Even after 50 years of laser technology development, laser sheet metal processing machine specialist Trumpf's Peter Leibinger, head of the company's laser technology division says there's plenty of mileage left to go for: "Lasers as a tool are still in their youth – even now, 50 years after the first laser was fired up and 40 years since they began to cut their teeth in an industrial setting at Trumpf, people are still constantly coming up with new applications for both CO2 and solid-state lasers."He was speaking at the company's in-house Intech show late last year.
From the laser-cut filter in coffee machines to the laser-labeled dashboards in cars and the laser-welded batteries in mobile phones, nowadays lasers are – directly or indirectly – an essential tool in the manufacture of every kind of consumer product, says Trumpf.
And the company claims to have played a decisive role in this by being the first company to introduce lasers to many industrial applications. From their very first use in welding mainsprings for watches, through high quality cutting of materials ranging from extremely thin foils to sheets of metal centimetres thick, to the employment of ultra-modern direct diode lasers, the industrial laser owes its success in large part to Trumpf, it is claimed – and it has done so for the last 40 years.
"Our goal as a laser manufacturer is to be the first to make cutting-edge technology available for use in manufacturing. We transform the latest research developments into mature products that are suitable for industry," says Mr Leibinger.
Trumpf's first laser machine was was a combined punch/laser machine equipped with 500 and 700 watt CO2 lasers that at that time, 1979, the company still sourced externally. Eight years earlier, watch manufacturer Carl Haas, based in Schramberg in the Black Forest, had already recognised the suitability of lasers for precision watchmaking applications and built the first solid-state laser. Haas is now part Trumpf and so this is taken as the company's starting point for its laser era.
The year 1985 was a milestone for both technologies, the year that Trumpf became a laser manufacturer in its own right with the development and production of the TLF 1000 CO2 laser, and it was also the year that Haas introduced the first laser light cable for industrial use. Just two years later, Trumpf brought out the Trumatic L 3000, the first flatbed laser machine with flying optics - where the machine table stays still while the cutting head 'flies' across the sheet metal.
Image: Trumpf's range and variety of lasers and laser machines underpins its leading position
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Another hallmark year was 1995, when Trumpf expanded its products' capabilities to include processes such as laser welding and tube cutting, as well as for the first time employing a solid-state laser to process thin steel sheets in the Trumatic LY 2500 flatbed cutting machine – the forerunner of today's successful 'fiber' machines, which began popular in 2008 with the integration of the latest TruDisk disk lasers.
Today, there are around 20,000 Trumpf CO2 lasers and 15,000 of its solid-state lasers in use around the world.
While the CO2 lasers continue to dominate the market for flatbed laser machines, there is a growing demand for the company's range of machines with fiber-guided solid-state lasers, it says.
But the two are complementary, Trumpf argues. Using an automotive analogy, the CO2 cutting machine is a versatile off-road vehicle, which, thanks to up to 8 kW of power, is capable of high-quality steel cutting for sheet thicknesses from 0.5 to more than 30 mm.
Solid-state laser machines, on the other hand, are like racing cars in that they can get up to incredible speeds on certain 'surfaces': in this case thin sheet metals, even copper or brass. They can handle thicker materials, too. Indeed, their results on mild steel are comparable to those of a CO2 laser. But when used to process stainless steel, cut quality deteriorates relatively quickly – meaning these lasers prefer a racetrack of sheet metal that is no more than 5 mm thick.
Concluding, Trumpf observes that today, while lasers have provided the capability to cut parts faster and better than was possible with previous alternative processes, cutting of lightweight materials, for example, would simply not be possible without lasers.
First published online