Dr. Jorge Ramos-Grez and the Oerlikon 3.5 kW CO2 used for welding and cladding applications at LATIL in Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.
In the past decade, the market for high-power laser cutting applications in Chile has grown considerably. The demand for parts cut by this technology today is outstanding, even though unimaginable ten years ago: automatic teller frame components, cabinets, metallic furniture, signage, and copper combs (supposedly for hair loss treatment) are only a few examples of the diversity of products that are laser cut in Chile every day. Before the recent economic market crisis, estimates of total laser cutter sales in Chile were expected to rise to $2.8 million dollars a year.
Ten years ago Industrial Laser Solutions (February 1999) reported on the installation of the first high-power CO2 laser in Chile as part of an order of three CNC machines sold by Cincinnati Inc. to Titan Ltda , a metal working company in Santiago. These machines were powered by a Rofin Sinar 800 W fast axial flow laser. Several years later, an LMP machine from Israel was installed in Santiago by the family owned metal workshop Sinsay; however, because of operational problems this unit never achieved full operation. Despite the latter, whose owners never seriously considered reinvesting, another laser cutting unit was installed at Sinsay in 2002 and at Titan Ltda, this time a well established Bystronic Bystar 2000 unit. One of the strong points of Bystronic, apart from its clocklike precision due to its Swiss origins, is the strong technical service provided from Brazil, which proved to be cost efficient and effective.
Today the number of high-power industrial CO2 laser cutters running in Santiago has risen exponentially to a total of 14 with Bystronic equipment leading in preference with five units installed. A BySpeed machine, the first one of its kind in Latin America, came in 2005 to Lemaco. The reluctant Sinsay did not take long to realize the benefits of an ultrafast machine, and it too ordered one of these in 2007.
Several other laser system companies, such as Mazak and Laser Cutting Inc, have also penetrated the Chilean market. Laser Cutting Inc entered in 2002 with a second-hand unit sold directly to Lemaco, which was then starting its Laser Cutting Division. That machine has a PRC 2 kW laser. In 2007, Lemaco bought a new ByVention 3015 laser system from Bystronic. Of interest is the fact that that other types of laser brands have arrived in Chile, specifically from Europe and Asia; among these one finds a Limoges laser cutting system powered by a triangular shape CO2 Wegmann Basel 2.2 kW laser, from Italy a Prima Lasertech equipped with a 3.4 kW PRC CO2 laser, and in 2007, an Astrida system from Spain using an Italian EL.EN 3 kW laser. Following this, a Mazak unit was bought in 2007 by Formac, a company producing steel profiles, who discovered that the 4-axis cutting niche for cylindrical cuts was not being served by other suppliers. Other companies, such as Facomet SA have declined to reveal the brand of their high-power laser equipment but these units account for no more than two.
One thing these laser cutters have in common is that they are installed in Santiago. However, Chile is almost 4000 km long and, in the city of Puerto Montt mid-way to Antarctica from Santiago, one finds large salmon farms, so there is undoubtedly a need for cutting of stainless steel processing tables used in this type of food processing plants. About 200 kilometers north of Puerto Montt are the large pinewood forests as well as several ship building yards near the Pacific coast in the cities of Valdivia and Concepción. The mining industry is strongly settled to the north of Santiago, so its requirements for heavy machinery repair must not be underestimated.
So, what prevents this technology from further reaching these industrial and economic centers scattered along the Chilean Pacific coast line? Is it possibly the acronym LASER causes concerns with the unknown and unrepairable? Possibly, it still reminds the more mature entrepreneurs of the H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds lethal heat rays, or to the younger ones, a light saber. This is to say, a feeling of fascination surrounded by complexity.
In that context, Pontificia Universidad Católica (www.uc.cl) is the only university in Chile where laser industrial technology has been fostered for more than 16 years where laser technology is currently taught at a theoretical as well as practical level. LATIL (www.latiluc.blogspot.com), the laboratory for industrial and technological applications of the laser, has also developed at a modest pace thanks to donations made by foreign universities and companies and by the support of its School of Engineering. Among its equipment is an OPL3500 Oerlikon unit, of Swiss origins, with a resonator similar to the Bylaser 350 that was donated by University of Twente in Holland in 2005. This machine, running with a new Donaldson water chiller, provides the opportunity to perform education and training on how lasers work and operate, together with research on laser welding and cladding processes. These two application areas should, in the near future, create interest from companies that provide repair services to the mining and energy sectors.
Another piece of equipment is a DTM SLS-125 rapid prototyping unit donated in 2003 by University of Texas at Austin that has allowed the development of research on selective laser sintering of polymers and biopolymers for medical applications. The operating system of this SLS machine runs under Linux.
At the lower power scale, a Synrad 100 W unit has been extensively used for more than a decade for cutting purposes and lately for direct laser fabrication as well as laser bending using Cambridge Technology galvanometer scanners to modulate the laser energy in space. This latter allows users to make rather large bend angles with smooth round corners on thin steel and aluminum sheets, at 50 W, thanks to the spatial modulation of the laser power.
Also in the realm of low-power CO2 laser, machines have been installed as marking units as well as for sign making. Several universities include them as part of their design workshops to provide students with a fast way to prototype. Among them Epilog and Pinnacle laser engravers are well positioned brands. Other universities have acquired small laser cutters, mostly for their architectural programs, such as at the Universidad del Bio-Bio who have a LaserPro.
Considering that Chile has a population of more than 16 million people with a GDP per capita circa $14,500 USD, the presence of 14 high-power resonators is a promising sign for the growth potential of this market segment. So new laser cutting units should be acquired in the near future, not only in Santiago but in the rest of the country, where most of the heavy industrial activities are located. Of course, the 14 laser centers are minuscule compared with cities like Sao Paolo in Brazil, where one finds more than 40 lasers operating or in Barcelona where more than 100 lasers have been installed. In this author’s opinion the promotion of this technology and a well established technical service capability are key elements that will enable local industry to keep investing in this versatile tool.—Jorge Ramos-Grez
Jorge Ramos-Grez, Ph.D., (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Professor at PUC where he is the Chair of the Department of Mechanical and Metallurgical Engineering and the Director of LATIL, he is also a consultant at DICTUC SA (www.dictuc.cl).