A new look at laser-cutting machines

  • 28-Jul-2009 08:39 EDT
State-of-art laser cutting systems, such as this Spartanics Finecut High Speed Laser Cutting Machine, are able to consistently cut far more intricate designs in a wider range of substrates and with tighter tolerances than ever before, the company says.

Many professionals in mobility industries view laser-cutting machines as unable to meet production and quality requirements. Spartanics, a maker of such machines, disagrees. The technology has arrived, it says, and is now the best solution for cutting a range of components in a range of industries.

This should not come as much of a surprise to engineers who have been putting sophisticated math and statistical algorithms to work for high-precision electronic controls, according to Spartanics. The same breakthroughs in control technology have allowed laser cutting to meet and exceed industry standards for the first time.

For one thing, best-in-class laser-cutting machines now achieve web speeds that make them competitive with rotary die cutters. Top-performing laser-cutting machines—either roll- or sheet-fed—achieve web speeds of 100+ m/min. Soon, 150+ m/min is anticipated to define the new high-speed laser-cutting standard.

One could conceivably add more laser scan heads to increase speed. However, there are inherent compromises in quality that dual or triple scan head designs create; doubling scan heads does not double speed in most situations. For a more detailed explanation of single versus multiple laser scan head decisions, go to http://www.spartanics.com/white_papers_detail.cgi?id_num=10.

Quality issues related to pinholes at the start/stop of cutting, or burn-throughs or rounded corners where there should be sharp angles, are also a thing of the past with the better-quality laser-cutting machines that component manufacturers can source. Better software engineering has created unprecedented depth-of-cut control.

The improved electronics of today’s best-in-class laser-cutting machines makes them easy to operate and virtually eliminates job changeover times. Now it is possible for even lightly skilled workers to laser-cut top-quality work easily and quickly. Systems integration of registration, web control, laser power, laminating, slitting, and other operations is handled automatically with smart stop/start mechanisms and error messaging to operators. Cutting sequences are similarly optimized automatically by control software, as is the stitching together of images for unlimited horizontal part dimensions. That same optimization function provides a job quote tool during setup and the ability to store and recall all jobs (all parameters) with just a few keystrokes.

While software engineering is the fundamental factor behind the better-quality laser-cutting machines available, there is a wide range of choices manufacturers need to consider when sourcing them to keep costs in line with application requirements. A first “buyer beware” is that there are numbers of brands and models of machines that do not have the aforementioned software engineering enhancements. They are easy to spot in that they do not have built-in optimization tools, cannot do job quoting during setup, and cannot save all job parameters for quick recall. These out-of-date systems require a good deal of operator input because they cannot automate cutting sequences or image stitching, or do any of the “thinking behind the scenes” an engineer would rightfully expect from state-of-art technology.

But there are choices to be made, even among the laser-cutting systems that do incorporate up-to-date software engineering. Applications with extremely tight tolerances in cut-to-print registration may require higher-end camera systems, but many applications can use electro-optical X/Y registration to achieve the required cut results.

Choosing laser wattage is usually a function of the type of material being cut and the depth of cut required. For example, making kiss-cuts with easy-to-cut materials using a 300-W laser is overkill because only a small portion of the available laser power would be required to make the cut. On the other hand, making many through-cuts on thicker substrates may very well require 300 W to achieve production-level cutting speed.

Similarly, many component applications require larger working fields of 300 x 300 mm (11.8  x 11.8 in) to accommodate part dimensions, and here too more expensive system components are often required for the highest cut-to-print accuracy.

A second “buyer beware” is to make sure that the laser-cutter manufacturer is not married to any particular components that forces one into the proverbial “square peg in round hole” situation. Rather, reputable laser-cutting machine manufacturers make good use of worldwide component availability and match system components to application requirements.

Perhaps the best test of a particular machine is to enlist contract manufacturing services from the machine manufacturer. Such services not only provide proof of concept but also enable even more tuning of software capabilities and component sourcing to match application requirements.

Spartanics engineers provide no-cost consultations to design engineering teams and component manufacturers on how to match laser-cutting technology to application requirements.

Mike Bacon of Spartanics wrote this article for SAE Magazines.

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