The industry, previously skeptical, rushes to fiber technology to reap the benefits
The acceptance of fiber laser technology has been evenly spread around the world as information on fiber laser performance and application development has become available to potential customers. Sales by IPG Photonics Corp. (Oxford, MA), for example show the Americas with a 40 percent share, Europe with 36 percent, and Asia at 24 percent. For example, in the latter, both Japan and Korea have rapidly embraced high-power fiber laser technology with several customers purchasing multiple units.
For the first time in laser materials processing there is a true replacement technology. Many companies that are committed to manufacturing with lasers find that when the time comes to look at expansion or replacement of older lasers the fiber laser gives them an excellent alternative. Other companies experiencing high maintenance costs associated with keeping their production running have found that fiber lasers can substantially reduce these costs by eliminating downtime, reducing the spares inventory, decreasing the cost of processing gas and electricity, and in many cases the labor associated with keeping their current lasers running.
Another area where fiber lasers are impacting the market is in mobile applications where, because of its physical size, the fiber laser can be easily transported. Units have been sold for in-field pipe welding and remote site cladding.
Fiber lasers currently are available at power levels to 50 kW where they have demonstrated speed and penetration depth results never before achieved. This impact has expanded the application window for materials processing.
The major benefits of fiber laser technology include the following: high wall plug efficiency greater than 27 percent, long diode life, maintenance free, same unit can cut weld or drill, low beam divergence, and low cost of ownership. These lasers are compact and mobile and they offer high processing performance because they do not require warm up, there is no spot size change with power, and they have a large dynamic range from 10 to 105 percent of power.
Rapid technology growth
The market opportunity for materials processing fiber lasers is substantial. The estimated revenues for fiber lasers in 2005 were $123 million out of a total market size of $2.3 billion. Fiber laser growth has greatly outpaced the overall market growth and continues to gain momentum. Last year fiber lasers accounted for 18 percent of the unit sales of diode- and laser-pumped industrial solid-state lasers at all power levels, and some observers predict this could reach more than 50 percent by 2008. Figure 1 shows the applications segmentation for lasers shipped by IPG Photonics.
FIGURE 1. Detail of IPG Photonics’ high-power laser sales by application.
In competition with CO2 lasers, fiber lasers have made inroads into the welding market, and they could make inroads into the cutting market as the selling price of fiber lasers continues downward and as OEMs, now evaluating this laser’s performance, begin to introduce fiber laser-based cutting systems. It is proposed, by certain suppliers, that fiber lasers can contribute to expanding the overall market through new applications, by making laser processing more cost effective and by competing more effectively against conventional processes. Figure 2 compares the most popular industrial high-power lasers.
FIGURE 2. Comparison of the most popular industrial high-power lasers
Slower high power acceptance
Lower power fiber lasers have been integrated into OEM systems for years, but several factors have slowed the growth of the higher power units. CO2 and Nd:YAG lasers have been around for decades so users are familiar with these technologies and they have some concerns for new laser technology. Although initially interested, many users of multi-kilowatt lasers have adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude. However, this is changing as the success stories of recent installations and newly developed applications results are being made public.
In contrast, the lower-power fiber lasers and Q-switched fiber lasers are enjoying rapid acceptance as high tech companies that use lower-power lasers are quick to embrace and search out new technologies. Examples of this are the medical companies and the printing industry.
Major growth areas
There area several major industrial areas of growth for fiber lasers with output power from 200 watts to the multi-kilowatt level. The ability to easily integrate with existing robots is particularly attractive to the automotive industry as it allows their capital investment to remain relatively low while providing versatility and redeployment for future needs. Tailored blank welding and cutting, the cutting of hydroformed tubing, and remote welding are near-term applications.
The technology enables fiber lasers to perform high-quality welding and cutting with the same unit. For example, a 4-kilowatt fiber laser utilized for welding tailored blanks can, with the output power reduced and the beam switched to a smaller diameter fiber on a second robot, be utilized for high-quality cutting. This is unique to fiber lasers.
In the aerospace industry, laser cladding, the drilling of both deep and shallow holes, and multi-axis cutting and welding are realities.
Fiber lasers are ideally suited to the types of environments typical in the medical device, computer, and electronics industries. The laser’s compactness, elimination of complex cooling systems, excellent constant beam properties, long forgiving focal lengths, and rapid warm-up make them ideal for applications in this type of manufacture. Cutting stents and seam welding pacemakers and implantable batteries for medical applications are possibilities. The spot welding of flexures and suspension assemblies, such as read/write heads in computer manufacturing, is being considered, as is welding pressure transducers.
In the fabricated metal products industry there is a possibility that the fiber laser could replace CO2 lasers in flat sheet cutting operations. The welding of steel and aluminum plate for the shipbuilding industry is under investigation. And remote welding applications in the pipeline industry and welding and cutting onboard ships are options being considered.
In cladding, deep hole drilling, and welding of thick sections, fiber lasers from 8 to 20 kilowatts are projected to make major inroads in processing speed and penetration depths possible, the results being an expansion of the overall materials processing market.
Fiber laser technology continues to advance with power levels soon to be available commercially to 100 kilowatts and beyond. Laser beam quality will improve by a factor of three over current levels and single-mode laser power will be increased from the current 2kW levels to 3 kW. Kilowatt-class lasers will be available at 1.54 μm, offering higher beam transmission through fibers at much longer distances.
FIGURE 3. Comparison of operating costs for 4kW lasers.
The price one must pay for this technology will continue to decrease, further expanding the use of the technology in manufacturing plants worldwide. The acquisition costs of high-power fiber lasers are currently substantially below diode- and lamp-pumped Nd:YAG’s and are said to be approaching the levels of CO2. Considering the operational savings (see Figure 3 for a comparison of high-power laser costs), such as electrical power and their increased production capabilities, the value proposition for fiber lasers becomes even stronger.
Bill Shiner (email@example.com) is director industrial market development with IPG Photonics Corporation (www.ipgphotonics.com), Oxford, MA, and president-elect of LIA.
IPG Photonics continues to make significant contributions to market share gains in the materials processing markets. IPG reports 2005 sales in excess of $94 million, representing a 50 percent increase over 2004 levels. The industrial sales segment represented approximately 64 percent of the company’s sales last year. The major growth area within this sector has been its high-power fiber lasers competing with traditional CO2 and Nd:YAG lasers. The company reported more than 3,000 fiber lasers shipped during 2005, at all power levels. These numbers include Q-switched marking lasers, low-power fiber laser, and the multi-kilowatt lasers.
In the high-power sector, IPG shipped more than 60 multi-kilowatt class fiber lasers with power levels to 36 kilowatts last year. Examples of areas where these lasers are being utilized are in the automotive industry for tailored blank welding, hydroformed part cutting, and body-in-white welding and remote welding. Several units at the 10kW level have been purchased by the shipbuilding industry for welding thick structures and deck plate structures. Other units from 1 to 35 kW have been sold for cladding applications, pipe welding, aluminum welding, and annealing. All of the processing results for welding and cutting with fiber lasers have shown substantial speed advantages over conventional Nd:YAG diode- and lamp-pumped lasers. When compared with CO2 lasers, fiber lasers require less power and, in many cases, the helium cover gas can be eliminated in cutting and welding.