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Industrial LASERAn Introduction

Processes

■ Basics
■ Marking
■ Cutting
■ Welding
■ Drilling

Published by the LASER SYSTEMS PRODUCT GROUP of


AMT — The Association For Manufacturing Technology
FOREWORD
The following is an excerpt from the mission statement of the Laser Systems Product Group:
The activities of the LSPG will be devoted to developing funding for and implementation of pro-
grams designed to increase the rate of growth in the utilization of industrial laser technology in
North America.

These programs will include, but not be limited to:

■ Market Research ■ Laser Standards


■ Market Analysis ■ Statistical Reporting
■ Marketing Communications ■ Education

This publication is aimed at the last bullet on the list. Recognizing a need for good, generic infor-
mation about the basics of laser technologies and its applications in industry, the LSPG authored
this booklet. It was done for the benefit of anyone interested in learning about laser technology;
and primarily for the design engineer who is unfamiliar with the capabilities of lasers and laser
systems.

The members of the LSPG would appreciate any feedback you would like to share. For more
information about us, or for additional copies of this booklet, please contact

Laser Systems Product Group


AMT - The Association For Manufacturing Technology
7901 Westpark Drive
McLean, Virginia 22102-4206 USA

Phone: (703) 893-2900


Fax: (703) 893-1151

This publication is provided to you by AMT’s Laser Systems Product Group (LSPG). LSPG is composed of mem-
bers of AMT — The Association For Manufacturing Technology. It is the mission of AMT to enhance the prof-
itability and competitiveness of our members by providing the products and services they need to be suc-
cessful in the global marketplace and by promoting the industry and serving as its advocate.
Industrial LASER Processes
Table of Contents

An Introduction to
LASER BASICS . . . . . . . . . . Page 5

An Introduction to
LASER MARKING . . . . . . . . Page 11

An Introduction to
LASER CUTTING . . . . . . . . . Page 17

An Introduction to
LASER WELDING . . . . . . . . Page 23

An Introduction to
LASER DRILLING. . . . . . . . . Page 29

Glossary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Page 33

Published by the LASER SYSTEMS PRODUCT GROUP of


AMT — The Association For Manufacturing Technology
LASER BASICS
Reflections on the ins and outs of lasers

ndustrial lasers have been a tool of the manufacturing as a practical and industrial energy source. The wave-

I engineer since the early 1970s. Compared to conven-


tional processes, lasers offer advantages due to their
speed, accuracy, and ability to handle operations as
diverse as welding, cutting, marking, and drilling.
Lasers differ from conventional sources of light, such
length of this beam is determined by the lasing material,
and the type and spacing of the elements of the resonator.
Carbon dioxide laser
In a CO2 laser, Carbon Dioxide gas, generally in a mix-
ture with Helium and Nitrogen, generates the beam.
as sunlight, in that they produce only one color of light
Helium forms the major part of this mixture due to its
(referred to as “monochromatic”) and the light that they
high thermal conductivity, and its role in cooling. The gas
produce travels in an orderly phase relationship (referred
pressure at which most of CO2 lasers operate is approxi-
to as “coherent”). They also produce beams of light that
mately one-tenth of atmospheric pressure. Electrodes or
are nearly collimated (i.e., do not significantly converge or
RF coupling are used to deliver electrical energy to the gas
diverge) and stable, barely changing in position, or in
mixture.
diameter, even over great distances. These properties allow
CO2 lasers can be continuous-wave (CW) or pulsed,
the generated laser beam to focus to a small spot size and
although both capabilities, in many cases, exist in a single
produce an extremely high power density.
unit. In a CW operating laser, the operating power is
At lower power densities, processes such as heat-treat-
equal to its average power. In a pulsing laser, the average
ing can be carried out without surface melting. However,
power is enhanced as a peak power and is controlled by an
processes such as welding, drilling, cutting, and marking
on/off duty cycle.
require much higher power densities to melt or even
There are several types of industrial CO2 lasers, each
vaporize materials. In fact, marking and engraving use
of which have different approaches to gas handling and
laser light at several different power densities depending
electrical power input:
on the type of process and the material.
Sealed/waveguide. Low-powerlasers(10W to 600W).
How lasers work Essentially an optically transparent tube with the laser gas
All lasers have certain common elements. A lasing sealed inside. The tube is replaced after long-term use.
material, which can be a solid or a gas, is excited by input This low-cost laser approach is used for marking, thin
energy (either electrical or photonic), and the electrons or material cutting, welding, and desktop manufacturing.
molecules of the material are raised to a higher energy Slow-axial flow. Medium power (100 W to 1500 W).
state. As they return to their original state, energy is Similar to the sealed-tube approach, but the gas is flowing
released in the form of photons, which are amplified by slowly along the optical axis of the resonator. This is used for
two, or more, parallel mirrors that comprise the laser’s metal cutting and welding, but mainly has been superseded
resonator. One of the mirrors forming this resonator is by fast-axial flow systems (exceptforcertainnon-metal appli-
only partly reflective (and thus, partly transmissive), cations, such as ceramic cutting and scribing, which are
which allows the laser beam to pass through it to be used reliant upon high peak power pulsing capabilities).
Diffusion cooled/waveguide. Medium to high power laser. The output under these conditions is pulsed to higher-
(5 W to 2500 W). Usually employs large, water-cooled than-average peak powers. Main application is in marking.
electrodes, and little or no gas usage. This approach to Pulsed Nd:YAG. Medium power (20 W to 1800 W).
beam generation has recently been introduced at much Flash-lamp pumped lasers used primarily for welding and
higher powers than were previously available. The higher for deep-hole drilling.
power units are used in welding and cutting applications CW Nd:YAG. High power (500 W to 5 kW). Multiple
for both metals and non-metals. crystals producing 500 watts to 800 watts each are com-
Fast-axial flow (FAF). Medium to high power (500 W bined to produce high-power output lasers. Most applica-
to 30 kW). FAF lasers circulate gas at high speeds along tions take advantage of the flexibility of the fibers and
the optical axis (or“axially”) through the discharge, remove combine robotics and lasers for cutting or welding metals.
the generated heat, and re-circulate the cooled gas. Gas cir-
Diode-pumped Nd:YAG. A relatively new approach
culation is by Roots-type blowers or turbine-type pumps.
that shows much future promise is the use of solid-state
More compact and efficient than the slow-flow designs. These
laser diodes to replace the flash lamps. Replacing lamps
lasers are mainly used for metal cutting and welding. They
with laser diodes greatly improves the efficiency of the
deliver high reliability and excellent beam quality.
laser and significantly reduces routine maintenance
Transverse flow. High power (4 kW to 45 kW). The
requirements. Diode-pumped Nd:YAG lasers are current-
gas is circulated in this type of laser by a squirrel-cage
ly low-powered devices (less than 100 W).
type fan or blower, and the gas direction is across (or
“transverse”to) the optical axis of the laser. It is an effi- Comparison of CO2 and Nd:YAG
cient laser design usually applied to welding and surface Generally speaking, the wavelength of Nd:YAG lasers
modification. couples better with metals, and the wavelength of CO2
Transverse excitation atmospheric (TEA). Average lasers couples better with non-metals. The inherently
power (50 W to 100 W). This laser operates only in the higher power and ability to focus CO2 lasers, however,
pulsed mode. There is no real gas flow in this device. The make these the most commonly used lasers for thick metal
gas is filled, and the charge is replaced, automatically cutting, deep penetration welding, and high-speed pro-
when required. Used almost exclusively for marking. duction. As Nd:YAG lasers continue to increase in power
capability and beam quality, they are gaining more accep-
Nd:YAG Lasers
tance in these applications, especially since they can offer
In the Nd:YAG laser, the lasing medium is the rare-
the benefits of fiber optic beam delivery.
earth element, neodymium, suspended in an yttrium alu-
CO2 lasers provide more efficient (higher) conversion
minum garnet (YAG) crystal, which makes this a solid-
of electrical power into laser power than Nd:YAG lasers.
state laser. High-intensity flash-lamps, in a reflective
CO2 lasers are typically less expensive, watt-for-watt, in
pumping chamber, drive light energy into the crystal to
equipment cost, and generally have lower operating costs,
excite the molecules. The lamps can be driven in pulsed or
while Nd:YAG lasers generally have less extensive, simpler
continuous-wave modes.
maintenance requirements.
The available size of laser crystals limits the output
power of a single crystal. Higher-power devices use sever- There are many areas of cross-over in the applications
al crystals in series or in parallel optical paths. There are of CO2 and Nd:YAG lasers, and some exceptions to the
a variety of beam generation techniques. general statements above. The benefits of either technolo-
CW Q-switched Nd:YAG. Low power (10 W to 200 W). gy should always be considered on a case-by-case basis.
A continuously pumped laser, in which the resonator con- Excimer Lasers
tains an optical switch which lets the power of the output Another laser technology which has applications in mate-
beam be interrupted, and stores additional energy in the rial processing is Excimer. Excimer lasers, like CO2 lasers,
use gases for the lasing medium (an excited dimer), but the Because of the wavelength limitations, there current-
gases are noble gas halides, such as Krypton-Fluoride or ly are not any “flexible” fiber-type beam delivery systems
Xenon-Chloride. Excimer lasers emit light in the ultra- that can be used with CO2 lasers.
violet wavelengths (whereas CO2 and Nd:YAG lasers emit Once the beam is delivered from the laser to the work-
light in the infrared). piece, it needs to be focused to a small spot of high inten-
Unlike CO2 and Nd:YAG, the Excimer process is non- sity in order to perform the intended application. The
thermal, and ablates material by breaking molecular focusing assembly consists of the final focusing optic, and
bonds. Excimer lasers are used to process non-metals, such either an assist gas nozzle for cutting or a shield gas noz-
as thin films and plastics, in applications requiring a very zle for welding, heat treating, and cladding. A height sens-
high degree of finesse and precision. ing device (either mechanical or electronic) is sometimes
incorporated (especially for cutting applications) to main-
Beam Delivery
tain a set standoff distance from the focusing optic to the
In simple terms, the beam delivery system takes the
workpiece.
output beam from the laser head and brings it to the work-
piece. The beam delivery system directs the beam to the
workpiece through the use of mirrors or a fiber optic cable Beam diameter
and focuses the beam onto the workpiece via a lens or a
focusing mirror. The beam delivery system may also mod-
ify the characteristics of the beam (through the use of Focus
beam collimators, beam expanders, beam splitters, filters, lens
polarizers, prisms, and apertures), as appropriate to the Lens
focal
application, or system configuration. length
The type of laser, and therefore its wavelength, dic-
tates the methods and materials used for delivering the
laser to the workpiece. More conventional optical materi-
als, such as glass, can be used for the near-infrared beam Focal
from the Nd:YAG laser, while the far-infrared beam of the plane
Depth of focus
CO2 laser requires special optical materials, such as
Spot size
Silicon, Zinc Selenide (ZnSe) and Gallium Arsenide
(GaAs).
The method typically used for transferring the beam
from a CO2 laser to a workpiece consists of mirrors and In both CO2 and Nd:YAG lasers, a beam of light passes
some form of containment tube(s) that restricts access to through a lens and is tightly focused to a smaller spot size
the beam. and therefore, a higher power density. The depth of focus is
Nd:YAG systems can deliver beams either through con- the range of depth over which a focused spot varies by +/-
ventional mirrors, or through glass fiber optic cables. Fiber- 5%, a relationship especially important when cutting sheet-
based systems are more flexible than beam delivery systems using metal.
mirrors, and are simpler to keep in alignment. Fiber-based
systems also allow complex, beam sharing or splitting deliv- For low power and most cutting applications, the
ery systems to be assembled at lower cost, and with greater final focusing optics used are transmissive crystalline
integrity. A very popular, and effective, application is the materials, coated to absorb little energy at the required
combination of fiber optic beam delivery systems with multi- wavelength. Typical materials for CO2 lasers are ZnSe or
axis robots and motion systems. GaAs while YAG lasers use quartz.
For higher power (and many welding, heat treating, beam or“flying optic”), or both (hybrid). Standard indus-
and cladding) CO2 applications, the use of transmissive trial equipment such as linear and rotary stages, robots, pal-
optics for focusing can create reliability problems either let changers, indexers, reel-to-reel web handlers, vacuum
from the high-power densities, or from damage by splatter chambers, punch presses, conveyors, vision systems, process
and debris produced by the process. To avoid these prob- monitors, PLCs, and CNCs are routinely integrated with
lems, reflective optics (usually copper mirrors in the form lasers in order to provide applications solutions. Lasers are
of a parabolic or spherical reflector) can be used. The mir- particularly well suited for integration into industrial uses
ror is more durable than crystalline structures (better pro- due to their ease of controls and interfacing, and their inher-
tected from splatter) and is also more easily cleared and ent reliability and repeatability.
cooled.
Safety
YAG lasers, even up to 4 kW, can continue to use
As with all other industrial equipment, safety is an impor-
transmissive final focusing optics, providing they are pro-
tant consideration with regard to the use of laser systems.
tected from spatter with a consumable, inexpensive glass
In addition to the typical concerns related to machinery
window.
and devices, such as high voltage and electrical hazards
Laser Systems and mechanical guarding, laser systems must also conform
Rarely are lasers and simple beam delivery systems used on to safety requirements specific to the presence of an invis-
their own. Generally, lasers are integrated as part of a ible, highly intensified, beam of energy.
larger system, involving material handling, safety enclo- At most power levels, laser beams (except HeNe or
sures, automation, and computer controls. Systems can diode lasers which are used for alignment purposes) must
range from very simple, manually-operated, desktop be fully enclosed to prevent skin and eye exposure to pri-
workstations up to sophisticated automated systems mary or reflected energy. Beam containment assemblies,
including multi-axis computerized controls and a nearly and workstation safety enclosures are generally electrical-
limitless variety of peripheral equipment and devices. ly interlocked to prevent access to an active beam. Safety
Essentially, laser systems move either the workpiece shields and viewing windows can be constructed of mate-
(fixed beam), the laser’s final focusing assembly (moving rials which block particular laser wavelengths.

Table 1.1
SUMMARY OF 2-D MOTION SYSTEM CONSIDERATIONS
Parameter Considered Fixed Beam Hybrid Moving Beam (1)
In Design of Machine (moving x-y table) (x table, y optics) (flying x-y optics)

Cost lowest medium highest (2)


Laser Beam Alignment Time shortest moderate longest (3)
Effects of Beam Divergence none some most (4)
Inertia Effects on Accuracy & Speed highest medium lowest
(also vibration)
Material Weight Restriction highest medium lowest
Foot Print largest medium smallest
Part Clamping & Handling Requirements highest medium lowest

(1) Including moving laser (e.g. Nd:YAG with reflective/transmission beam delivery, and “no flow” CO2 slab laser.
(2) Cost is relatively high due primarily to (3) and (4) below.
(3) Orthoganality of beam delivery and mirror stability become critical; design and cost increase.
(4) Collimating of laser beam may be required; this adds optics and associated maintenance and alignment issues.
Three specific regulatory documents mandate prac- Facilities with laser system installations must appoint
tices for the design, construction and safe use of laser- a Laser Safety Officer (LSO) who is well trained in the reg-
based systems: ulations and is empowered to enforce them. In addition,
■ 21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 1040.10 and operators and maintenance personnel must be trained in
CFR 1040.11 DHHS Federal Laser Product Performance the proper safety procedures. See ANSI Z136.1 and ANSI
Standard (applicable to laser product manufacturers). B11.21.
■ ANSI Z136.1 (1993) American National Standards With adequate training, procedures, safeguarding,
Institute (ANSI) Safety Requirements for Usage of Lasers and observance, laser systems are just as safe as (if not
(applicable to laser product users). safer than) any other industrial machine tool.
■ ANSI B11.21 - 1997 - Machine Tools Using Lasers For
Processing Materials — Safety Requirements For Design, Laser Applications
Construction, Care, and Use. This standard is applicable The following sections in this booklet describe, in greater
to both laser product manufacturers and to laser product detail, the key features of laser processing for the primary
users. applications of Marking, Cutting, Welding and Drilling.
In addition, numerous standard industrial regula- This information is presented as an introduction to the
tions, such as those established by NFPA and OSHA, as current state of the technology, and to hopefully stimulate
well as individual corporation safety standards, apply to wider acceptance and application of this extremely versa-
the overall laser system. tile and practical tool. ■
An Introduction to
Laser Marking
aser marking represents the largest number of strengths and weaknesses. Both types of marking systems

L installations for the industrial application of


laser technology. Laser markers are easily inte-
grated with material handlers, X-Y tables,
rotary axis drives, bowl feeders, conveyors, dial tables, and
other industrial manufacturing equipment. Markers are
utilize the principle of surface modification, but they dif-
fer in the method used to project the laser beam and create
the marking image. Careful consideration of these meth-
ods will provide the optimum tool for a wide range of
marking requirements.
also sometimes incorporated as supplementary devices to A beam-steered laser marker allows the greatest
laser cutting, laser welding, and laser drilling systems. degree of flexibility and image manipulation. To create
Major benefits of laser marking include: the mark image with a beam steering system, two mirrors,
■ High speed and high throughput mounted on high-speed, computer-controlled galvanome-
■ Reliable and repeatable process ters, direct the laser beam across the target surface, much
■ Permanent impressions like a pencil on paper. Each galvanometer provides one
■ Non-contact process axis of beam motion in the marking field.
■ Computer or mask-generated images The beam projects through a multi-element, flat-field
■ Low consumable costs (no expendable tooling and
lens assembly after reflecting off the final steering mirror.
The lens assembly focuses the laser light to achieve the
no chemistry)
highest power density possible on the work surface while
■ Easily automated and programmable
maintaining the focused spot travel on a flat plane. The
■ Flexibility and adaptability
laser output is gated between marking strokes. This design
■ Environmentally friendly (no disposal of inks,
offers the advantages of a computer-generated marking
acids, or solvents)
image and utilization of all of the laser output for the
■ Ability to mark a wide range of materials
highest marking power possible.
■ Ease of maintenance and set-up
A mask or stencil marking system, on the other hand,
Process fundamentals sacrifices image aesthetics and some versatility in return
Laser marking is a thermal process that employs a for significantly increased marking speed. The marking
high-intensity beam of focused laser light to create a con- image is created by projecting the laser beam through a
trasting mark. The laser beam increases the surface tem- copper stencil of the desired image and refocusing the
perature to induce either a microstructural change in the beam on the target surface to burn the image into the
material (which creates a mark due to a change in the color material. A single pulse of the laser creates the entire
or reflectivity), and/or displace material by vaporization image.
to engrave the surface. Alphanumeric characters can be altered part-to-part
Two fundamental marking system designs, “beam (for serialization, for example), with the use of computer-
steering”and“mask imaging,” have emerged which provide controlled rotary stencil wheels to index the characters, or
good marking attributes. Each have notably different by galvo-steering of the focused beam through the appro-
priate character mask (at rates of up to 150 characters per Nd:YAG laser, pulsed at 1 kHz, will emit a train of pulses
second). with peak powers of 75 kW.
The images formed by this technique exhibit a stencil- The Nd:YAG laser’s ability to emulate an optical
like appearance with breaks in the marking lines. Since the capacitor provides the power necessary to vaporize metal-
mask blocks a high percentage of the laser beam, marking lic and other materials. The high peak power will vaporize
power and resultant surface penetration are limited. metals, typically up to a depth of 0.005 inch (0.125 mm)
Although a beam-steered design provides superior in a single pass, or greater with multiple passes. Engraving
imaging and deeper material penetration, while a mask depth on metals is generally in the range of 0.0005 inch
design provides superior speed, either system provides a (0.0125 mm) to 0.005 inch (0.125 mm). This is less depth
better combination of speed, permanence, and imaging than mechanical stamping, but the marks are permanent,
flexibility than other marking techniques presently avail- programmable, consistent, and, with the sharper image
able as outlined in Table 2.1. Many users also benefit from typical of laser marking, can be just as readable as those
the non-contact nature of laser marking and the elimina- from deeper mechanical stamping.
tion of additive materials such as ink paints. By tuning the mark parameters differently (running

Table 2.1
LASER vs. OTHER MARKING TECHNOLOGIES
Marking Process Speed Permanence Image Flexibility

Laser Marking Good Good Good


Chemical Etch Good Good Poor
Photo Etch Good Good Poor
Ink-Jet Good Poor Good
Mechanical Stamping Good Good Poor
Nameplates (1) NA Moderate Poor
Casting/Molding Good Good Poor
Pneumatic Pin Moderate Good Moderate
Vibratory Pencil Poor Good Good
CO2 Mask Marker Good Moderate Poor

There are numerous laser marking systems being used to engrave nameplates
(1)

as a means of applying the advantages of laser marking to products that are too large
and/or too heavy to bring to the laser marking system.

Beam-steered Nd:YAG continuous wave or pulsing), Nd:YAG lasers can create a


The combination of an Nd:YAG laser and a beam- dark, shallow mark. This technique is used on stainless
steered delivery system marks the widest range of materi- steel, titanium, and other alloys to produce a black or gray
als and provides the versatility of computer-controlled mark. Nd:YAG markers can also be used on a wide variety
image generation. of nonmetallic materials such as ceramics, plastics (ABS
Nd:YAG lasers emit light in the near-infrared wave- and styrene), and glass-filled epoxy mold compounds.
length at 1.06 µm. Metallic materials absorb a compara- Some plastics, such as acrylic, are transmissive to the
tively high percentage of the light in this region of the Nd:YAG wavelength, but mark well with CO2 lasers. There
spectrum. In the pulsed mode, the Nd:YAG laser produces is some overlap with certain compounds such as vinyl and
peak powers considerably higher than the normal contin- PVC that can be marked with either type of laser.
uous-wave (CW) output. A 50 W continuous wave A beam-steered marker can duplicate virtually any
vector graphic image. In addition, any graphic element, or bined with a beam-steered delivery system. CO2 lasers emit
even the entire marking program, can be instantly changed a narrow bandwidth of light in the far infrared wave-
by computer before a new part is positioned for marking. length at 10.6 µm. This wavelength is most suitable for
An Nd:YAG laser offers a greater range of adjustable organic materials, such as paper and other wood products,
process variables to achieve a specific material alteration plastics, and ceramics. They are also used for removing
than a CO2 laser, but at a correspondingly higher initial thin layers of ink or paint from a substrate. The CO2 laser,
purchase price. An Nd:YAG beam-steered laser marker is however, does not produce high peak powers when pulsed
the most costly of the three system configurations, but it (as does an Nd:YAG laser).
provides the most flexibility. Utilizing laser powers up to 40 W, these systems com-
Current computer technology produces highly intri- bine the far infrared wavelength of the CO2 lasers with the
cate graphics with line widths and resolution of about image control and flexibility of beam-steered image gen-
0.002 inch (0.5 mm). Minimum line width is a function of eration. Typical uses include serialization of ceramic and
the focused spot size of the laser beam, the marking para- plastic products that require high-quality graphics (such
meters, and the material effect that occurs when the beam as company logos) and significant amounts of alphanu-
strikes the mark surface. Line widths ranging from about meric text.
0.002 inch (0.5 mm) to 0.010 inch (0.25 mm) are typical. Acquisition and operating costs of a beam-steered
Characters and logos can be as small as 0.020 inch CO2 marker are lower than those of a Nd:YAG marker.
(0.5 mm) high, or as large as the mark field of the laser. Image generation is equal to that of the Nd:YAG system
The mark field is the size of the area that can be addressed by virtue of similar software and beam-steering technolo-
by the steered beam. Standard system mark fields range gy. However, CO2 markers operate in a narrower range of
from 2 inches (50 mm) to 12 inches (300 mm) square. spot sizes and mark fields. Line widths range from about
Some custom systems have been built with smaller or larg- 0.004 inch (0.1 mm) to 0.010 inch (0.25 mm) and mark
er fields and for marking images in specialized applica- fields range from 2 inches (50 mm) to 6 inches (150 mm)
tions. Because the image is created by drawing with the in diameter.
laser beam, marking time depends on the amount of text A variation of the beam-steered CO2 system uses a
and the complexity of any graphics. modulated CW laser with a rotating mirror to scan dots
Beam-steered Nd:YAG markers frequently replace across the material, much like a laser printer. This method
acid and electro-etch systems, stamping and punching sys- can allow for marking on-the-fly and is commonly used in
tems, and other marking systems which mark products by marking inked paper and in consumer packaging.
imprinting or engraving. It also replaces ink jet and other Although not as popular as the beam-steered Nd:YAG and
color-printing systems. mask CO2 markers, beam-steered CO2 systems are also fre-
Typical applications in the automotive industry quently used for marking general plastics and plastic and
include marking pistons, bearings, valves, gears, and a ceramic connectors and packages within the electronics
multitude of other components. In the medical industry, industry.
they mark heart pacemakers, replacement hip joints, and
Mask CO2
surgical tools. In the electronics industry, they are used to
Applications that require high speed but not high
mark computer chassis, disk drives, and integrated cir-
power and do not vary the marking image except for
cuits. In the tool industry, they mark tool holders, drill
alphanumeric text (for instance, serialization and date
bits, and cutting tools. Other applications include the
codes) utilize the mask CO2 marker. The CO2 laser can be
marking of writing pens, nameplates, and golf-club grips.
pulsed at rates of up to 9,000 pulses per minute, however,
Beam-steered CO2 the most common applications are around 900 pulses per
A continuous-wave (CW) CO2 laser can also be com- minute. The high repetition rate and short pulse duration
provide marking on-the-fly at high part-transfer speeds. If to be done prior to part hardening. Parts rejected later in
the alphanumeric code must be changed, computer con- the manufacturing cycle could not be reworked, and had
trolled masks can alter up to three lines of text at speeds of to be scrapped. The disposal of solvents, acid, and neu-
up to 720 parts per minute. tralizer was costly and hazardous to the environment, with
Although the mask CO2 does not offer the imaging several EPA restrictions. The cost justification for a laser
capabilities of the beam-steered design, it is far superior marking system was based on the savings associated with
in speed. Because a single pulse of the laser creates the the solvents, process tooling, and labor. A fully automated
entire image, machine throughput is typically limited only laser marking system was installed which reduced the per-
by the pulse rate of the laser and the transfer speed of the piece cost by 97%. Consumable and disposable materials,
parts-handling system. and secondary operations, were eliminated. The improve-
Although a part typically must be stationary while ment in quality led to inventory reductions and improved
marking with the beam-steered design, parts can be the responsiveness to customers.
marked “on-the-fly”with mask systems. Depth of penetra- Case Study 2: Laser Marking of Pharmaceutical Labels
tion is less than the beam-steered CO2 marker since the A major manufacturer of pharmaceutical products was
mask blocks a high percentage of the laser output. working towards maintaining a standard of “zero defects”
Masked CO2 markers often compete with ink-jet at every level of its production cycle. Because the FDA
marking. The mask CO2 laser is often the marker of choice required accurate product coding in the packaging
for sequenced coding, batch coding, open or closed date process, the company wanted a marking system that could
coding, as well as for real-time coding of paper or card- verify, with 100% certainty, that each product was clearly
board, ink or paint coatings, glass, plastics, coated metals, marked, every time. They needed to achieve this level of
and ceramics. performance without jeopardizing line speed. The system
Excimer lasers are also finding applications in laser had to be automated, and it had to be compatible with a
marking due to the benefit of the ultraviolet (0.308 µm) clean room environment. The company considered pre-
wavelength and the fact that the process is essentially non- printed labels, hot stamping, and ink-jet printing. Pre-
thermal. These lasers are well suited to wire marking, a printed labels presented problems maintaining lead times,
process that requires minimum and highly controlled and would cause unacceptable waste if labels had to be
material removal. changed. Hot stamping required the stocking of ribbons,
and as the stamps wore out, the print quality would suffer.
Case Studies Ink-jet printing required ink and solvent cleanup, and also
produced inconsistent legibility. For 100% verification,
Case Study 1: Laser Marking of Bearings
both the hot stamping and the ink-jet printing would have
Automotive and aerospace bearing manufacturers previ-
required human backup inspection. When reading marks
ously utilized acid etch marking systems to apply part
made by a hot stamp, or an ink-jet system, a properly
number and supplier information. The acid etch process
tuned machine vision system had trouble distinguishing
required three steps: wash/dry, etching, and neutraliza-
between certain characters, which were necessary within
tion. Unique tooling was required for each size bearing.
the codes. The company installed a laser marking system
The washing solvent was expensive and readily evaporated,
which is capable of producing 1,800 products per minute.
making the washing step a major cost in the process.
Verification is not a problem since the laser code is reli-
Washing required frequent downtime for solvent changes
able, consistent, and readable. The laser marker requires
and replenishment. Different marking stencils were
very little maintenance, and setup for different products
required for each part number. Sudden stencil failure
and label dimensions is minimal.
caused unacceptable mark quality. The acid etch process
required constant operator monitoring. Acid etching had Case Study 3: Laser Marking of Plastic Molded Parts
A major supplier of molded plastic parts had a require-
ment to permanently mark a cover for a household appli-
ance with easily readable legends. There were several dif-
ferent part types, with production volumes in the millions
per year. The legends had previously been molded into the
parts, but this did not satisfy the need for high visibility in
low light conditions. In addition, the costs of maintain-
ing the molds for crisp and clear legends was excessive.
Laser marking proved to be an excellent solution. The
laser produces a high contrast mark on the glass-rein-
forced plastic, and can cover a 7 inch (175 mm) square
area, allowing marking of four or more parts in one cycle.
The laser is programmable, so that marks are easily tai-
lored for specific parts. A semi-automatic workstation was
installed, capable of production rates in the range of
1500 parts per hour. The system has been proven in pro-
duction. Operators use the laser’s computer to pull up the
correct marking job according to part type. Full security
protection prevents marking job files from being changed
or corrupted accidentally. Use of laser marking has bene-
fited the company, and the end user of the parts, by pro-
viding consistent, easily readable marking. The manufac-
turer appreciates the low reject rate and has reduced oper-
ating and maintenance costs, while becoming totally self-
sufficient in programming, operating and maintaining the
laser equipment. ■
An Introduction to
Laser Cutting
he major application for industrial lasers is Oxygen is probably the most commonly used assist

T laser cutting. Laser cutting is a well estab-


lished process, and has gained wide acceptance
in manufacturing due to the many advantages
and benefits that the laser can provide over other cutting
methods. The key features of laser cutting include:
gas, with pressures typically around 100 psi. When cut-
ting, the laser melts the material, but the oxygen actually
does most of the work. Typically, this process leaves some
oxidation on the edges of the material, but this can be
minimized if the operating parameters (including power,
■ Application to a wide range of materials and thick- speed, and gas flow) are correctly set. Edge quality will
ness also be smooth, without excessive bevels.
■ Narrow kerf widths High-pressure cutting often uses nitrogen, or other
■ High speeds inert gases, at pressures as high as 400 psi to eject the
■ Very high repeatability molten material. Higher pressure cutting is suited for
■ Very high reliability materials such as stainless and mild steels, nickel alloys,
■ Easily automated and programmable and aluminum, particularly when edges must be free of
■ Flexibility in changeovers oxidation.
■ Reduced tooling costs and reduced setup times
The benefits of laser cutting
■ Non-contact process (no tooling wear or breakage,
Lasers are adept at processing carbon, stainless, and
minimal material distortion) zinc-coated steels and super-alloy materials. CO2 lasers
■ Versatility (the same tool can also be used for
easily cut alloys, such as titanium, that are difficult and
drilling and welding) costly to cut with conventional methods.
■ Capacity for high degree of beam manipulation
In addition, these lasers cut precisely to meet tight tol-
(true 3D cutting) erances and minimize distortion while eliminating pres-
Industrial cutting lasers typically have power levels sure from mechanical forces. The laser’s ability to cut
from 50 W to 3 kW in both CO2 and Nd:YAG. Cutting enameled or porcelain-enameled metal without destroying
begins when a focused laser beam hits a material and the surface has proven extremely valuable in certain manu-
rapidly vaporizes it to form a cavity or keyhole. The facturing niches.
molten material in the keyhole is expelled by means of a Metals such as gold, silver, brass, copper, and some
high-velocity process assist gas. This assist gas is directed types of aluminum are best processed using a shorter
coaxial to the beam, through a nozzle, down into the cut wavelength laser such as the Nd:YAG. These metals are
zone. highly reflective and would otherwise absorb little energy.
Desired shapes can be cut either by having a position- Another advantage of the laser is a small kerf width,
ing system move the workpiece or by moving the beam over which helps maximize material use and makes for efficient
the material. A combination of the two methods may also part nesting. The focused spot size of an industrial CO2
be used. laser can be as small as 0.005 inch (0.125 mm), making it
Processing thickness of metals

0.8
0.72 Aluminum alloys (N2)
Maximum sheet thickness (in.)

0.64 Stainless steel (N2)


0.56 Mild steel (O2)
0.48
0.4
0.32
0.24
0.16
0.08

1,200 1,500 2,200 2,600


Laser Power (W)

700 W 1,200 W 1,500 W

400

360
Cutting speeds in mild steel
for dross-free contouring
320 (O2 cutting gas)
Cutting speed (in./min)

280

240

200

160

120

80

40

0.04 0.08 0.12 0.16 0.20 0.24 0.28 0.32 0.36 0.40 0.44 0.48
Sheet thickness (in.)
capable of cutting with a kerf width of 0.007 inch (0.175 Such is not the case with other cutting methods. Punch
mm). By comparison, conventional cutting methods tools can wear, as can plasma electrodes. Thus, there will
deliver kerfs exceeding 0.040 inch (1.00 mm). be a slight difference in cuts from one part to the next with
Lasers can also prove to be much faster than other cut- these technologies as the condition worsens.
ting techniques on both thick and thin materials. Users can set up laser parameters just once for a given
Conservative cutting speeds for a mid-range 2600 W laser material to get reliable and repeatable results. If, over
range from 40 inches (1 meter) per minute in 0.5 inch time, the kerf width or cut quality changes, the likely
(12.5 mm) plate, to 16 inches (400 mm) per minute in 1.00 cause is thermal stresses deteriorating the lens, external
inch (25 mm) plate. Lasers can cut light-gauge stainless mirrors, or laser output coupler. Exchanging the defective
steel at speeds up to 1,000 inches (25 meters) per minute optic quickly corrects this situation.
with accuracy. Overall cycle time may be reduced further Control is another benefit lasers offer over other cut-
through use of common cutting techniques, such as cut- ting methods. A CNC can easily program laser power, the
ting the side of two parts in one laser pass. speed at which the beam moves over a part, and the height
and angle of the beam.
Making a quality cut
These systems integrate well into existing manufac-
Users can adjust laser operating parameters that
turing lines requiring multi-axis, rotary, or flat-sheet pro-
directly affect edge finish to
cessing. Overall, lasers offer features that provide prof-
complement the material being cut. These parameters
itable advantages either as stand-alone machines or as part
include cutting speed, power, stand-off distance, focus
of a flexible manufacturing cell.
position, and assist gas pressure. They control the degree
of bevel and reduce, if not eliminate, burring. A flexible system
Another factor determining cut quality is the dross Because of their flexibility, lasers are replacing shears
condition. A dross-free part does not have melted materi- in stainless steel cutting and other areas of material pro-
al hanging from the underside of the cut edge. Laser-cut cessing. Lasers can easily process in any direction, so users
parts are relatively dross-free. Dross also can be minimized can cut both simple 2D or more complex 3D parts. Other
through proper adjustment of the parameters and, if eco- improvements to part design stem from a laser’s capability
nomically practical, by selecting higher grade materials. to combine several processes into one.
Lasers are more flexible than punches because they Lasers offer great precision and maneuverability. The
have no tooling. And unlike plasma torches, they can beams can maneuver into hard-to-reach areas where con-
process metal and non-metallic materials. A laser beam ventional methods cannot go. Other methods often
can be focused with greater precision than a drill bit, require support tooling or space for operational clear-
punch, or even a plasma torch. Because lasers are unre- ance.
stricted by the geometry of a punch, they can produce an
A laser often performs cutting, shearing, and welding
infinite variety of cuts without regard for material hard-
operations on one workstation, rather than independent-
ness.
ly, simplifying operations and guaranteeing quality.
Furthermore, because lasers have a small heat-affected
Lasers can cut any contour, cutting one part, or making
zone and exert no mechanical forces on the workpiece,
increasingly complex multiple parts. Also, laser manufac-
there is little or no distortion.
turing techniques improve overall part design, thus mini-
Reliability, repeatability, and accuracy mizing costs. Table 3.1 provides a comparison of laser
Once the operating parameters are set correctly for cutting to leading competitive processes.
the first sheet, the results will be identical for the second Lasers also make it possible to cut smaller diameter
sheet or the thousandth. Tight tolerances can be main- holes in a given material thickness. Even small and com-
tained because there is no tooling that can wear over time. plex holes and contours are easily cut in heavy plate.
Table 3.1

LASER CUTTING — Comparison to Other Processes


PROCESS
Electrical Discharge Photochemical
Characteristic Laser Machining (EDM) Machining (PCM) Mechanical

Tooling CNC program electrode artwork hard tool


Range of materials metals, non-metals metals metals nonmetals
Cutting rates moderate low high high
Minimum kerf 0.002 inch thickness thickness
(0.05 mm)
Aspect ratio >10:1 >10:1 1:1 1:1
Edge finish/burr good excellent excellent fair to good
(parent metal burr)
Complex shapes yes yes limited no

Conversely, other processes require a 2:1 hole diameter to wear, a problem with plasma machines, for example, is not
material thickness ratio (i.e., the minimum hole diameter a concern.
is twice the material thickness). Moreover, lasers, unlike In addition, materials thicker than 0.5 inch (12.5
plasma cutters, are able to pulse the power output, elimi- mm) eat up tooling, making frequent regrinds necessary.
nating burnout problems as speed drops in tight areas such Shortened tool life and increased tooling costs result.
as edges, corners, and small contours. Again, these costs are absent with lasers.
Nd:YAG lasers are particularly suited for robotic cut- Lastly, lasers can reduce scrap metal because of their
ting since the beam can be delivered through a flexible small kerf width and ability to common-edge-cut parts.
fiber optic cable. The ability to cut odd-size pieces for welding customized
blanks prior to forming can further minimize material
Low operating cost
scrap.
The average operating cost of a 2 kW laser cutting
system is around $7.00 to $14.00 per hour. This price Case Studies
includes consumable items, such as electricity, laser gas, Case Study 1: Laser Cutting of Automotive Components
cooling water, process gases, lenses, and nozzles. The A major automotive supplier uses lasers to cut option
amount spent on consumable items will fluctuate depend- holes in instrument panel hanger beams which have diffi-
ing on the type of material cut, the process parameters, cult access points due to the placement of welded brackets
type and pressure of the assist gas, and system mainte- and require various shaped holes. The system, which uti-
nance. For example, a focusing lens can operate for more lizes two (2) Nd:YAG lasers in combination with robots
than 2,000 hours with proper maintenance. However, it and fiber optic beam delivery produces up to twenty-nine
can be destroyed in seconds by improper care. (29) slots and holes in less than one minute. The material
Another benefit is reduced machine maintenance. is 0.060 inch (1.5 mm) thick CRS. Cutting speed is 120
Punching thick or difficult-to-cut materials creates con- inches (3 meters) per minute. Positioning accuracy is +/-
siderable wear and tear on tooling. Lasers, which require 0.004 inch (0.1 mm), and dimensional repeatability is
no tooling, eliminate this expense along with the cost of within +/- 0.002 inch (0.05 mm). The cutting program
ongoing tooling maintenance. Lasers also use fewer con- was modified to conform with new federal crash-test man-
sumable items than other cutting methods. Electrode dates just two weeks prior to the production start-up, a
task which would have proved extremely costly (if not Case Study 3: Laser Cutting of Non-Ferrous Materials
impossible) with hard-tooling cutting methods. With the For a toy manufacturer, lasers have made cutting of preci-
move towards more hydro-forming of parts in the auto- sion-crafted wooden decorative scale models of doll hous-
motive industry, laser cutting is also finding numerous es possible. Only lasers could provide the accuracy needed
applications, such as hole cutting in frame members. to cut everything from basswood and mahogany, to cherry
and walnut. Parts, identical to their real-life counterparts
Case Study 2: Laser Cutting of Heavy Plate
in every way but size, can be as small as 0.006 inch (0.15
A job shop has found that the capabilities and versatility
mm). While milling is used to create parts that require
of a high-power CO2 laser has made it possible to signifi-
straight or flat surfaces (such as clapboard siding, shutters,
cantly reduce operating costs and improve turnaround
and wainscot panels), the laser is used to pierce the wood’s
times. Typical parts which are processed range from 0.25
surface to make Victorian gingerbread trim, apex trim,
inch (6.25 mm) to 0.75 inch (18.75 mm) thickness.
curlicue brackets, and roof finials. The laser can pierce a
Products are unique, with average lot sizes varying
20.5 inch (512 mm) long piece of gingerboard porch balus-
between ten pieces to a few hundred pieces. Many of the
ter in about three minutes. Another part, measuring 5.25
single batch run parts were previously very labor intensive,
inches (131 mm) by 5.50 inches (137.5 mm) takes about an
requiring many different sets of operations. The laser’s
hour to program and about two minutes to cut. ■
fast setup and programming time lets the fabricator run
one common material by nesting parts of different jobs.
Accuracy was also improved since multiple operations on
different machines with different setups were eliminated,
reducing accumulated errors. A single laser cutting
machine cuts parts that were once sheared, drilled and/or
punched on multiple machines. Lead time for parts is
shortened, facilitating instant response to design modifi-
cations, and providing the ability to develop prototypes
rapidly. Using Oxygen as an assist gas, the lasers produce
smooth cut edges, eliminating many man hours spent de-
burring parts as a secondary operation. Excessive bevels
were eliminated, the oxidation effect is minimal, and
stresses that would cause cracking problems did not occur,
even in thick high-carbon steels.
An Introduction to
Laser Welding
uccessful laser welding depends on the selec- relative to a beam, vaporized or molten material solidifies

S tion, and proper application, of many process


variables. Some of the critical factors are laser
type, materials, weld joint design, component
part preparation, and part fixturing. Designers and prod-
uct engineers should familiarize themselves with the prop-
behind the weld point to form a weld.
Power density is the ratio of laser power to the area of
the focused spot. The time over which the power density is
imparted into the weld joint can be described in terms of
weld energy. A high-speed weld imparts less energy into
erties, advantages, and applications of lasers, as well as the weld joint than does a low-speed weld.
how to design components, assemblies, and systems to best The ability of the joint design and the material to uti-
utilize the advantages of laser welding. Since the advent of lize the weld energy of the focused beam determines the
the industrial laser, laser welding has been chosen over required weld speed for a desired weld penetration. This
conventional welding processes, such as resistance spot or depends on many things, such as laser type (wavelength),
arc welding, due to several primary advantages: shield gas selection and flow, material reflectivity and con-
ductivity, weld-joint geometry, weld-joint cleanliness, and
■ Minimum heat input, resulting in minimal distor-
the material coating.
tion of the workpiece
■ Consistent, repeatable welds Representative weld speeds for CO2 and Nd:YAG lasers
■ Small heat affected zone (HAZ) (plain carbon steels)
14
■ Narrow weld bead with good cosmetic appearance
■ High strength welds
13

■ Easily automated 12
500 W Nd:YAG pulsed
2 kW Nd:YAG CW
■ High degree of accuracy and control 11
6 kW CO2 CW
10 kW CO2 CW
■ Ability to weld dissimilar materials 10

■ Generally no flux or filler material required 9


Weld Penetration (mm)

■ Flexibility of beam manipulation 8

■ Ability to weld in areas difficult to reach with other 7

techniques 6
■ Often faster than other techniques
5

Laser beams can be focused to a very small spot, typi- 4

cally 0.004 inch (0.1 mm) to 0.035 inch (0.875 mm). The 3

size of the focused beam at a given power dictates the 2


power density of the laser at the workpiece. In laser weld-
1
ing, power densities are high enough to either melt the
material at the weld joint (conduction welding) or vapor- 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

ize the material (keyhole welding). As a workpiece moves Welding speed (m/min)
The most common industrial welding lasers are CO2 stand a better chance than CO2 lasers, because the shorter
and Nd:YAG. Laser choice usually depends on economics, wavelength couples better into aluminum, but CO2 lasers
weld-speed and penetration requirements, and the materi- make up the difference in raw power, with greater than 12
al. Since the advent of fiber optics for Nd:YAG beam kW easily available. Nd:YAG lasers should be considered
delivery, flexibility also comes into play. for the thin welding jobs where they have a clear advan-
tage, and the thicker jobs should go to the CO2.
Welding process requirements
Brass and copper. Brasses weld poorly because of
Many ferrous and non-ferrous materials can be laser
their zinc content. Zinc has a relatively low melting tem-
welded. Dissimilar materials can also be welded if the met-
perature and vaporizes readily, producing a porous weld.
allurgy is compatible.
Copper is also difficult to weld because of its high reflec-
Carbon steels. Low carbon, low alloy steels typically
tivity and thermal conductivity.
can be laser welded. However, certain guidelines apply.
First, when the carbon or carbon equivalent of the Joint preparation, fit, and location
weld exceeds about 0.30%, the ensuing welds are prone to Weld joints must often be cleaned before they can be
be brittle. Also, porosity and hot cracking can result in laser welded. Oil, debris, rust and other gross contami-
the welding of free-machining or billet steels containing nants present at the weld joint will vaporize when
sulfur, phosphorous, selenium, cadmium, or lead. impinged by the focused laser beam and exhaust through
Typically, a maximum of 0.05% cumulative of these ele- the molten weld pool. The resulting weld will be porous,
ments is acceptable. with decreased strength. If the parts are washed, they
Carburized and nitrided steels generally cannot be must be rinsed with clean water and dried thoroughly
laser welded. Furthermore, zinc-coated (galvanized) steels before welding.
can be difficult to weld in an overlap configuration Weld-joint contamination leads to weld spatter, which
because the zinc readily vaporizes, producing a porous is the molten metal exhausted with the vaporized contam-
weld. inant. The expulsion of weld spatter increases optic main-
Stainless steels. Stainless steels can generally be laser tenance and cuts down optic life. Additionally, weld spat-
welded. However, types 303, stabilized 321, and 347 may ter can build up on the shielding gas nozzle, decreasing
exhibit solidification cracking. Laser welding of the 400 shielding performance. Adjacent tooling and spatter-sen-
series generally yields higher malleability and ductility as sitive component surfaces may also be degraded by weld
compared to other welding processes. The austenitic spatter build-up.
stainless steels also are generally candidates for laser weld- Filler metals are rarely used in laser welding, there-
ing. fore close weld joint fit-up is critical. Poor fit-up reduces
Alloys. Most nickel-based alloys are good materials cross-sectional weld area and reduces the weld strength.
for laser welding, as are titanium and refractory alloys. Often, requirements for the strength of the weld and the
However, titanium is highly sensitive to oxidation and, focused spot diameter determine the degree of weld fit-up.
therefore, special attention must be given to inert gas For example, a small focused spot cannot bridge a fit-up
shielding of the molten weld pool. gap as well as a larger one since it produces less molten
Aluminum. Due to the high volatility of the alloying material.
constituents such as magnesium and silicon, laser welding The weld-joint location, on the other hand, must be
of aluminum alloys often results in porous welds with low held to a tolerance that depends not only on the focused
adhesion. However, the 2219 series, as well as the 1000 spot diameter, but also upon the depth of focus of the
and 3000 series alloys, can be successfully laser welded. beam, weld power and speed, and joint geometry. The
Due to the high reflectivity and thermal conductivity weld-joint location depends mainly on the manufacturing
of aluminum, it is difficult to laser weld. Nd:YAG lasers and assembly tolerances of the component assembly and
the repeatability and stability of the part fixturing. ly to determine if a shield gas is needed in these cases.
If the weld-joint location is not properly maintained, In applications where the shield gas is introduced to
the result is either poor penetration, due to welding with the weld via an auxiliary tube, it is directed centrally at the
a defocused beam, or poor weld joint cross-sectional area, interface of the laser and material, and toward the trailing
caused by welding off the joint. weld (hot material). This will ensure protection of the
solidified weld bead, which may have sufficient tempera-
Part fixturing
ture to oxidize.
Due to the relatively small focused spot size and depth
Although argon is successfully used in many produc-
of focus of the laser beam, accuracy and repeatability of
tion systems, especially in Europe where there is a signifi-
production tooling must be carefully examined before use.
cant price difference between argon and helium, it can be a
Certain elements should be considered for component fix-
very sensitive shielding method in terms of nozzle design
turing and clamping.
and flow geometry.
First, the wear associated with repeatedly cycled tool-
ing may result in weld joint fit-up gaps, or improper weld Focus position
joint location. Therefore, a wear resistant steel should be The position of the laser’s focused spot at the weld
used to extend tool life and to guarantee proper part joint is known as the focus position. The optimum focus
clamping and locating. position depends on weld joint geometry (type, orienta-
Secondly, clamp or fixture designs should not distort tion, gap, and mismatch) and weld strength requirements
the weld-joint geometry. Distortion can result in induced (penetration, bead width, and material bias). The opti-
fit-up gaps or misaligned welds. mum focus position is typically that which yields the max-
Third, welding precision-manufactured components imum weld penetration.
that contain press-fit weld joints simplifies part loading
Surface modification
and fixturing requirements.
In laser heat treating, a material surface is selectively
And finally, the design of clamping geometry should
heated without melting or pouring in excessive heat. This
permit access to the shielding nozzle.
process, also called transformation hardening, results in
General guidelines can help in material selection and
micro-structural changes that yield higher resistance to
preparation, joint design and tolerances, and tooling
wear in heat-treatable materials. The process relies on self
design. However, sample trial welding of prototype com-
quenching, therefore it must have sufficient material to
ponents and assemblies is the best way to determine weld-
reach the required cooling rates. As a result, laser heat
ing feasibility, required materials or part design changes,
treating may not be suitable for thin materials or small
and significant tooling requirements.
components. As a guide, for a case depth of 0.020 inch
Shielding and plasma suppression (0.5 mm), about 4 inches (100 mm) per minute can be
CO2 laser welding, like arc welding, usually requires hardened for every kilowatt of laser power.
an inert shielding gas to protect the weld against oxida- Except for single-phase stainless steels, and certain
tion and atmospheric contamination. For CO2 laser weld- types of cast iron, most common steels, stainless steels,
ing, the shielding gas also serves to suppress the plasma and cast irons can be surface hardened. A maximum case
created by the high energy beam, which, if left unchecked, depth (air quench) of about 0.020 inch (0.5 mm) can be
would absorb the energy and stop the welding. The most produced in low carbon steels (0.08%-0.30% carbon), and
frequently used gases are helium and argon, or some mix- about 0.040 inch (1.00 mm) in medium and high carbon
ture of the two. steels (0.35%-0.80% carbon). In both cases, the maximum
Nd:YAG laser welding creates no such plasma, and hardness depends on carbon content.
consequently may not need any shield gas. The material Alloy and tool steels are the most desirable steels to
and weld configuration will need to be considered careful- laser-harden due to alloying elements such as manganese,
Table 4.1
COMPARISON TO CONVENTIONAL PROCESSES
Characteristics Laser Electron Resistance Gas Friction Capacitive
Beam Spot Tungsten Arc Discharge
Weld quality Excellent Excellent Fair Good Good Excellent
Weld speed High High Moderate Moderate Moderate Very High
Heat input into welded part Low Low Moderate Very High Moderate Low
Weld joint fit-up requirements High High Low Low Moderate High
Weld penetration High High Low Moderate High Low
Range of dissimilar materials Wide Wide Narrow Narrow Wide Wide
Range of part geometries/sizes Wide Moderate Wide Wide Narrow Narrow
Controllability Very Good Good Fair Fair Moderate Moderate
Ease of automation Excellent Moderate Excellent Fair Good Good
Initial costs High High Low Low Moderate High
Operating/maintenance costs Moderate High Moderate Low Low Moderate
Tooling costs High Very High Moderate Moderate Low Very High

molybdenum, boron, and chrome. Case depths of up to A laser beam is directed onto the workpiece by a focus
0.120 inch (3.00 mm) are achievable, while maximum mirror, which can be static, scanning, or segmented. The
hardness again depends strongly on carbon content. All clad material is introduced into the interaction zone by
cast irons with pearlitic structures can be hardened. one of three typical methods. First, and most common,
However, due to uneven carbon distribution, some surface the clad material in powdered form can be sprayed onto
melting can occur. the material at or adjacent to the interaction point.
Laser heat treating has been established as a reliable Secondly, the clad material in solid form can be wire fed
production process in the hardening of diesel cylinder lin- into the interaction zone. Third, it can be pre-placed in
ers, truck axles, automotive steering gear housings, trans- solid or powdered form onto the substrate component.
mission gears, and many other industrial components. Clad areas requiring widths wider than a single clad bead
Hard-facing, also called cladding, is a process where a can be hard-faced by overlapping single beads.
special alloy layer is fused onto a softer metal base to A comparison of laser welding to other conventional
improve its resistance to wear and corrosion. Although processes is provided in Table 4.1.
conventional and plasma-arc energy sources are used for Case Studies
hard-facing, focusing of the laser beam yields many Case Study 1: Laser Welding of Motor Laminations
advantages over other techniques. In the production of electric motors, stacks of lamina-
Lasers produce a highly controllable clad surface, tions must be transferred while maintaining their orienta-
yielding near-net shape clad geometries that require sig- tion. The conventional TIG welding process is a low speed,
nificantly less post-clad machining. In addition, they add high heat input process which alters the electrical proper-
little heat, producing minimum dilution between the ties of the assembly, and can cause significant mechanical
coating and the base metal as well as minimal part distor- distortion and rotational imbalance. The small focus spot
tion. Deposition can also be limited to given regions diameter of laser beam welding results is a deep, narrow
resulting in less waste of coating material. weld, which reduces the affect on the electrical, mechani-
The rapid cooling rate associated with the high power cal, and dynamic properties of the welded laminations to
densities of laser hard-facing maximize the wear charac- a minimum. Laser welding also increases productivity as
teristics of the coating materials. And the process is easi- compared to the TIG welding process. Weld speeds of up
ly automated with programmable parameters. to 100 inches (2.5 meters) per minute are readily achieved.
Case Study2: Laser Welding of Transmission Components transmission component materials which would be nearly
The tight tolerances required of transmission components impossible with other techniques.
demand welds which minimize the distortion of the final Case Study 3: Laser Cladding of Valve Seats
assembly. This limits the choice of welding processes to Conventional arc sources used in cladding operations input
either electron beam or laser welding. Experience in extreme amounts of heat into the component, resulting in
industrial applications has shown that electron beam both high dilution and component distortion. Laser cladding
welders have high amounts of downtime, and are expen- was chosen over other energy sources because the ability to
sive to maintain. Additionally, the necessity of welding in tightly focus the laser beam produces a concentrated spot of
a vacuum with the electron beam increases cycle time due energy that not only minimizes heat input and component
to the associated pump downtimes. A 5 kW laser can pro- distortion, but also maximizes the metallurgical character-
duce 0.100 inch (2.5 mm) weld penetration at about 120 istics and process flexibility. Valve seats are ideal candidates
inches (3 meters) per minute weld speed. Runout and con- for laser cladding, due to the ease with which the process
centricity can generally be held to within 0.002 inch (0.05 can be automated, combined with the superior wear resis-
mm) TIR with appropriate fixturing. Additionally, laser tance. Coverage rates of up to 25 grams per minute are
welding allows the joining of some combinations of readily achieved with a 5 kW laser. ■
An Introduction to
Laser Drilling
aser drilling has found successful manufacturing vide mechanical energy to aid in removing the laser-melt-

L applications in the automotive, aerospace, ener-


gy, electronics, medical, and consumer goods
industries. Lasers make it possible to machine
very small holes, unusual shaped holes, and precisely
tapered holes. They are used to drill holes at steep angles,
ed metal.
Nd:YAG lasers are the predominant type used in laser
drilling, although CO2 lasers have also found many suc-
cessful applications, particularly in non-metals. Excimer
lasers are also appropriate for precise applications in pro-
and to process difficult-to-machine materials. A single cessing materials such as thin films.
setup can produce hundreds of different sizes over a 3D The two types of laser drilling processes are percus-
surface. sion drilling, where the hole diameter is determined by the
Some of the main benefits of laser drilling include: focused beam diameter, and trepanning, where the beam is
■ Non-contact drilling (no tool wear or breakage, no moved to cut out the hole.
material distortion)
■ Highly accurate and consistent results Percussion drilling
■ Precise control of heat input Percussion drilling is typically used for production
■ Ability to produce small diameter holes with high drilling. In the classic application, the laser beam and part
aspect ratios are stationary while one or more pulses are delivered to the
■ Ease of programming and ready adaptability to workpiece to produce the hole.
automation A variation of the percussion drilling technique is the
■ Increased production rates with faster setup times “drill-on-the-fly”process in which the pulses are delivered
and less tooling while the laser beam is moving relative to the workpiece. If
■ Flexibility in changeovers (for prototypes and low- multiple pulses are required to make the hole or holes, the
volume, small-lot manufacturing) motion system and laser pulsing are synchronized so sub-
■ Versatility (the same tool can also be used for cut- sequent pulses are delivered to the same location. This
ting and welding applications) process is used to increase the rate of hole production.
■ Capacity for a high degree of beam manipulation Holes from about 0.008 inch (0.2 mm) to 0.035 inch
(including the ability to drill at shallow angles (0.875 mm) can typically be percussion drilled in material
and to drill shaped holes) thickness of up to 1.00 inch (25mm) with standard high-
■ Ability to process a wide range of materials power drilling lasers. The longest possible focal length
In the laser-drilling process, the high power density should be chosen for materials thicker than 0.150 inch
(on the order of 107 W/cm2) is produced by a combina- (3.75 mm). For thinner materials, the lens that produces
tion of the high laser output power (greater than 500 W) the minimum taper should be selected.
and a tightly focused spot size of 0.002 inch (0.05 mm) to The laser is a versatile tool providing a high degree of
0.012 inch (0.3 mm). A high-pressure gas flow through a control and adaptability to available parameters and fea-
nozzle coincident with the laser beam may be used to pro- tures to produce particular results. For example, the pulse
energy, pulse count, and focal length of the lens can be Both processes can be tailored to produce a wide
varied to produce a hole with less taper and better unifor- range of shapes and cross-sections other than round holes,
mity. A shorter focal length will help if taper is excessive. although trepanning provides greater flexibility. Strictly
If the hole has reverse taper, either the energy is too great speaking, there is a line where trepanning drilling
or the focal length is too short. Pulse shaping can also be becomes laser cutting. A rule of thumb is that the term
used to improve taper. “drilling” is appropriate until the hole diameter exceeds
In general, material thickness of over 0.150 inch one-fourth the material thickness. For example, a 0.38
(3.75 mm) may require more than a single pulse with high inch (9.5 mm) diameter hole is a drilled hole in materials
peak power and high pulse energy to produce a hole. For thicker than 1.5 inch (37.5 mm). In thinner materials,
small-diameter holes, lower energy pulses will produce this is considered a laser-cut hole.
better quality. Deep holes are best drilled with maximum
Capabilities
energy and oxygen assist gas.
The capabilities of laser drilling for both CO2 and
Trepanning Nd:YAG are summarized in Table 5.1. Laser drilling is
Trepanning involves producing a hole or feature by most noted for its ability to produce holes of small diam-
contour cutting the feature shape. Trepanning is selected eters (less than 0.002 inch) (0.5mm); high aspect ratios
over percussion drilling for producing: (greater than 10:1); and shallow angles (10 degrees), in a
■ Larger holes wide range of metals and non-metals. Precise control of
■ Holes with less taper heat input allows features to be drilled closely to each
■ Shaped features other, which is especially important for miniaturization.
■ Greater hole consistency

Table 5.1
LASER DRILLING
CO2 Nd:YAG
Parameter Trepanning Percussion Trepanning Percussion
Thicknesses, maximum
■ metals .........................................0.25 inch for A1 alloys (6.25 mm)........... 1 inch for all metals
to (25 mm)
0.5 inch for mild steel (12.5 mm)
■ plastic......................................................1 inch (25 mm) .....................................................not applicable
■ organic composites ............................. 0.5 inch (12.5 mm) ..................................................not applicable
■ ceramics.............................................. 0.1 inch (25 mm) .....................................................not applicable
Hole Diameter, Min. ...................... 0.015 inch........................ 0.004 inch .................... 0.015 inch....................... 0.006 inch
(0.375 mm) (0.1 mm) (0.375 mm) (0.15 mm)
Maximum Depth to ............................ 0.3T................................. 0.1T ............................. 0.3T ............................... 0.05T
Diameter (Aspect) Ratio
Diameter Tolerance.......................... ±0.001 ............................. ±0.002.......................... ±0.001 ............................ ±0.002
(0.025 mm) (0.050 mm) (0.025 mm) (0.050 mm)
Taper.................................................... 1˚ ..................................... 2˚ ..................................1˚..................................... 2˚
Edge Finish, Ra ............................ 120µ inch......................... 250µ inch...................... 80µ inch ........................ 200µ inch
(3µ meter) (6.25µ meter) (2µ meter) (5µ meter)
Angles ................................................to 45 degrees off the surface......................................to 10 degrees off the surface

Capabilities of laser drilling with both CO2 and Nd:YAG lasers


Table 5.2
PROCESS
Electrical Discharge Photochemical
Characteristic Laser Machining (EDM) Machining (PCM) Mechanical
Tooling................................ CNC Program .................... Electrode ............................... Artwork ............................ Hard Tool
Range of Materials......... Metals, Non-Metals .................. Metals................................... Metals ..................... Metals, Non-Metals
Drilling rates........................... Moderate ............................ Low ...................................... High .................................. High
Minimum diameter................. 0.002 inch .......................0.012 inch ...........................1X Thickness ................... 1.5X Thickness
(0.05 mm) (0.03 mm)
Aspect ratio ................................ 10:1 ................................ 20:1 ....................................... 1:1 .....................................1:1
Edge finish/burr......................... Good............................ Excellent .............................. Excellent ........................ Fair to Good
(some remelt, burr) (parent metal burr)
Complex shapes .........................Yes...................................Yes ..................................... Limited.................................. No

Comparison of laser drilling with other drilling processes


One of the major advantages of laser drilling is its inch (25 mm) deep holes ( a 16:1 aspect ratio) in the high
flexibility. It can be applied to a wide range of materials temperature alloy, Nimonic. The trepanning technique is
and used to produce a wide range of shapes and patterns, used to produce the holes. Once this is complete, the laser
all defined within a CNC program. Since the tooling is a system contours a circular path offset by one-half the cut
part program, laser drilling is frequently used for small- kerf width. Dimensional repeatability of the holes is +/-
lot size manufacturing, including single parts, and flexible 0.003 inch (0.075 mm). Drilling time has also been
manufacturing. A comparison of laser drilling to the lead- reduced from five minutes per hole to less than two min-
ing competitive processes is shown in Table 5.2. utes with the laser process.
Although the hole quality from more traditional Case study 3. Machining Shaped Features in Ceramics
drilling methods can exceed those of laser drilling, laser With ceramics, features such as holes are usually produced
processes are often the only technically feasible approach during the casting process, or machined while the ceramic
to a unique manufacturing problem and are often the most is in its softer, unfired (or“green”) state. Since fired ceram-
cost-effective. Lasers have helped manufacturers reduce ics are too brittle to punch or pierce, chip cutting and mechan-
production costs, reduce time-to-market, and produce ical drilling are not practical, and the EDM process cannot
new and more competitive designs. be applied to the non-conductive material. A supplier to a major
U.S. microcomputer manufacturer required a pattern of
Case Studies precisely drilled, and spaced, funnel-shaped holes in a 1.50
Case Study 1: Drilling in Sheet Metal Components inch (38.1 mm) square area in 0.125 inch (3.2 mm) thick
A major U.S. aircraft manufacturer has reduced the time ceramic. Laser drilling is used to produce these holes, which
to drill cooling flow holes in turbine engine combustors, are used to guide the pins of a microprocessor chip into
from eight hours to two hours, by replacing the previous place as the chip is inserted into a printed circuit board. The
EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) process with laser laser drilling process involves positioning the beam in a con-
drilling. The laser is used to produce 0.095 inch (2.4 mm) ical pattern to produce the first portion of the hole. The
diameter holes in 0.06 inch (1.5 mm) thick Hasteloy X, a through-hole is then laser drilled from the opposite side.
Nickel-based heat resistant alloy. The part program which controlled a five-axis positioning sys-
Case Study 2: Deep Hole Drilling tem to produce the complex motion path was created in less
Laser drilling has been adopted as an alternative to than thirty minutes. ■
mechanical drilling in the production of parts for land-
based power generation turbines. A pulsed Nd:YAG laser
is used to produce 0.06 inch (1.5 mm) diameter by 1.00
GLOSSARY
Aspect Ratio The ratio of the depth of a hole to its diameter.
Assist Gas A variety of gases which are applied to the working point of the base on the materi-
al to assist the laser process (also referred to as “cover gas”or “shield gas”). (see also
“Coaxial Gas”)
Average Output Power In a pulsed laser, the total energy per pulse times the number of pulses per second,
typically expressed in Watts (joules per second).
Beam Angle The angle at which the laser beam strikes the work surface.
Beam Divergence The angle at which the laser beam spreads out to expand in diameter, measured over
a distance.
CO2 Laser A gas laser in which the energy-state transitions between vibrational and rotational
states of carbon dioxide molecules give emission at 10.6µm wavelength.
Coaxial Gas The method of delivering an assist gas along the same axis, and comingled, with the
laser beam.
Coherent Light Light waves that move in phase. The coherent property of laser light allows smaller
focus beams and higher power densities (also see “Monochromatic”).
Conduction Welding A weld made at a power density insufficient to cause key hole welding.
Continuous Wave (CW) The production of a continuous, steady level of laser energy (as opposed to pulsed
operation).
Cover Gas (See “Assist Gas”)
Depth of Focus The range centered about the focus point in which the focus spot increases in diame-
ter no more than 10%.
Direct Drilling A single-pulse, single hole process (also see “Percussion Drilling”).
Dross Melted material which is reformed and adheres to the bottom of a hole or a cut.
Focal Length The distance from the focusing optic to the focal point.
Focal Point The point at which the light rays refracted by a lens, or reflected by a mirror, inter-
sect and produce the highest concentration of energy.
Gallium Arsenide A crystalline material that is almost 100% transparent to the wavelength of light
produced by a CO2 laser, used as focusing lenses and transmission windows.
Galvanometer An instrument with a mirror attached to a rotating coil to cause a spot of light to
move along a path at very high speeds.
Heat Affected Zone (HAZ) The area extending beyond the laser produced feature, which shows a residual
effect from the heat generated by the process.
Hole Taper The angle of the walls of the drilled hole, measured from the true perpendicular.
Joule A measurement of energy. One joule is equal to one Newton meter.
Kerf The measurement of the width of a cut.
Keyhole Welding A weld made at a power density sufficient enough to melt and vaporize the material
at the interaction point thereby producing a hole or cavity. The formation of a key
hole makes possible deep penetration laser welding of metals.
LASER Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
Monochromatic Light of a single wavelength. Allows the maximum coupling of energy into materi-
als that absorb the particular wavelength.
Nd:YAG Laser A solid state laser which uses a rod of yttrium-aluminum-garnet doped with
neodymium that is activated by a flash lamp to give emission at 1.06µm wavelength.
Output Power The measurement of energy produced by the laser, typically measured in watts for
continuous wave lasers, and in joules for pulsed lasers (see also “Average Output
Power”).
Peak Power The maximum instantaneous power produced by pulsing the laser.
Percussion Drilling The method of producing a hole by delivering a laser pulse, or multiple pulses, to the
same location.
Photon A quantum of light energy having both particle and wave behavior.
Plasma The ionized gas from which laser energy is released in a gas-type laser (also the ion-
ized gas which is produced at the point of work by the material interaction with the
laser beam).
Power Density The amount of laser power within a unit area, typically expressed in watts per square
centimeter.
Power Ramping A controlled change of the laser power, either up or down to produce a desired result
on the material.
Pulse A single, short duration burst of energy, achieved by turning the pumping source on
and off at the desired rate, or by the use of Q-switching or other beam modulation
techniques.
Pulse Energy The total energy contained in a single laser pulse. This can be much higher than that
of continuous wave operation (see also “Peak Power”).
Pulsed Laser A laser which emits light in a series of pulses rather than continuously (see also
“Continuous Wave”).
Pulse Rate The number of pulses produced per second (expressed in Hz or kHz).
Pulse Shaping The ability to control the energy distribution within a laser pulse, typically by divid-
ing the pulse into a number of sectors, in order to optimize the interaction with the
material, or to produce a desired result.
Pulse Width Also known as pulse length, this is the time or duration of the pulse emitted by a
pulsed laser (typically expressed in milliseconds).
Q-Switched A device, usually quartz crystal, inserted into a CW resonator that “holds it closed”
while energy builds. Applying an RF signal to the crystal “opens”the resonator
releasing a high energy pulse.
Resonator The mirror system, internal to the laser, that reflects most of the generated laser
light back into the lasing material to produce amplification, while allowing a por-
tion to exit as the resultant laser output beam.
Reverse Taper Holes which have a smaller entrance (top) diameter than the exit (bottom) diameter.
Vector Graphic A graphic image consisting of point-to-point lines.
Watt A measurement of output power. One watt is equal to one joule per second.
Wavelength The distance an electromagnetic wave travels during one cycle of oscillation, typical-
ly expressed in micrometers.
Zinc Selenide A crystalline material that is almost 100% transparent to the wavelength of light
produced by a CO2 laser, used as focusing lenses and transmission windows.
MEMBERS OF THE LASER SYSTEMS PRODUCT GROUP (1998)
Bob Zimmerman, LSPG Chairman
Process Equipment Company
Tipp City, Ohio

Sarah Christensen
Potomac Photonics, Inc.
Lanham, Maryland

Mike Del Busso


Lumonics
Eden Prairie, Minnesota

Dave Forstrom
Lasercut, Incorporated
N. Branford, Connecticut

David Havrilla
Rofin Sinar Inc.
Plymouth, Michigan

Kevin Laughlin
Strippit, Inc., A Unit of IDEX Corp.
Akron, New York

Keith Leuthold
Mazak Nissho Iwai
Schaumburg, Illinois

David G. Plourde
Laser Machining, Inc.
Somerset, Wisconsin

Peter Riehle
Trumpf Inc.
Farmington, Connecticut

James Rutt
P R C Corporation
Landing, New Jersey

Richard L. Stevenson
Control Laser Corp
Orlando, Florida

Ancel Thompson
Amada America Inc.
Buena Park, California

Paul Warndorf, LSPG Secretary


AMT — The Association For Manufacturing Technology
McLean, Virginia

© AMT 1998 798VRS8