The ultra-high power era of laser sheet metal cutting

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Matthew Dale reports on the increase in 30kW+ flatbed cutting systems seen at EuroBLECH 2022, Hannover

Numerous 30kW systems were at EuroBLECH 2022 and generating plenty of interest, as seen here at Cutlite Penta’s booth.

One aspect that immediately became noticeable on arrival at EuroBLECH 2022 was the number of companies now offering flatbed sheet metal cutters with up to (and in some cases exceeding) 30kW of laser power. Such systems began emerging around 2019, when Bodor Laser unveiled its first 30kW system. However, the list of companies offering such power has now expanded to include: Bystronic, Eagle Lasers, Cutlite Penta, Bodor Laser, Golden Laser, HG Laser, Morn Laser and Penta Laser, among others.

Despite being one of the biggest names in sheet metal processing, Bystronic has only this year entered this extreme power regime – having released its first 30kW system in time for EuroBLECH 2022.

And so Laser Systems Europe stopped by its booth to learn more about both the new system, as well as the target markets for this impressive level of power now becoming widely available.

The system in question was the ByCut Star, unveiled as a successor to Bystronic’s popular ByStar Fiber series. “We've taken the ByStar platform and improved its cutting efficiencies, accelerations, and motion dynamics,” began Brody Fanning, Bystronic’s Regional Vice President Sales Americas. “We've also adjusted the shape inside the machine so it can accommodate the higher wattage.” 

While the system can reliably cut up to 30mm-thick sheets of mild/stainless-steel, aluminium, brass and copper, Bystronic expects the ByCut Star to be used more for achieving higher feed rates at the mid-plate range, from 10 - 20mm, where it offers dramatically higher cutting speed and edge quality. “For example, the 30kW enables users to cut 6 - 15mm mild steel twice as fast compared to a 15kW system,” said Fanning. “When you get to 20mm and beyond, this speed more than doubles compared to a 15kW system.” The machine is therefore primarily targeted at firms working in this mid-plate range, for example those producing equipment for agriculture and construction, as well as general metal service centres and job shops.

Bystronic’s new ByCut Star is the company’s first system to offer 30kW laser power.

With the abundance 30kW+ systems on display at EuroBLECH this year, we asked Fanning what has led to such high powers now becoming widely available.

“The power sources used in these lasers have been scalable up to higher wattages for a long time,” he remarked. “What's enabled the recent evolution to these higher powers are developments in cutting head technology, which are now equipped with better optics, have better heat dissipation, and are overall now more durable – the optics can now be kept incredibly clean during high-power cutting – and offer lower operating costs.”

Cutting heads for 30kW and beyond

In our journey to find out as much as possible about this impressive 30kW+ regime, Fanning’s comments naturally led me to those providing cutting heads capable of wielding these higher power beams.

Coherent is one such firm, showcasing its three new BIMO-FSC3 series cutting heads, one of which is specced up to 30kW. 

The heads enable high-speed fibre laser cutting of sheet metal – such as mild steel, stainless steel, and aluminium – at thicknesses up to 50mm, while delivering high uptime and reliability in even the harshest industrial environments. Their optical design delivers a large focus and zoom range for maximum operational flexibility and exceptional cutting performance under any conditions. The BIMO-FSC3-Z-HP in particular is the model capable of handling up to 30kW. It offers height-sensing capabilities and a large depth of focus, which combined achieve exceptional cutting speeds while maintaining high quality and consistency across very large sheets of metal.

Coherent’s new BIMO-FSC3 cutting heads can comfortably wield up to 30kW laser power.

What’s unique about the cutting head series as a whole, according to Alexander Müller, Product Line Manager for Laser Cutting at Coherent, is how they are all engineered to mitigate the damage caused by spatter when processing thicker materials using ultra-high power lasers. 

“The BIMO-FSC3 series features the largest standoff available between the penultimate and final optics before the beam exits the head,” he began. “This means that whenever spatter (say one in every 10,000 pieces of spatter) does actually manage to enter the cutting head, it loses energy over this large distance and therefore can’t damage the optics. This largely reduces the amount of maintenance required on the cutting head in the long run.”

Another attractive feature of the new series of cutting heads is their high numerical aperture (NA) – 0.15 for the BIMO-FSC3-Z-HP 30kW head and 0.18 for the BIMO-FSC3-L 20kW cutting head. This makes such cutting heads particularly attractive to the Chinese market, which according to Müller is currently the biggest adopter of ultra-high power laser cutting. “One company I’ve spoken to has said that well over a hundred 30kW systems have now been sold in China. For 20kW systems, this number is closer to 500,” he explained. “Having a high NA cutting head is very attractive to system builders in this market, as the parameters of the fibre lasers being sold there can sometimes vary from the exact specifications on the datasheet. And so we wanted to build cutting heads with a high level of tolerance. Even when faced with beams lacking slightly in quality, these heads can comfortably handle between 20-30kW of power, without having a lot of that power dumped inside the head to cause potential damage.”

Coherent cites automotive production, shipbuilding, white goods manufacturing, and energy infrastructure construction & repair as target markets for the new heads. “From the discussions we’ve had, companies providing cutting machines for these markets (be that plasma or laser cutting) are preparing to conduct a carbon footprint analysis on how much CO2 is required to cut a certain amount of material,” said Müller. “It is here where laser cutting can offer tremendous benefit, as it consumes a lot less energy than plasma cutting.”

Precitec is another firm offering cutting heads with ultra-high cutting powers. The firm was showcasing its ProCutter 2.0, capable of handling up to 40kW of laser power thanks to its sophisticated cooling concept and extended travel paths. The cutting head works with 1,030 - 1,090nm wavelengths and offers an NA of 0.18.

Similar to Müller’s comments, Martin Halschka, Director Business Unit Welding at Precitec, remarked that the high NA of the ProCutter 2.0 means it can handle extremely powerful beams with sub-par beam qualities. Again, as previously noted by Müller, Halschka highlighted that the new head will be advantageous in the Chinese market, where Precitec has seen a lot of demand for extremely high-power lasers from industries such as shipbuilding and construction, where the technology proves advantageous and more economical over plasma cutting technologies.

In addition to showing a 40kW cutting head on its booth (centre), capable of producing 100m-thick cuts in mild and stainless steel (right), Precitec presented a design study (left) for what a 100kW cutting head could look like in the future.

Despite 40kW being a staggering amount of power to be channelled through a cutting head, Halschka noted that Precitec is also currently working on a 50kW model, which will likely come out in the near future. What’s more, the firm has even created a design model for what it believes a 100kW cutting head would look like in the future (pictured). When asked if powers could really get up that high, Halschka remarked that two years ago no one was talking about 50kW, and only six years ago 20kW seemed unattainable, and so really anything could be possible. “We’re looking to hear feedback from customers regarding this 100kW design and this level of power,” said Halschka.

Trumpf reaches 24kW

Trumpf is also well on its way to wielding 30kW laser power, having unveiled an upgraded version of its TruLaser 5000 series, fitted with a 24kW TruDisk 24001 laser, at the show. The new system can process sheet metal up to three times more quickly, which depending on the material and the application means it can handle up to 80% more sheets per hour.

“Increased laser power means companies can slash processing times while also improving the quality of processed parts," product manager Patrick Schüle told Laser Systems Europe at the show. "With its patented cutting unit, automated functions and dynamic performance, this technology significantly boosts productivity.”

Trumpf has upped the power of its TruLaser 5000 system to 24kW to deliver faster, higher-quality sheet metal cutting

The previous version of the TruLaser 5000 was equipped with a 12kW laser. At such power, users are able to cut sheets of mild steel to a maximum thickness of 15mm when nitrogen is used as a cutting gas. In order to cut thicker parts, it is necessary to add oxygen. This leads to the formation of an oxide layer on the cut edges of the part, which has to be removed either by machine or by hand – a process both laborious and time-consuming. By contrast, the 24kW machine can handle mild steel up to 20mm thick using nitrogen. As a result, there is barely any need for reworking and productivity therefore increases. At the same time, the increased laser power improves the quality of cut parts, especially for medium and high sheet thicknesses across a range of materials.

With the numerous systems offering extreme levels of power at EuroBLECH this year, in a press conference at the show Stephan Mayer, CEO for Machine Tools at Trumpf, remarked that while the firm may not be the first to present such high-power, it is the one that has proven the technology the most. 

“We took our time to make sure that what we present and what we offer really does the job as it should, and that the machine is still running in 10 or 15 years – and hasn’t cut itself into pieces,” he said. “While in some topics we can be the innovator and be the very first, in other topics we take the time to make sure that we keep our promises.”

Amada promotes autonomy and ease of use over power

Not all firms involved in flatbed laser cutting have decided to pursue extreme levels of power.

Amada is one such example. The firm exhibited its new 12kW Regius 3015 AJe system – an evolution of the existing 12kW Regius 3015 AJ – at EuroBLECH this year. The newly enhanced ‘e’ version offers many of the features of its predecessor, such as: a high-speed three-axis linear drive system; Amada’s Variable Beam Control technology; and automatic protection glass monitoring, collision recovery, and nozzle checking/changing/centering.

The ‘e’ added to the end of the new Regius system’s name represents a number of different aspects. “The main things it stands for are ‘easy’ and ‘economical’,” Matt Wood, European Manager for Amada’s Blanking Technology, told Laser Systems Europe. “Because it's getting harder to recruit skilled operators, we're trying to make the machines as simple to use as possible. For us, rather than getting involved in this crazy power race – numerous 20-40kW systems can be seen at EuroBLECH this year – it's more about making the whole process more autonomous, more economical, and simplifying any downstream processes that might need to take place.”

For example, the system’s new facial recognition functionality enables it to automatically detect who is using the system, and then it can switch the language, preferences and permissions to their personal settings. “This is very useful due to the huge crossover in nationalities and skill levels you get in production environments,” said Wood. “So if you've got a highly skilled operator who you're okay with manipulating the cutting data, then they can be given full access when they use the system. On the other hand, if you’ve got a trainee using the system, it can be set to lock the cutting data so it can't be changed.”

Another new feature reduces the bevel and dross on the cut part, which simplifies downstream welding processes dramatically. “This feature is called dual-gas functionality,” Wood continued. “It features a new nozzle that better focuses the oxygen flow, ensuring it is diverted into the cut itself rather than being sprayed to the side. For certain thicknesses, this can reduce the oxygen assist gas consumption by up to 60%.”

Amada has opted for additional autonomy and ease of use in its latest 12kW Regius 3015 AJe system, rather than extreme levels of laser power.

Amada has also introduced an automated version of its existing ‘Silky Cut’ technology to the new system, which according to Wood enables its fibre laser to match and even exceed the cut quality of CO2 lasers for stainless steel up to 20mm and aluminium up to 15mm. “For 6-8mm aluminium, the results are so exceptional, they even look machine-finished,” he remarked. While this technology has featured on Amada’s previous fibre lasers, the user traditionally had to manually change the lens when switching between the standard and Silky Cut modes. However, for the newly enhanced ‘e’ version of the Regius 3015 AJ, this process can be automated in less than a second. 

Overall, while the system is very capable of processing metals such as mild steels, stainless steels and aluminium up to thicknesses of 32mm and beyond, Amada’s target customers for the 12kW Regius 3015 AJe will be generally working with thicknesses anywhere up to 25mm, according to Wood.

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