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5 traits of top laser cutting operators

Oct 11, 2023

Cody Langland, laser and forming manager at Preferred Welding LLC in Holland, Mich., undergoes training for the shop's new 20-kW laser.

You did the research, crunched the numbers, crisscrossed the country attending demos and visiting showrooms, and talked to customers of every manufacturer. You made your choice and wrote that million-dollar check for your fiber laser cutter with visions of high productivity dancing in your head. But six months later, your actual output is half of what was promised. What went wrong?

The problem is probably not with your machine. You spent hours selecting the right technology, but how much time did you put into considering the person who operates your expensive investment?

Selecting the best possible laser operator is equally important as choosing the best possible machine. Having a topnotch operator is the key to realizing the optimum production you are expecting. The industry's best operators aren't mere button-pushers. They champion the laser cutting process, and the most elite among them share five principal traits.

Someone just interested in punching a time clock is not the person you want running your machine. You want someone committed to learning a trade. The laser is a machine tool just like a lathe, grinder, or machining center. Operators of that equipment are skilled machinists because of the time, effort, and knowledge it takes to become proficient. Your laser operator needs to be thought of in those same terms. Find an individual dedicated to reaching that level of expertise with your laser.

Operator skill has become even more important as fabricators invest in ever-more-productive and -powerful equipment. The throughput of ultrahigh-powered fiber lasers and their associated automation can be phenomenal—until a laser head crashes or the forks of material handling automation jam as they try to lift a sheet of cut parts stuck to slats thick with slag. When a laser system crashes, an entire factory can grind to a halt.

Laser operators are a company's first line of defense against this, and their keen eyes help detect and prevent problems. They know the importance of maintaining optimal cutting conditions that can mitigate distortion as well as minimize or even eliminate the need for secondary operations like part deburring and leveling. They know the importance of head-collision-prevention strategies, such as when the head traverses around, not over, previously cut portions of the nest that are prone to tip-ups.

They also know that swapping the cover glass in the cutting head should be done with the utmost care and attention to cleanliness. And cover glass swaps certainly shouldn't happen daily. If a shop burns through more cover glasses than it can count, something in the laser cutting department is awry.

Have cutting parameter defaults been adjusted? For instance, some operators might monitor the temperature of the cover glass in the cutting head. To accommodate, they might fine-tune the focus or perhaps the assist gas flow to keep cutting edges as pristine as possible. After months of use, of course, a cover glass will need to be changed. When it is, though, are cutting parameters returned to their established defaults, or were those defaults changed? Even a machine with a pristine cover glass can cut poor edges simply because operators haven't reset their cutting parameters.

Is spatter controlled and the head position optimized so the cover glass lasts as long as possible? How efficiently and easily can parts be denested? All these variables and more require unceasing attention to detail—again, similar to a highly trained machinist operating a mill or lathe.

Your laser is a complicated piece of equipment. Operators should have mechanical aptitude to both run and maintain your laser. They should be able to troubleshoot issues that arise at some level of detail rather than simply calling the maintenance department.

Alex Carrier of Pequea Machine in New Holland, Pa., shows off his new T- shirt.

The best laser operator I know runs two 10-kW fiber lasers side by side connected to a common automation/tower system, and he keeps them humming all day long. He takes it personally if they go down, and he is the go-to guy for troubleshooting for the firm's second plant.

The best laser operators connect details in the context of an overall system: nesting and programming, machine cleanliness and condition, and the condition of gases and cooling. Consider the machine's cooling system. Operators don't need to be physicists or masters of fluid dynamics, but they do need to appreciate the need for chiller maintenance and the fact that water flowing through the machine (especially a fiber laser) needs a certain level of conductivity as it passes through components. If the coolant's makeup isn't as it should be, it can actually start corroding components of the fiber laser.

Many modern machines have systems that monitor the cooling and give warnings and alarms. Good operators know that fiber lasers shouldn't run for long periods in the warning range. And they also know that if time were allowed for cleaning (more on this later), the cooling system's condition wouldn't have entered warning territory in the first place.

Good operators also appreciate the role of gas, be it purge gas in the laser head (unless the head is entirely sealed) or assist gas that evacuates molten material from the kerf. Consider a situation in which everything seems to be humming along perfectly—but then, suddenly, everything stops. The operator knows the cutting program has been dialed in. The slats are clean, the bellows are free of holes, the drives are cleaned and well-lubricated. The laser head is sealed, so there's no purge gas to deal with. The cover glass is new, and the installation procedure was carefully followed to reduce the chance of contamination. The operator didn't treat the cover glass change like changing a tire.

What's left? The assist gas, which in this instance is coming from a nitrogen- generation system. After some detective-work, the operator finds traces of compressor oil in the assist gas lines. He's seen this happen before, too, with another fiber laser system cutting with ultradry shop air. Any system that uses a compressor uses oil, and if that oil gets into the assist gas lines, you can say goodbye to laser cutting perfection.

Note that I’m not knocking nitrogen generation or dried and filtered shop-air cutting. Both can be excellent sources of assist gas, and fabricators can have problems with liquid nitrogen, oxygen, and mixed gas systems too. The example simply shows that no mechanical system is perfect. Every technology has its challenges, and the best fab shops employ operators with the mechanical aptitude to deal with them all.

A fiber laser can pump out product at an extremely high rate, but it's not just the result of the speed of the machine. Your operator must be organized enough to ensure that the machine is running with maximum uptime.

Much of that depends on the way the laser workstation is organized and what supplies operators are given. All machine workstations need some basic tools, like Allen wrenches to remove the bellows for cleaning (more on this later); magnets to pull parts out and inspect edges; as well as hammers, which come in handy if operators need to dial in their cutting parameters. They might need to hit a problem part out of a nest and inspect the edges.

Your operators shouldn't need to share tools with the entire shop. They’re managing what is probably the most expensive machine on the floor, and it shouldn't be sitting idle as operators spend 20 minutes wandering the shop looking for the tools they need.

Operators must constantly be on top of the workload, be ready to load the next sheet, and have the next program ready to go while the machine is running the current job. They also should be able to schedule the necessary preventive maintenance around the workload to maximize production and keep the machine running optimally.

Brandon Brubaker of Raytec Fabricating, New Holland, Pa., replaces some worn bellows.

Another tool operators need at their workstation provides easy communication between the operator, maintenance techs, and the outside world: either a land line or good cell service. The last thing you want is for a call to drop as the operator inspects the machine interior for problems while he's on the phone with a technician. The machine enclosure can hinder a cell signal, which can seriously delay troubleshooting efforts. Operators end up walking outside the plant for a better signal, returning to the machine, then walking back outside to call a tech again—all while the shop's most expensive machine sits idle. Investing in a cellphone extender on the shop floor costs pennies compared to the downtime caused by a weak cell signal.

Lasers are dirty, and their output includes a large amount of filth. That is why it is crucial to find laser operators who know just how important it is to keep the machine as clean as possible. The best operators out there are no strangers to the shop vac.Fiber lasers with linear drives run on a carriage bearing system that has a central lubrication point. Ferromagnetic dust and grime build up on those bearings, which can be detrimental to fast-moving components. Bellows need to be inspected for holes, and bearings need to be cleaned regularly.

Even if your company has a crew to clean the laser on a regular schedule (which is highly recommended), operators are still the first line of defense against the onslaught of machine-crippling grime.

Cleaning regimens include no one's favorite job: slat cleaning. Dirty slats can affect everything from the performance of your automation to your cut quality. Cutting over slag-coated slats raises the risk of the skeleton or parts becoming welded to the grime underneath. When an automation system's lifting forks attempt to remove the cut skeleton, they can lift that sheet and the entire slat table with it. When that happens, the automation shuts down and the costs mount.

But slat cleaning need not be arduous, especially when it's done regularly. If it's performed once per shift, operators should be able to clean a set of table slats in less than 15 minutes. In most cases, they can get the job done while the laser is cutting material on the other table, especially if that nest involves a lengthy cutting cycle (like when cutting a nest of numerous small parts).

Maintaining uptime is the goal, and ideally, the laser should be idle only when operators and cleaning crews require access to the machine's work envelope. (Again, once-per-shift slat cleaning can occur while the machine is running.) And if the cleaning happens regularly, the downtime should be brief.

Some of the most productive and successful shops out there spend Friday afternoons cleaning their lasers. A few short hours of downtime prevent days and weeks of frustrating unpredictability that come with operating a dirty, poorly maintained machine. Operators and cleaning crews clean the bearings and the face of linear magnets. They remove the bellows, inspect them for holes, and vacuum the dust. They really can't get the laser too clean.

Every company has its own approach to maintenance. Regular Friday afternoon cleanings might not work for every operation. And the cleaning schedule can be tweaked to accommodate the occasional hot job or unforeseen circumstance. But the cleaning has to happen sometime, and regularly. Most important, good laser operators champion these efforts.

Your laser is a complex piece of equipment capable of generating significant revenue for your firm. It operates under certain parameters that are made more complex because of the many variables like gas pressure, focus, feed rate, and cornering speed. Successful, productive operators always want to learn how to enable the laser to turn out the best parts.

Lasers don't require geniuses to operate them, but they do need someone who is constantly willing to refine the skills needed to master the equipment. Equipment suppliers can set up your operator for success with a basic training program and ongoing support when needed. But the level of expertise and success operators achieve largely depends on their willingness to constantly learn about the machine.

This rag is set to be used during a scheduled deep-cleaning regimen. It's not as eye-catching as a laser making its first pierce, but it's just as important.

Think of a new laser as a musical instrument. It may be of the highest quality and be finely tuned, but getting beautiful music from it depends on the commitment and skill of the musician you select to play it.

Your fiber laser can deliver the production and revenue you expect, but it cannot do it alone. Dedicated, curious, and conscientious operators enable your machine to reach its full potential.

An ultrahigh-power laser speeds around a contoured cut. Note the condition of the slats underneath. Regular cleaning minimizes slag buildup, increasing the quality and consistency of cutting.