A bright future for industrial laser processing

For the sake of argument, let’s say the market for laser sheet metal cutters is approaching saturation.

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For the sake of argument, let’s say the market for laser sheet metal cutters is approaching saturation. Not too farfetched, as conservative estimates for the active base exceed 250,000 units. And let’s say, again for the sake of argument, that industrial laser companies are looking for the next major market for their high-power fiber laser equipment. The most obvious market, emulating laser cutting popularity, is laser welding. Currently, laser welding represents about 15% of total laser revenues—a position that has not changed substantially for decades. The most offered reasons are that welding is a part specificity and market selling price (cost per watt) sensitivity.

So, what will it take to move welding up in market share, say, to 20%—an increase of several hundred million dollars a year? Reducing unit selling price to counter buyer resistance is a partial answer that has happened in China, where highly competitive domestic suppliers of <1 kW fiber lasers enable local system integrators to offer basic flat sheet laser cutters at below-established market levels, boosting overall revenues in that laser sector.

That’s effective for domestic suppliers, but what about competition suppliers exporting to China? Not so good. One solution for them is to open a manufacturing capability in China, and several have—some using domestic lasers.

I think a more elegant solution is to look at the technical problem, watts of power—more correctly, the photon energy required to cost-effectively produce the required process. A fundamental study of the effectiveness of the energy consumed in laser keyhole welding essentially shows that a lot of photons are ‘wasted’ in the keyhole process. Reducing this loss by more-effective laser beam mode quality means lower cost per linear inch of weld—another manufacturing cost metric. The result, lowering output power, means lower investment cost, which means a better competitive position for international suppliers.

This simplistic concept leads to reality, and in this issue, Brian Victor and colleagues at nLight ask and answer the question “Is beam shaping the future of laser welding?” They cite that programmable beam quality is being established in the sheet metal cutting market, suggesting that similar advantages can occur in laser welding (see article). This seminal article posits an answer to the question I posed above.

In the same vein, Norikazu Kume at Enshu describes high-power direct-diode laser welding, saying it is ideal for manufacturing environment installations (see article). Continuing the laser welding theme, Lorraine Blais at Novika explains how her company assisted Bombardier’s introduction of laser welding of railway vehicles to reduce labor costs and improve overall product quality, paving the way for continuous innovation in products and processes (see article). And Nataliya Deyneka Dupriez at Lessmüller Lasertechnik shows how optical coherence tomography (OCT) provides depth measurement in welding to meet new applications and requirements (see article).

On other subjects, Jens Gaebelein and Jeroen Hribar at Avonisys explain that liquid-jet coupling for infrared fiber lasers is more important than absorption effects in laser cutting thick aluminum with a narrow cutting kerf (see article). And Xincai Wang at SIMtech is processing difficult-to-machine tungsten carbide with high quality and process efficiency using ultrashort-pulsed picosecond lasers (see article).

These powerful examples show answers to any concerns from the investment community about continuous growth in the field of industrial laser material processing.

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