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Laser cutting machines - what next?

Until recently, laser cutting machines evolved slowly. From the earliest machines produced by Strippit and SpectraPhysics/Wiedemann around ten years ago, through the slow evolution of designs by US Amada and Trumpf, precision laser cutters did not change much.

However, within the last two or three years, the metal-fabrication industry has seen a proliferation of machine-tool companies introducing laser cutting machines. This has led to a swift growth in the different types of precision laser cutting machines available and a host of CNC's, software, and hardware devices.

Some of the most interesting innovations in laser cutting machines are the hybrid (moving beam/ moving table) designs recently introduced by companies such as Mitsubishi, Mazak, Trumpf, and Amada. These machines are well suited for cutting thick material, while still cutting sheet metal with a high degree of precision.

Another strong entry is the moving-beam shuttle-type of system, such as Cincinnati's model CL-7. Several of these machines are in use in metal-supply companies, where they easily cut plate material up to 0.500" thick.

While machine design has shown significant changes, perhaps the most notable changes have been in the area of the CNC's and software. The recent introduction of 32-bit controllers, along with better drives and motors, has significantly increased the capabilities of precision laser cutters.

Another recent development is the advent of optical and mechanical devices that read already-punched holes in the sheet metal and "trick" the laser cutting program into cutting material based on the location of the holes rather then measuring from the material edges. This is the most cost-effective way to use turret punch presses in conjunction with laser cutters, and the precision sheet metal industry has shown great interest in these new devices.

The lasers that drive laser cutting systems have also seen major improvements since the early CW (continuous wave) laser cutting of the late 1970's. The introduction of enhanced pulsed cutting allowed a finer degree of cutting than was previously possible, without the need to go to water-assisted cutting.

A major laser supplier, PRC Company, introduced a pulsing mode named Hyperpulsing [Trademark]. This type of laser output consists of a strong continuous wave, combined with "spiking" at regular intervals. It is most commonly used when cutting aluminum or other highly reflective materials.

Another significant change over time has been the increase in laser power. When precision laser cutting machines were first introduced, it was thought that a 500-W [CO.sub.2] laser was adequate for most jobs. The introduction of faster computers, better drives, and stronger drive motors has pushed laser power requirements higher-to the point where, today, almost all laser cutting systems are sold with a 1000-W or 1500-W laser.

One of the greatest changes that has occurred is in the support given to purchasers of laser cutting equipment. Powerful applications labs to push the technology, telephone modems to make contact easier, stronger training classes to increase user knowledge, and follow-up training visits to shorten the learning curve are all fairly recent phenomena.

The future:

The 32-bit control will be the CNC of choice for the foreseeable future. Certainly, the software itself will become more user friendly. However, the notion that, by the use of "expert systems," you can eliminate human participation in the process of setting cutting parameters is certainly premature.

The motors and drives that move the beam or part will certainly continue to get better (smoother and faster) to allow the full use of a 1500-W laser. Will a more powerful laser be the next step? Only if the rest of the machine can use the power to cut faster or better. More power, by itself, is of no value.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hoffman, Donald J.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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