Jun 17, 2023
Laser welding options create opportunities
Seeing the hand-held laser up close lessens the intimidation factor for shops who may otherwise shy away from the technology because it has “laser” in its name. Image: IPG Photonics Laser welding for
Seeing the hand-held laser up close lessens the intimidation factor for shops who may otherwise shy away from the technology because it has “laser” in its name. Image: IPG Photonics
Laser welding for general fabrication has proven effective for both OEMs and job shops with the right product and material mix. Dan Belz, FLW product manager for AMADA AMERICA, noted the growth of the laser welding market in 2022 was substantial.
“We had our best year we’ve ever had,” he noted. “Where early on in our introduction of the technology I was working with a lot of job shops, the OEMs have bumped up their adoption of the technology coming out of the pandemic. When they realize they can’t hire enough qualified welders, they realize they need the process.”
However, the scale of the investment and the uniqueness of the technology can be intimidating to those who haven’t used it. This is likely to change in the next couple years as new products, new configurations of existing products, and vendor support emerges to help shops better adapt to the technology.
With the seemingly never-ending skilled labour shortage, a technology like this that speeds the welding process and reduces or eliminates post-processing will be key for some shops’ success.
Perhaps the biggest change in the past few years has been the introduction of hand-held laser welding systems to the North American market, such as the LightWELD technology from IPG. With the return of in-person tradeshows, people have lined up at IPG’s booths to try this technology. Part of the reason, of course, is that for an experienced welder, the hand-held laser welding method resembles MIG or TIG welding. Seeing the hand-held laser up close lessens the intimidation factor for shops who may otherwise shy away from the technology because it has “laser” in its name.
“The experienced welders pick it up very quickly,” said David Fisher, senior director of global marketing, IPG. “And the machine is preprogrammed for a variety of processes and materials, and since introducing the machine, we have expanded the product range and breadth of those preprogrammed processes. We can also work with a customer if they are doing something very specific in their shop to develop custom parameters for them.”
Belz said that having the hand-held technology on the market has actually been a benefit for the growth of the use of laser welding.
“With a little practice you can do very well with a hand-held system,” said Belz. “And if you do the fit-up correctly and are already a good TIG welder, you can get a very good finish using that type of system. Fitment is critical, whichever system you use. But ultimately, the speed, safety, and accuracy of an automated version is going to gain a lot of appeal once people have that introduction and better understand the process.”
As a replacement for some MIG and TIG processes, the hand-held laser system is a natural fit. The speed of the weld process and method will be different, though, and as simple as the process ultimately seems—Fisher said that even someone new to welding can pick it up quite quickly—IPG has taken customer requests for further education seriously to ensure the systems are used to their ideal capabilities.
“We’ve improved our training options for customers,” Fisher noted. “We are actually rolling out what we call LightWELD University soon. This is an education opportunity that can be for someone who has bought our product or someone who just wants to learn about it. It’s an in-person classroom environment that provides two days of basic training on the system. While attendees will learn basic techniques, we can also help them with specific issues they might be looking at. For instance, if they want to weld faster, weld thicker materials, or different materials they haven’t worked with before.”
“Fitment is critical, whichever system you use,” said AMADA AMERICA’s Dan Belz. Belz appreciates that many companies don’t want to be in the fixture business, so the AMADA team has found a number of fixture suppliers they can recommend for those who want to outsource that aspect of the job. Image: AMADA
The availability of customer support is something that laser welding technology suppliers encourage potential adopters to take advantage of. All of them are keen that companies coming to use this technology get the value out of it they are looking for.
“What I’ve realized is not a lot of people have a clear understanding of what laser welding involves and what it is capable of,” said Tommy Zoladz, advanced technology engineer for welding at TRUMPF Inc. “First, it’s a matter of helping people understand that laser welds are as strong or stronger than more visible traditional welds. Then, it’s educating customers about how they can benefit from the speed and redesign options available when they adapt their technology. It is often easier than it seems, and we help all along the way, including providing tech tables to make the welding process simple.”
IPG uses a welding trailer to introduce its technology to people across the U.S.
“The trailer is designed with laser-safe windows, so it can be pulled in at an event and our experts can work one-on-one with customers to teach them about the technology,” said Fisher.
“We take a collaborative approach,” said AMADA’s Belz. “Your success is our success. Sometimes we will go back to a customer’s shop a few times, for free, to train and help them get over the growing pains in relation to the technology and looking at how to fixture assemblies. One of the areas where companies struggle is understanding how precise fixtures need to be with laser welding. With standard welding, a big gap in a fixture isn’t a big concern because they will fill it with material and grind it off. With laser welding, you don’t want a gap any greater than about 10 per cent material thickness. The benefit of that tight fit, of course, is that there is little to no post-processing required after the weld is complete.”
Belz appreciates that many companies don’t want to be in the fixture business, so the AMADA team has found a number of fixture suppliers they can recommend for those who want to outsource that aspect of the job. The point is, the customer isn’t going to be left wondering what’s next.
Adding more of a breadth of options for automated laser welding setups is also opening up more opportunities for shops to invest in the technology.
“Companies see the value of laser welding by using a hand-held version of the technology, but it also makes them aware of the potential safety concerns of such a technology,” said Belz. “You still need a laser-safe room to operate it at an ideal safety level. By investing more, they can get added safety, speed, and accuracy. No one welding by hand is going to be as fast and precise as a robotic welding setup.”
Fisher notes that some of IPG’s clients have adapted their hand-held technology for use with cobots. This introductory-level automation may be limited in terms of application size, but it may meet the price point and flexibility requirements to open up the automated laser welding market to more shops.
TRUMPF recently introduced its TruLaser Weld 1000, a laser welding system that incorporates a collaborative-like robot with a 6-axis articulated arm. The operator guides the robot manually over the seams on the part that needs to be welded, pressing a button to mark the relevant waypoints. The software then creates the weld program.
Adding more options for automated laser welding setups is opening up more opportunities for shops to invest in the technology. TRUMPF recently introduced its TruLaser Weld 1000, a laser welding system that incorporates a collaborative-like robot with a 6-axis articulated arm. Image: TRUMPF
“Although it is programmed similarly to how a cobot is programmed, it’s a KUKA robot that holds a much tighter tolerance,” noted Zoladz. “Cobots have some sway in their movements, so if you want to weld at the speeds laser welding systems are capable of, its necessary to have these tighter robotic tolerances so that the laser beam doesn’t wobble too much for that high-speed precision.”
The robot is on a linear guide rail so that it can move from one side of the weld booth to the other, allowing the operator to fixture one part safely as another is being welded. Alternatively, the full table size can be used for one larger build, and the robot can use the movement for improved positioning of the welding optics.
“In terms of part size, you could go up to 24 in. and span about 39 in., plus about 35 in. deep, but that is dependent on your part shape,” said Zoladz. “Some parts, it may take a bit of ingenuity to make it work in this setup, but it’s simply another potential option for people interested in adopting the technology. It’s definitely a less intimidating setup than the more robust large-robot laser welding cells.”
AMADA, meanwhile, is preparing to introduce a flexible, smaller-footprint system of its own.
“We have developed a model that we will bring to market in the near future that uses a shutter wall—a turntable that allows you to load fixtured parts on one side while parts are being welded on the other,” said Belz. “We think this will be less intimidating as it will be a smaller footprint while still giving the customer the automation they are looking for in a system like this. We created it with enough width and depth that we think about 90 per cent of our customers are going to be able to weld a box in it in one cycle.”
The thing about the technology is, once a user understands it, doors to large savings open up. Belz noted that sometimes it takes quite a while to convert a customer, but once they find the job or jobs that suit the technology, it clicks into place quickly.
“We worked with a company that needed to spot weld supports onto a ceiling air diffuser,” he noted. “This meant there couldn’t be any bleed-through of the weld on the presentation side. Winning that battle alone has saved them close to $1 million dollars in extra material and labour costs in one year.”
Zoladz noted that you can get very creative with part design.
“When you first approach the technology, you automatically think, ‘How would I weld this by hand?’ and just think you’re going to expedite that process,” he said. “But with fixturing and laser weld capabilities, you can get more creative. We have customers welding dissimilar materials, redesigning agricultural assemblies for faster builds. Once they are comfortable using the technology, they are redesigning other parts that they previously couldn’t automate to speed up their production.”
Belz noted that the possibilities shouldn’t intimidate users who assume they are going to have to redesign every part for processing in a laser welding machine.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the time we tweak a customer’s part designs to create the ideal setup for laser welding,” he said. “It’s rarely a redesign, but those tweaks can really help improve throughput or minimize any potential for distortion. As I said, we take a very collaborative approach to working with customers, and this is an important aspect of that.”
The technology’s weld quality benefits and lack of postprocessing are clear.
“A great example would be in the automotive world; previously, when you would connect panels together, you would have to cut a provision into the top layer of material for the weld seam,” said Zoladz. “Now you can just laser weld and penetrate directly through that material into the base layer, so you don't have to do that extra step of additional cutting, especially if it's on a thin edge. And welding thinner stainless or exotic materials, you remove all warpage, which eliminates a big struggle for a lot of people. Even when I do personal welding for my car, I have to really think through a part when I'm welding it to make sure that it doesn't twist on me. If you put a part into a fixture and laser weld it, you don't have to worry about that anymore. That's a big benefit.”
With the LightWELD system, which is equipped with a cleaning setting, Fisher noted that “artists who do welding are using the cleaning function in a way we didn’t predict—to add textures to materials. The way you clean using the system, you can create a ripple pattern in the material to create surface modifications.”
With the support of vendors and a variety of entry points to the technology, laser welding should draw more adoptees over the course of the next few years. Those who are on the fence should consider the materials and part mix and then check with a preferred supplier to determine how laser welding could work now and in the future.
“I always tell customers, ‘Also look at your expansion rate,’” said Zoladz. “Make sure the system you are investing in will match your plans for expansion in larger part quantities, larger pieces, or greater complexity. Invest for tomorrow’s needs.”
Belz has a very simple equation for when a fabricator should consider a laser welding system: “If between 40 and 80 per cent of your work is being touched by a welder, you need to take a serious look at laser welding technology,” he said.
Editor Robert Colman can be reached at [email protected].
AMADA AMERICA, www.amada.com
IPG Photonics, ipgphotonics.com
TRUMPF Inc., trumpf.com