The future of laser technology

A RELATIVELY new player to the Australia sheet-metal fabrication and processing industry is the solid-state laser, or otherwise and more popularly known as the fibre laser. While the technology has been available locally for the last two years, it is still considered to be a "newbie" compared to the well-established CO2 lasers, which are more widely used in Australian industry. 

[Image, right: A TRUMPF TruLaser Tube Cutting system.]

The main reason is that local sheet-metal fabricators and processors find no need to change their existing technology if they are producing the exact product which their client and market demand, despite any added advantage solid-state lasers can present for their workshops.  

Headland Machinery NSW Sales Manager, Warrick Theron says this accounts for the fact that no Trumpf solid-state lasers have been sold in Australia since the German machining giant introduced the technology to local industry about two years ago. However, Theron confirms that two solid-state lasers have been sold into New Zealand. This leads to the question whether the slow reception of solid-state laser technology has more to do with the technology itself, or more the sort of industry market Australia has. 

Speaking with Manufacturers’ Monthly, Theron says the slow adoption of solid-state lasers in Australia is part lack of market awareness and part lack of need for change in technology.  

"If you look at 99% of lasers in use in Australian industry, the CO2 laser is still machine of preference. The CO2 laser is a more versatile machine across the range and it is a proven technology that has been around for a long time," he says.  

Thin materials 

While solid-state lasers may be a new technology for local industry, Trumpf has been providing the technology for about 10 years. However, Theron says that for 2D cutting applications, solid-state laser have only been available in Australia for the last two years. 

This relatively new technology is ideal for cutting materials in the low range, up to 5 millimetres, and is "predestined" for thin materials at maximum cutting speeds. 

The technology is able cut thicker materials but the cut quality and speed decreases in the thicker materials, it cannot achieve the universal flexibility of its gas-blown counterpart – the CO2 laser. This leaves the cutting of thick material the better suited to CO2 lasers rather than the solid-state laser.  

The right laser 

The selection of the right laser is determined by the task associated with the particular application and the end product the manufacturer wishes to produce. The deciding factors are the individual requirement of each type of use, Theron says. 

In thin-sheet metal processing, the solid-state-laser is said to have the lead over CO2 lasers due to its high speeds in fusion cutting and also the physical benefits its offers. 

When cutting thin-gauge sheet metal and due in part to the high cutting speeds, flat cutting fronts are created, with small angle of incidence. Solid state lasers or Disc lasers have a one-micron wavelength. The disc or fibre laser can thus advance quickly. 

While capital costs for solid-state-lasers are higher, higher processing speeds make for lower parts costs. Energy and power consumption are considerably less than its CO2 counterparts as well. 

The CO2 laser produces 10.6-micrometre light in the middle infrared range, which is the best spectrum for industrial use. The solid-state laser, in the middle kilowatt range, generates waves that are one-tenth as long – about one micrometer.  

These shorter wave lengths have a decisive impact on the machining processes, as many metal materials more readily absorb shorter-wave light, high process efficiency is possible. 

The laser future 

The possibility that one day the classic sheet metal cutting machine would be fitted with a fibre laser is not something unconceivable, according to Trumpf. The metal machining giant says that recent developments would not dissuade the company from believing that this was not impossible.  

In Australia, CO2 lasers are the most popular choice in the sheet metal industry. However, Theron says that the future of laser in the Australian sheet-metal and fabrication industry might not always be dominated by the CO2 laser. Time and willingness on the part of metal fabricators and process to invest in newer technology suited to the application at hand could see solid-state laser partially unseat the CO2.