Boosting Metal Fabrication Speed with Laser Cutters

Laser cutters have a number of benefits that could make the process of making metal much faster. Faster cutting speeds, better material use, automated procedures, more flexibility, and user-defined settings are just a few of the many perks. Investing in laser cutting technology could increase a company’s income and profits by making production cycles shorter, reducing waste, and making products of higher quality.

Metal fabrication shops are under constant pressure to meet production deadlines and quotas. However, traditional fabrication methods using mechanical cutting tools can be painstakingly slow and inaccurate, severely limiting productivity. This is where laser-cutting technology comes into play.

Overview of Laser Cutting Benefits

Laser cutters utilize a high-power laser beam to slice through sheet metal with extreme precision at rapid speeds. When equipped with CAD-based software, the cutting head can trace complex geometries faster than any manual or mechanical process. Let’s examine why laser cutters offer game-changing advantages over traditional tools:

  • Speed: Lasers cut through metal exponentially faster than processes like plasma or oxy-fuel cutting. Thick stainless steel can be sliced at over 100 inches per minute (IPM) based on the laser wattage.
  • Accuracy: The CNC-controlled laser head produces narrower cut widths and tighter tolerances down to +/- 0.001 inches, minimizing post-cutting secondary operations.
  • Material Versatility: Lasers can reliably and neatly cut carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, titanium, and more from 0.5 mm to 25 mm thick.
  • Part Geometry: Complex holes, slots, curves, and angles that are infeasible with mechanical tools can be laser cut quickly. This enables greater design freedom.
  • Operational Efficiency: Laser cutting is a cold process using no consumable parts, resulting in material savings. It also requires minimal post-processing, like deburring or grinding.
  • Automated Operation: Laser cutters can run 24/7 with minimal supervision due to integrated computer controls, boosting productivity.

This combination of speed, flexibility, and automation empowers metal fabricators to meet even the tightest production deadlines without quality tradeoffs.

Factors Influencing Laser Cutting Speed

The cross-functional teams in metal fabrication shops looking to adopt laser cutting must have realistic expectations when estimating production schedules. The maximum cutting speed varies significantly based on several factors:

Laser Power and Type

  • CO2 lasers with wattages ranging from 2,000W to 6,000W are commonly used for cutting metal, with 4,000W to 6,000W optimal for thicker stainless steel. More wattage enables faster cutting.
  • Fiber lasers provide even faster cutting speeds than CO2 on highly reflective metals like aluminum, brass, copper, and titanium. Their beam quality is up to 100x better absorbed.

Material Properties

  • Thermal conductivity affects cutting rates. Materials like aluminum and brass cut faster than steel.
  • Surface reflectivity also impacts speeds. Uncoated aluminum and copper reflect more laser energy, slowing cutting. This can be mitigated with beam-absorbing ceramic coatings.
  • Thicker material requires more laser power. Speeds drop from around 125 IPM at 1/4 inch down to 15 IPM at 1 inch.

Cutting Width and Edge Quality

  • Narrower cut widths increase cutting velocity. For clean edges, balance speed with edge melting.
  • Lower speeds are required for smoother edge quality on products where appearance is valued.

Assist Gas Pressure

  • Oxygen, nitrogen, or air assist gases blow away molten material. Higher gas pressure can significantly boost cutting speeds, but it also reduces edge quality.

With an awareness of how these parameters impact production pace, shop managers can dial in optimal laser cutter settings and power levels to push metal fabrication speed boundaries while maintaining quality cut edges.

Real-world results and Applications

Now that we’ve covered how laser cutters practically teleport metal fabrication shops into the 21st century, let’s examine quantified results from case studies and industry applications.

Aerospace Manufacturing

Aircraft builders need to mass produce lightweight, resilient brackets, supports, and clips made of titanium and aluminum. Lasers have revolutionized their process.

  • 90% faster cutting speeds than traditional methods
  • 80% reduction in production costs
  • Ability to cut parts as thin as 0.4 mm that withstand extreme vibration.

This enables more planes to be manufactured annually without sacrificing safety margins.

Automotive Production

Automakers like Tesla use thousands of robotic laser cutting systems to slice rolls of aluminum body panels at speeds up to 5000 mm/min with precision accuracy. The result?

  • Each body takes just 45 seconds to cut
  • 98% of material was upcycled
  • 500,000+ cars per year, capacities unlocked

Precision Hole Cutting

A key bottleneck for contract manufacturers is the production of cooling holes in engine blocks and oil passages in gears and shafts. Laser drilling provides a fast, consistent solution.

  • Holes as small as 0.3 mm diameter
  • Stacked stainless steel sheets can be perforated
  • No hard tool changes between hole sizes
  • Burr-free edges requiring no secondary processing

Operational Recommendations

While laser cutters enable new realms of speed and creativity, full advantage relies upon the proper usage and maintenance of this intensive capital investment. Here is some guidance for new adopters:

Staff Training

  • Ensure technicians are formally qualified and licensed after extensive hands-on practice. Laser safety protocols must become second nature.
  • Cross-train machine operators, quality managers, and maintenance teams together. Collaboration is key to continuous advancement.

Procedure Documentation

  • Catalog machine operating manuals, safety checklists, inspection procedures, and cutting parameter guides for each material thickness/type in an easily accessible central database.
  • Institute version control and review cycles to keep standards current.

Maintenance Scheduling

  • Daily: Clean lenses, mirrors, and laser path debris; inspect drive motors.
  • Monthly: Change assist gas tanks; test beam alignment; adjust belt tension.
  • Quarterly/Annually: Replace worn parts; calibrate sensors; update system software.

Problem Diagnosis

  • Slow cutting speed? Assess gas flow, lens dirt accumulation, laser power fluctuations, and material surface conditions.
  • Poor edge quality? Check focal position, assist gas pressure, material feed rate, and beam alignment.

With structured protocols for machine usage, upkeep, and troubleshooting, metal fabricators can sustain peak laser cutting performance.

Conclusion

The meteoric metal processing speeds, intricate cutting capabilities, 24-hour operation, and material flexibility offered by laser cutting systems provide transformative fabrication advantages. As this technology continues to advance, the benefits will only compound: faster build times, lower production costs, and expanded design freedom. By adopting best practices around laser implementation, safety, and maintenance, metal fabrication shops can thrive at the bleeding edge of manufacturing innovation.

Leave a Comment