam on a 500-W machine up to 1000 W at peak while maintaining a 500-W average. The modulation dissipates the cloud of metal vapor that often hangs over a laser weld zone so the beam does not scatter.
"It also is a way for someone to buy a smaller, less costly laser to do a simpler job," Kugler said.Craig Marley of Unitek Miyachi Corp., Monrovia, Calif., said his company is implementing a range of new features even as customers are driving harder price bargains, including more vision-driven motion and new lasers with real-time power feedback and other features to increase process control and pulse-to-pulse stability.
But there's the rub: improving while holding costs down. Bob Lewinski at VIL Laser Systems, West Chicago, Ill., said his company has spent a lot of time integrating linear motors, distributed control, curvilinear and multiaxis seam tracking and computer numeric control, and other features while dealing with the ever-present cost demands.
"In our market, as likely with most markets, the pressure to further reduce the price of goods sold to the end user drives every level of the supply chain to provide more for less," Lewinski said. "You have to constantly search for new solutions that can maintain a balance of value, price, cost, and profit."
Fiber optics are being integrated and improved on more systems, which some people find convenient because of the ability of fibers to carry lasers to five or six machines off one light source, Lawson said.
"If they can use that laser in five or six cells, then it would improve the cost situation a lot," Lawson said.
Remote Welding. One of the hottest emerging trends among laser users is remote welding, a technology that allows operators to guide a beam with servo-controlled mirrors placed in front of the focusing head. Operators then can sweep the beam through a weld pattern with a scanning head instead of moving the part or the tool. Remote welding configurations allow a laser machine to weld parts at a distance of perhaps 20 inches rather than up close to the part, resulting in higher weld-to-weld speeds.
Remote welding provides "incredibly fast weld speed [and] will cover a large area," said Cheryl Stone, senior administrator at Prodomax Automation Inc., Barrie, Ont.
Preco's Lawson said remote technology has emerged because of advances in controls and higher-quality beams, especially in Nd:YAG lasers. Though clamping can be more difficult and the cost higher than other welding processes, remote welding is catching on in the automotive market, he noted.
Zefferer said remote welding will change current production capabilities, particularly for automotive manufacturers. He noted that TRUMPF has been busy partnering with OEMs to add high laser power and solid machine tool design scanners for remote welding applications.
"Cycle times for sheet metal assemblies of parts like dashboards, cross members, and seats can be reduced by a factor of four to eight when compared with resistance spot welding and [gas metal arc] welding," Zefferer said.
Hybrid Welding. Laser welding, just like any other process, is no panacea. Other processes are and will be better for certain applications. Companies such as Fraunhofer USA, Plymouth, Mich., are putting that knowledge into motion with hybrid welding systems that combine laser welding and gas metal arc welding (GMAW), for example, for applications that require speed and good penetration but that leave gaps that GMAW fills better than laser. While Fraunhofer does not manufacture the equipment, it uses CO2, Nd:YAG, and diode lasers to develop new laser processes and proof of concept for new manufacturing methods.
"The great challenge is to design a product in such a way that it makes full use of the laser's capabilities and to justify the costs," Fraunhofer USA Executive Director Stefan Heinemann said.
Manufacturing panels with stiffeners for cruise ships represents another emerging application for hybrid welding, according to Stan Koczera, product manager laser systems for Schuler Inc., Canton, Mich. Koczera said it's a good time to be in the laser market, with new applications such as 4-kW- fiber lasers for industrial processing coming online.
Because Schuler's customers have had problems finding the appropriate system for their particular processes, the company offers a modular-based system that can be configured for a variety of applications, he said.
In addition, new remote and hybrid applications are coming online as the industry is experiencing an incredible growth period and the inherent growing pains, Stone noted.
"New products are being rushed from the lab to production," Stone said. "Many of these new products suffer from the 'alpha site' learning problems. There will be a period of reconciliation in the industry. The smartest laser suppliers and integrators will survive, and the industry will mature."
Over the past two years, TRUMPF has seen steady demand for lasers for use in tailor-welded blanks, as well as fuel injectors and airbag sensors for autos. Lewinski said he would like to see tailor-welded blanks move beyond automobiles into appliances, steel furniture, rail cars, and aerospace.
"The same attributes that fueled the explosive growth within automotive—weight reducing, fewer parts, fewer dies—should be attributes of interest to other markets," Lewinski said. "We all need to work hard to make the technology available and affordable to see this growth in application become a reality."
TRUMPF also has noticed a jump in the types of industries investing in laser welding, including shipyards and aerospace, as well as some interest from job shops in the repair industry.
"We are also seeing an increased interest in TRUMPF's compact and manual workstations, which can be equipped with enough laser power to do the work required by job shops doing tool and die repair," Zefferer said.
Convergent's Berry said the Gillette Co.'s use of fiber-optic Nd:YAG lasers to produce its Sensor™ razor blades is a prime example of the leaps being taken in laser applications.
"A lot of electronics industry parts don't exist without laser welding," Berry said. "Airbags are impossible to manufacture at the volumes and cost required today without laser welding. Fuel injectors are the same way."Right now, the challenge is to get the technology into customers' hands so they can see what they are missing.
"There are huge growth potentials because of the fact that so many people are not using the technology," Lawson said. "Lasers are not a cure-all, but we can help people make that decision very quickly."
Controls Corporation of America (CONCOA), www.concoa.com
Custom Machines Inc., www.custommachinesinc.com
FANUC Robotics, www.fanucrobotics.com
Fraunhofer USA, www.clt.fraunhofer.com
GSI Lumonics, www.gsilumonics.com
Jamieson Mfg., www.jamiesonmfg.com
Laserdyne Systems/Convergent Lasers, www.prima-na.com
Preco Laser Systems, www.precolaser.com
Prodomax Automation, www.prodomax.com
Schuler Inc., www.schulergroup.com
TRUMPF Inc., www.trumpf.com
Unitek Miyachi, www.unitekmiyachi.com
VIL Laser Systems, www.villasersystems.com