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Advancing the fiber revolution

Amada’s latest entry into the U.S. manufacturing market does what CO2 can do — and more

Amada ENSIS 3015

As fiber lasers claim more and more market share in industrial applications, particularly by matching or surpassing the capabilities of more established CO2 machines, Amada is offering an innovative new player in the field.

Slated to be available in the United States this fall, the 2,000-Watt ENSIS 3015AJ will allow users to cut thick or thin metals by automatically changing its beam configuration based on the material and thickness being cut. Using a library of 1,000 cutting specifications, the ENSIS will instantly adjust itself based on the material to be processed.

Amada says its versatile new machine will cut with nearly the same speed and edge quality as CO2 lasers of about twice the power. Job shops that process multiple materials and thicknesses are the target audience for the ENSIS. The model number stands for a table size of 3 meters by 1.5 meters (10 ft. by 5 ft.) and reflects the collaboration between Amada and longtime technology development partner JDSU.

“It’s revolutionary for the laser industry,” says Jason Hillenbrand, laser product manager for Amada America, based in Buena Park, Calif., “probably one of the most revolutionary things the industry has seen or will see for a while. We think it’s going to change the market.” 

Amada Unveiling the innovative ENSIS 3015AJ

Bridging the CO2/fiber gap
Initially unveiled at Fabtech 2013 in Chicago, the ENSIS 3015AJ underwent further testing in Japan and was displayed again at a photonics show in Tokyo. The machine is likely to help accelerate the sales of fiber technology versus those of CO2 lasers, Hillenbrand asserts. Why?

“Fiber technology in general is so much less expensive to operate than CO2,” he explains. “There’s a tremendous energy savings. In many cases, customers get energy credits from their local electric companies or municipalities. We’ve had customers who have received more than $30,000 in electrical rebates.” A 2,000-Watt fiber laser might consume about 18 kilowatts, whereas a 2,000-Watt CO2 might consume around 38 kilowatts, he notes.

In addition, fiber lasers require far less maintenance and are four to five times faster at processing thin materials than CO2.

The major hurdle the ENSIS 3015AJ overcomes is satisfying the requirements of job shops and contract manufacturers that deal with a high volume of various materials. In environments in which a broad “material mix” and material thicknesses might be processed in low volumes, “a lot of job shops want that capability to do the heavier plate. That’s been the hang-up against fiber technology. Companies are willing to invest in fiber technology, but a lot of them want to have or keep CO2 on their floor as well so they can do the thick stuff.”

One of the misunderstandings about fiber lasers is skepticism over their ability to cut thick material like mild steel. “They can and they have,” Hillenbrand asserts. “The problem has been the edge quality and speed.” Fiber has been significantly slower, “and the edge quality is not even in the same ballpark.” 

Enter the ENSIS.
“It’s a complete game-changer. Not only does it bring in all the benefits of what fiber can do on thin materials, but with the 2,000-Watt ENSIS fiber laser we can cut the heavy plate — ¾-in. mild steel for example — at nearly the same speed and with the same edge quality as a 4,000-Watt CO2.”

Hillenbrand fully understands why users of industrial lasers might be more familiar and comfortable with CO2 machines, given that the fiber laser is a relatively recent entrant into the field:

“People who know the CO2 might have 30-plus years of experience with the technology. They know how much things are going to cost, what is going to break and where. With fiber we don’t have very much exposure to that; you can say that the industry really took off about five years ago; it’s been here 10 years, but (there have been) really five years of true experience.” But Amada customers are responding to fiber; many who bought Amada’s first fiber units have bought their second, Hillenbrand notes. “It’s really become a mainstream product.”

In fact, fiber laser sales helped lead the industrial laser industry’s emergence from the 2008 U.S. recession, said David Belforte, past president of the Laser Institute of America, during his keynote address at the 2013 Lasers for Manufacturing Event (LME).

Mechanics and economics of laser cutting
Understanding the laser cutting process illustrates how fiber and CO2 lasers differ — and how the ENSIS promises to close that gap.

In his presentation at LME 2013, Hillenbrand compared the capabilities of fiber and CO2 lasers. “The wavelength of a fiber laser is approximately one-tenth that of a CO2 laser, and that means better absorption into certain materials like copper, brass and titanium. Some of these materials could be processed on a CO2 laser, but not effectively — and in some cases, not even safely. Fiber adds another dimension — especially for fabricators looking to do additional work; we have customers who have gotten into electrical work … that before had to be punched (or performed with) other more time-consuming processes.”

One Amada fiber laser customer referred to the “cookie cutter” nature of the device, Hillenbrand related:

“A CO2 machine cuts great all day long, but there are other factors (that affect performance). It depends on … how the motion system is created, it depends on how they keep that laser beam clean as it bounces off the mirrors down to the cutting head. If it is not done correctly, you can have some variance in cut quality depending on the ambient temperature in the building (or) depending on the quality of the air being spread throughout the facility. With a fiber laser, the customer that we spoke with mentioned that the first part in the morning to the last part at the end of the shift, or the end of the day — regardless of where that part was on the table — looked exactly the same. And he said, ‘With my CO2s I could not say that.’ ”

Certain processes require a specific assist gas to execute properly.

“In cutting thin material, you’re typically using nitrogen as an assist gas,” Hillenbrand explains. “When you use nitrogen, you can run the laser at full power, using every bit of wattage to vaporize material faster.” A quarter-inch of mild steel is about the break-even point for optimal quality, Hillenbrand says. With thicker material, “you no longer can really use nitrogen — at least not without getting a burr on there. You start to see some heavier striations along the edge of the part. Because of that, you switch from nitrogen to oxygen; oxygen is the more common assist gas” for CO2 or fiber applications. With thicker material, “oxygen helps with the burning process, giving you a cleaner cut.”

Typically with a fiber laser, “if I kept using nitrogen, the kerf is so small (and) the power density is so high … it’s very hard for the oxygen to enter that cut. I have to slow the cutting head a little bit to allow the oxygen time to enter. It will cut the thick steel, but the down side is that because I’m moving the head slower, I’m getting more heat buildup in those spots. That’s why you start to see heavier striations along the edge.”

Beam properties (shapes) come into play as well, giving CO2 “a very strong advantage when cutting the thick materials.” But if most of what a shop cuts is 10-gauge or thinner, “’it’s a fiber application — there’s no question. There’s no reason to be afraid” of the technology.

While the initial investment in higher-end fiber technology can be substantial — perhaps at least $150,000 more than a CO2 machine — the long-term economic incentive is compelling.

“One of the first reasons people want to buy a fiber laser is because it costs so much less to operate,” Hillenbrand explains. “But that really is a flawed logic because they’ve been told that from the very beginning. When fiber lasers first came out that was the sales pitch: ‘It’s 50 percent of the operating cost of a CO2.’ But you don’t buy a machine because of the money it saves you; you buy a machine because of the money it makes you.”

One of the key guidelines for purchasing a laser manufacturing system, he says, is weighing the cost to produce each part. Also critical, of course, is the application for which a laser system is intended.

Because each operation is inherently different – fabricating with various material thicknesses and producing different parts – it’s imperative for each business owner to conduct their own internal assessments before making a purchase decision.

But, a manufacturer processing more of a 50-50 mix of thinner and thicker materials is a perfect candidate for the ENSIS, Hillenbrand concludes: “I can show the benefit of the ENSIS fiber technology for the entire range of materials.”

The ENSIS advantage
With the proprietary technology built into the ENSIS, “we can change the properties of the beam on the fly. When we switch to cutting the thick mild steel and have to switch to oxygen as an assist gas, I can now automatically change the properties of that beam to emulate how a CO2 machine will perform on that material.”

The best part? The switch in beam properties is instant and automatic, Hillenbrand says. In their demo at Fabtech 2013, he recalls, the ENSIS was confronted with cutting alternating sheets of 20-gauge cold-rolled steel and ¾-in. mild steel. The machine immediately adjusted to the different thicknesses automatically without the need to change components.

What allows the ENSIS its flexibility is an extensive library of cutting conditions for a range of materials. “When it starts the program for whatever sheet it’s running, the first line of code it reads is calling up the cut conditions it needs at that time. When it does that, it sets the auto-focus position and adjusts the beam quality.”

The ENSIS material library contains 1,000 cut conditions. “We provide standard conditions,” Hillenbrand explains. “During installation we can add or modify based on the customer’s specific material needs or preferences. The customer can always add or modify conditions as they become more comfortable with the machine. However, we always recommend they keep the original conditions untouched so they can revert back in case they make a mistake somewhere along the line.”

Furthermore, “there are 10 different possible settings for every condition. So, for example, ¼-in. mild steel may have been only one of the 1,000 conditions. But within that one condition, there are 10 lines of settings in there where one could have 10 individual speed, power, gas pressure, etc. settings. This is important for cutting small holes at a slower speed with lower power and the larger contours at higher speeds, and so on.”

The ENSIS will even automatically select an assist gas — nitrogen, oxygen or compressed shop air — based on the cut condition setting. “All gases are connected to the machine; the machine makes the selection on its own,” Hillenbrand says.

Purchase of the ENSIS system includes a shuttle table, he says. “There are two tables: One is in the cutting area, while the other table is external to that, so an operator can unload finished parts and load a new sheet of raw material — so that helps the cycle time.” A dust collector and a chiller are also included.

A valuable option that complements the productivity of the ENSIS is automated material loading and unloading. Sales of that equipment “have picked up dramatically. Almost 90 percent of the fiber lasers we have sold have gone with some sort of material handling to keep pace with these machines.” Amada offers a variety of such handling systems based on the footprint of the shop in question.

While the ENSIS is quite intuitive, Amada offers training with every machine. “If the operator has been running lasers for years, we can do a lot of this training in a week, with some follow-up training down the road,” Hillenbrand says. “For somebody new to lasers, generally you’ll do a week of introductory training and then a week of more specific applications training.”

In terms of delivery, Amada will generally deliver a machine on a Monday and have it powered up by Wednesday and do some test cutting on it — assuming the shop floor has been properly prepped. By the following Monday, “we could be running your parts on it — or if we’re doing in-house training, we would start the training.” Fiber machines are easier to install than CO2, Hillenbrand notes, “because you don’t have to do the burn-in process.”

While fiber lasers have a cutting lens, a focusing lens and, generally, some sort of collimating mirror in the cutting head, they “don’t have anywhere near the number of mirrors or optics that a CO2 requires (and) the engine itself doesn’t require internal optics, so there is no aligning there — no maintenance required. The laser is delivered through the process fiber all the way to the cutting head, so you don’t have any beam-delivery optics. Again, that eliminates a replacement cost and reduces maintenance because you don’t have to align anything. When you put new mirrors in on a CO2, you’ve got to check the alignment for the full length of the motion system.”

Process monitoring, a vital part of optimizing the efficiency of a laser manufacturing system, is also covered, Hillenbrand says. Amada’s pierce-detection capability eliminates wasted time before the cutting process. “That ensures you’re maximizing the time of the machine. You may put 15 seconds in for a pierce time and it pierces through in 10 seconds. Without pierce detection, the cutting head sits there that extra five seconds. With pierce detection, it doesn’t matter if it’s through in six seconds, 10 seconds, etc.; it immediately stops the piercing and starts cutting.”

Meanwhile, Amada’s available remote monitoring capability allows the machine to be networked into a company’s software and send stoppage alarms or maintenance reminders.


Amada’s fiber journey
In the mid-2000s, Amada and JDSU began collaborating to develop kilowatt fiber laser technology. “Historically, Amada wants control over the entire process for the most part because we can customize the technology for our machines and what we want to do in the fabricating industry,” Hillenbrand says. “That’s one of the reasons we did not go with a standard third party and use the same technology everyone else is using.”

JDSU, known for laser diodes and expertise in the fiber realm, helped Amada develop “the fiber engine that we use today,” Hillenbrand says. “JDSU had the experience of creating a fiber laser engine … in the lower wattage ranges. But they didn’t have the experience in a 4,000-Watt fiber laser. We worked with them in development of how to make the laser respond to the control demands and to the drive system. There are things you have to put in: piercing control, pulse control and all these different control mechanisms that have to be used to produce a good-quality part at a high rate of speed.”

Amada’s FOL AJ, shown for the first time at EuroBlech 2010 in Germany, is the company’s first high-speed fiber laser. That 4-kW machine was then offered for sale in the United States in 2011. Since then, Amada has expanded its range of models and wattage variants.

At the time, the FOL AJ was “the first 4,000-Watt fiber laser specifically developed for cutting purposes,” Hillenbrand says, “not for welding, brazing, laser cladding or heat treating.” Today, “we still offer that high speed with higher wattage, and we’re bringing in lower-cost, lower-speed machines to meet a capital investment market.”

Hillenbrand says Amada has more than 23,000 machines of all kinds on U.S. shop floors. Amada even offers a machine with a 4-meter-by-2-meter processing space (about 13 ft. by 6.5 ft.).

One Amada customer in Minnesota “has been using 6,000-Watt CO2 lasers and put in his first 4,000-Watt FLC 4020 fiber laser and is running circles around his 6,000-Watt machine.”

In terms of speculation as to the relative longevity of CO2 machines in the face of oncoming fiber machines (Amada sells both types of lasers), Hillenbrand paints a picture of a changing landscape:

“Some companies that only sell fiber technology are of course saying CO2 is dead — but if you look at the industry as a whole, about 70 to 75 percent of all lasers sold are C02. Granted, fiber lasers have the steeper growth right now and the CO2 is flattening. I think we’ll continue to see that trend over the next several years.

“With the ENSIS technology, I think you’re going to see a major shift in the next two years —maybe even faster than that — to where more fibers will be sold. I don’t see CO2 going away altogether, at least not in the short term. There are other applications due to the wavelength that CO2 can still address but fiber cannot — and depending on the size of the shop, companies will still buy CO2 for a while just because of the capital investment and their comfort level (with that technology). But probably in the next five years, fiber will be the dominant technology in the industry.”

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