LASYS continues to impress despite competitive environment

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Matthew Dale reports on this year's LASYS: the international trade fair on laser materials processing. (Image: Messe Stuttgart)

The international laser materials processing exhibition LASYS took place for the first time in four years in June, bringing together manufacturers, integrators and users of industrial laser systems in Stuttgart to discuss the latest application and technology developments in this exciting field.

Both attendee and exhibitor numbers took a considerable hit this year, which among the exhibitors I spoke to was generally agreed to be due to the occurrence of the Laser World of Photonics exhibition in Munich earlier this year (which is usually held in alternate years to LASYS) many attendees and exhibitors of which would have usually attended LASYS.

This was in addition to the continued reluctance of international exhibitors and visitors to travel throughout the pandemic; the Munich show itself suffered a dramatic loss in exhibitors (900+ in 2022 compared to 1,325 in 2019), and so it could only be expected that such a trend continued throughout the year to impact other photonics shows.

However, attendance aside, exhibitors came to a predominantly positive conclusion about LASYS, with many reporting to have still had the high-quality in-depth discussions with visitors that they’ve come to expect from the show.

For me personally, the event was a great opportunity to finally catch up face-to-face with both familiar and new exhibitors, in addition to learning about the latest applications and technology trends in laser materials processing through the show's accompanying programme – some of which are explored below.

Battery manufacturing and brake disc coating

Over the past few years lasers have increasingly been developed for and applied to the field of e-mobility, a trend which, according to Ralf Kimmel, strategic sales director for Trumpf’s laser engineering business segment, is still set to continue – and more strongly than ever.

In a press conference held at the start of the event, he shared how Trumpf’s early decision to become a pioneer in delivering processing solutions for e-mobility is now showing considerable benefits.

‘We are now collaborating with all key carmakers,’ he began. ‘Last year, we sold over a thousand laser systems destined for the production of electric vehicles. In that year, our incoming orders from the e-mobility sector amounted to approximately €200 million, and – without wanting to disclose too much midway through this year – have hiked yet again.’

As a result, Trumpf is now generating more turnover via lasers for electric vehicle production than with lasers for the production of internal combustion engine vehicles. ‘And I can assure you: The fat years are far from over,’ Kimmel remarked.

This demand will be further stimulated by automotive OEMs facing further challenges in the field of battery production – bringing down the cost and charge times of batteries for electric vehicles while increasing their sustainability, quality and lifetime. 

Lasers will be crucial to addressing each of these challenges. Modern laser technology can perform thousands of high-quality welds with optimal thermal input and penetration depth with the assistance of AI-based process monitoring. This not only ensures minimal electrical resistance between current-carrying components, but also enables manufacturers to eliminate rejects more effectively and produce high-quality batteries that use as little copper and aluminium as possible – the much sought after ‘green battery’, Kimmel noted. He remarked that despite the advent of such batteries not currently being predictable in terms of days, weeks, or months, they are most definitely on the horizon.

Kimmel also hinted at two emerging battery developments which, due to him not being able to divulge any company secrets at this point, he could not go into much detail on. The first is that Trumpf is currently exploring the use of short/ultrashort pulse lasers to perform special machining operations on the active material of electrodes, which is relevant in shortening the charging time of batteries. ‘We are making great progress here!’ he remarked. ‘At this point, however, I wish to ask you to understand that revealing any more would compromise our competitive advantage.’ The second is that the firm’s findings gained from working in e-mobility are now being applied to other industrial segments: ‘One example of this synergy is provided by methods for processing battery films that are also applied in the consumer electronics segment,’ said Kimmel. Again, however, in order not to compromise Trumpf’s competitiveness, he was not able to provide any further detail at this point.

Battery manufacturing and brake disc coating were hot topics discussed at a press conference on the opening day of LASYS. (Image: Messe Stuttgart) 

At the same press conference, Dr Christoph Ullmann, managing director of Laserline, highlighted how lasers could soon be used widely as a solution to reducing wear on brake discs, which he explained currently accounts for around one third of the fine dust generated by vehicles, contributing high levels of fine dust to major cities. Such dust can have adverse effects on human health – most notably causing pulmonary diseases, cardiovascular issues, and nervous system disorders. The EU Commision is therefore currently discussing a potential plan to reduce fine dust levels, which will be defined in an upcoming EURO 7 standard. 

‘When this regulation comes into force as scheduled in 2025/2026, this will have an appreciable impact on the braking system,’ said Ullmann. ‘This leaves us very little time to set up a series production. Accordingly, many OEMs today have turned their attention to this subject.’

Laserline has therefore been exploring the use of its diode lasers to address this issue via the application of ultra-thin deposits of less than 100µm to brake discs, which help minimise abraded material. These deposits take the form of a special metal powder (often with carbides) that is applied to the brake discs at ultra-high feed rates of up to 100m/min, using lasers with powers in excess of 20kW. ‘The beam properties and robustness of diode lasers at very high output powers make them the ideal laser source for this application,’ said Ullmann. ‘This approach involving material build-up with diode lasers helps reduce fine dust emissions from brake discs by up to about 60 per cent.’

Nikolas Meyer, business unit manager for sales and applications at EMAG LaserTec, added to this by remarking that his firm has launched two machines with the potential for depositing metal on brake discs using laser technology. He remarked that such solutions will not only help address the challenges surrounding the creation of high levels of fine particulates highlighted by Ullmann, but will also help address another emerging challenge. ‘Electric vehicles engage their brakes only rarely. Instead, adequate braking is generated by the recuperating motor – and a long unused brake disc may even start corroding,’ he explained. By applying closed-loop laser metal deposition assisted by process monitoring solutions, EMAG’s new machines will therefore enable the automotive industry to address this challenge and produce coated brake discs free of both wear and corrosion.

Ullmann went on to remark on the recent increase in output power of CW blue diode lasers, with Laserline having presented a 3kW solution at the Laser World of Photonics in Munich earlier this year. Such a power increase will enable additional application options in copper processing. For example, in joining and cladding processes, much faster welds and higher deposition rates can now be achieved. In the case of keyhole welding of electrical conductors such as hairpins, larger cross-sections can be handled with moderate heat input. With regards to hybrid solutions combining blue and infrared lasers, such as those introduced in 2020 by Laserline, less infrared energy will now be needed with the 3kW blue laser – optimising the operation costs and the CO2 balance of the application.

Two applications, one machine

Over at the Lasers In Action Forum, hosted on the exhibition floor by Laser Systems Europe, Andreas Scholz, area sales manager at mechanical engineering firm Weil Technology, shared some excellent examples of the flexibility in production that can be achieved using laser technologies.

He began by noting that in recent years the firm’s customers have revealed an ongoing shift in manufacturing priorities. ‘Our customers have told us that while a couple of years ago they were required to set up a machine to manufacture millions of equal parts, this is often no longer the case,’ said Scholz. ‘Now they have a higher variation in parts, smaller batch sizes, and have to be able to operate quickly, precisely, cost effectively and flexibly enough to cover the market’s needs. If they don’t do that, and need a couple of days to set up a new machine for small batch production, they can be out of the market very quickly due to rising competition.’

The firm has therefore developed a range of flexible laser solutions that help address these challenges by offering multiple applications in single machines. For example, its Flexible Laser Cell (FLC) features a base machine that can deliver cutting and welding processes using a tooling set that can be changed, adjusted and fine tuned automatically, allowing a wide range of complicated 3D sheet metal assemblies to be produced examples given included exhaust flaps, brackets, oven drawers, and half shell technology. A single laser source is used alongside 2-3 different processing optics configured in a quick-change system, with the machine being able to cut and weld three-dimensional contours in up to six degrees of freedom.

Multiple complex parts can now be cut and welded using single laser machines. (Image: Weil Technology)

Traditionally when parts have needed to be cut, welded and handled, multiple machines are used each requiring a different operator and transportation of the part between them. The FLC instead combines many different steps into one machine and hence requires only one worker and no transportation of the part between stages. Scholz explained that this lack of a need to move the part not only prevents any potential damage that might occur during transportation, but can also increase processing precision tremendously. He used the example of cutting a hole into a metal tube and then inserting and welding a bushing into that hole: ‘What happens normally is that if you take out the tube and due to the inner tension, the round hole you just cut into becomes elliptical, meaning the bushing you want to insert no longer fits. If you accommodate for this using tolerances, while the bushing might then fit, you aren’t able to laser weld it in place as the gaps between it and the tube are then quite high. This means you have to use a filler material and welding methods such as TIG/MIG/MAG welding, which then introduces more heat into the system and leads to further post-processing requirements.’ Using an FLC, the tube instead remains clamped in place throughout the entire process, allowing it to be inserted and laser welded without any complications, additional tolerances or material. ‘So it's not just faster, it's much more precise and it requires less operation steps, causing less headaches,’ said Scholz.

The FLC features two working stations with an axis above containing 2-3 different processing heads, which can then move freely between the stations. The part is clamped and cut using one of the processing heads. Once finished the cutting head moves away and a welding head then moves over to resume work, without the position on the part being lost.

Weil Technology's Flexible Laser Cell features two working stations that can be served by 2-3 different welding or cutting heads. (Image: Weil Technology)

Scholz remarked that while there are other players in the market offering simpler, single-application laser cells, Weil Technology's solutions target those looking to improve complex, multi-stage manufacturing while saving time, money and headaches downstream. 

‘There’s nothing on the market that uses the format of our quick change system,’ he said. ‘With it, it is possible to switch between different types of products with ease in just a couple of minutes, with only minor adjustments to the tooling and software. Both the laser head and part are manipulated to offer six degrees of freedom, granting the opportunity to produce numerous, complex, completely different parts on the same machine.’

The FLC is not the only flexible laser solution delivered by Weil Technology. In a recent webinar, held in the run-up to LASYS, Scholz went on to describe its Modular Laser Cell (MLC) and Laser Welding Module (LWM), each of which combines cutting and welding with additional manufacturing technologies such as bending, punching, embossing and marking. Each module is very easily accessible, enabling factory automation solutions to be optimally integrated while dramatically reducing internal logistical efforts. To learn more, feel free to register for the webinar, which is now available on-demand.

Beam shaping brings flexibility to cutting

The theme of multiple applications in single laser machines continued over at EPIC’s Meeting on Beam Shaping for Industrial Applications at LASYS. Here, US laser manufacturer NLight and one of its distributors, Paris-based Optoprim, shared the latest advances in the CFX series of fibre lasers, which wield NLight’s Corona technology to offer tunable beam quality. The feeding fibres of these lasers consist of a central core surrounded by either one or two annular guiding regions, with the beam shape being tunable by varying the partitioning of the laser power among these regions.

The firm’s initial CFX lasers consisted of a 100µm central core, which enabled them to replicate the performance of standard fibre lasers (which commonly also have a 100µm feeding fibre) when cutting thin stainless-steel sheets using nitrogen assist gas. The ring-shaped beams achievable with the CFX laser could then also be used to dramatically improve the cutting of thicker (around 20mm) mild steel sheets, achieving cutting speed and edge quality equal to that of CO2 lasers.

The CFX laser has recently been advanced further to better serve thin sheet metal cutting applications, it was shown at the meeting. The latest generation of CFX technology, called “Mach Ultra” has a 50µm central core, and is already being used by leading integrators worldwide to achieve extremely nice cutting results,’ said Christian Schröter, managing director of Optoprim. 

While fibre lasers with 50µm feeding fibres can be used in sheet metal processing to deliver smaller beams that offer faster nitrogen-assisted cutting of thin sheets, having a 50µm rather than 100µm feeding fibre then limits the maximum thickness of metal that can be cut with such lasers. ‘NLight redesigned the CFX feeding fibre with a 50µm core to offer faster N2 cutting of thin stainless-steel sheets, while maintaining the 330µm annular guiding region to deliver optimal oxygen-assisted cutting of thicker mild steel sheets,’ Schröter continued. ‘The original CFX design provides a >10x dynamic range in beam area, while the Mach Ultra increases this to nearly 50x.’

This latest technology will be particularly beneficial to job shops, Schröter explained, where the application requirements change every day depending on the thickness of material being processed. 

‘So if a job shop had a machine using only a thin fibre or smaller beam diameter, it would be focused on thin sheet cutting,’ he said. ‘If the operators wanted to then perform thick sheet cutting, they would have to completely change the setup. With the Mach Ultra technology, this is no longer the case, one laser setup can be used for a wide range of thicknesses.’

Optoprim's Christian Schröter presented at EPIC's Meeting on Beam Shaping for Industrial Applications at LASYS.

To demonstrate his point, he showed examples of 3mm stainless steel sheet nitrogen-assisted cutting, alongside 19mm mild steel oxygen assisted cutting, both performed with the new Mach Ultra technology. The thin sheet example demonstrated that the 50µm beam of a 5kW Mach Ultra CFX laser could outperform an 8kW 100µm beam from a standard fibre laser in terms of cutting speed, while the thicker sheet example demonstrated comparable cutting quality of a Mach Ultra CFX laser compared to that of CO2 lasers which up until recently still held an advantage over standard fibre lasers in thick sheet cutting.

More to come!

With this article providing just a taste of what was covered as this year’s LASYS, there’s still plenty of follow-up discussions to be had with the many exhibitors I spoke to in order to deliver the full story of the ongoing developments in laser materials processing, all of which will of course be reflected in the content we plan to bring to you throughout the rest of the year. Stay tuned!

Related article: Stopping by in Stuttgart (LASYS 2018)

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