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Laser Processing Is Having Its Moment

Oct 22, 2023

Improvements in efficiency and scaling make laser processing a preferred choice for manufacturers.

Lasers in industry have come a long way since their invention and subsequent deployment in the 1960s. What were once viewed as potentially hazardous to the health of humans—the moniker "death ray" was common—these tools have evolved to become some of the most effective ways for manufacturers to cut and mark materials once deemed too fragile to touch.

In the aerospace industry, for example, initially there was concern that using lasers to mark would change the structural integrity of parts, which could have catastrophic consequences for the finished product.

Today, lasers are no longer considered "a solution in need of a problem" but, as many have put it, a solution that can be deployed to assist those who work in various industries, such as science, technology, and medicine. Thanks to their ability to cut clean edges without creating areas on a material that take away from its original composition, lasers are fast showing how they can lead to more profits and greater efficiency.

Thanks in part to recalls disrupting how suppliers and manufacturers do business, the need for better ways to track and trace parts has accelerated, becoming one of the more important steps companies take when building parts or assembling entire products in their factories.

This is where, ahem, lasers can shine.

When it comes to building products, oftentimes, many suppliers are involved in the process, all providing different parts to the end product. In order to track those parts, companies used barcodes that had to be read by humans. This meant the barcodes had to be legible and validated, which could also lead to confusion when relying upon employees to read them.

The shift came when companies realized lasers were the solution, using barcodes directly and permanently affixed on parts. This made tracking parts easier, especially in the case of recalls. With a legible, permanent laser-marked barcode on the part, it was no issue tracing parts back to the original supplier.

The automotive industry has taken laser marking a step further by marking parts to ensure they are added to the right product. A car on an assembly line, for instance, might have parts that are laser marked to tell the system the right door or engine is being installed, and when it needs to be installed. This allows for an automated process for reading the barcode so the right part goes in.

In the medical field, doctors and their staff need to make sure every tool brought into the surgical theater is accounted for when the operation is complete. By having barcodes etched into their implements and devices, a simple scan allows them to ensure they didn't leave anything behind or, worse, inside the patient.

"There is a lot of information that needs to be captured in a barcode, and we’re seeing, increasingly, that laser marking is the easiest way to deliver this information to the end user," said Nicholas Kaczmarski, national sales manager, Beamer Laser Marking Solutions, Flushing, Mich. "It does make for an easier process when a company needs to track or trace products that may have been deployed a long time ago."

Beamer Laser Marking works closely with clients to ensure they can utilize all that a laser marking system has to offer. Whether it's a mom-and-pop shop with just a few projects, or a large OEM with high volume, its products are created to benefit each company's unique needs.

"As lasers become more commonplace in manufacturing, we envision a time when all industries are tuned into how it can benefit them," added Kaczmarski. "Even aerospace, which was understandably cautious at first, is coming around to the idea that laser marking is the way to go when they need to mark up their parts and products."

It has become a challenge to give manufacturers the peace of mind to go it alone with their laser processing projects.

For a long time, companies such as Marubeni Citizen-Cincom Inc., Allendale, N.J., watched customers take parts off the assembly line in order to mark them up, which wasted time and money.

To show customers how to properly deploy a laser marker or cutter into their processes, suppliers understood they needed to give users the confidence to do it in-house. Customers needed to embrace the idea of installing the laser directly on to the assembly line, which would solve this problem.

"Typically, customers were milling and drilling their products to completion and then moving to a machine that was dedicated to laser processing to do the cutting or ablation that was required," explained Randy Nickerson, laser products manager, Marubeni Citizen-Cincom. "With our solutions, you can literally cut a section out of the assembly line and install an axis machine that does the laser processing as part of the manufacturing process, saving heaps of time and money for our customers."

Marubeni Citizen-Cincom has a host of options for customers that want to bring their laser processing in-house, Nickerson noted. In particular, the company sees a lot of value being brought to the medical industry that is in the throes of creating tubing for medical devices and instruments.

"When we started as a company, a 400-Watt laser was pretty intense for the time," Nickerson noted. "Now we can tout a 3,000-Watt laser that is more accurate and precise, which means our customers can see results that meet their exact measures."

As more companies start to insert laser processing capabilities directly into their tooling work, the ability to gain confidence should increase as they understand how it can be rolled into their everyday work. By partnering with a company like Marubeni Citizen-Cincom, they are able to take advantage of a machining complex that can be used for a wide range of applications.

Manufacturing companies have benefited greatly from laser marking in-house for part traceability and branding. As the industry progresses, it's only natural for manufacturers to look for advancements that will further optimize their production processes.

"There is a growing need for vision-assisted marking to locate and inspect parts after they have been processed," said Clinton Coleman, Trumpf Inc.'s TruMark product manager. "By using image processing systems, manufactures can reduce the cost of expensive fixtures and automate processes, reducing operator error."

With Trumpf's image processor, VisionLine, manufacturers can detect complex part geometries 360°. Additionally, VisionLine can read and evaluate 1D and 2D barcodes as well as OCR-type fonts. This allows for full traceability of parts as well as in-line quality inspection.

There are a growing number of labeling requirements especially in the medical field with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's strict standards. This has led to the need to mark complex part geometries.

"With a traditional laser marker utilizing a 2D CAD software, programming a mark around a complex 3D geometry is extremely complicated and time consuming," Coleman asserted, citing "the change in focus throughout the part, influencing spot size, as well as trying to compensate for distortion that would occur on a curved or slanted surface."

Farmington, Conn.-based Trumpf found a solution to this problem, recently unveiling its TruMark 6030 laser marking system. The laser runs on a full 3D-CAD editor called TruTops Mark 3D. The software allows the programmer to import a 3D model of a part and project a 2D image around it. Automatically compensating for changes in focus and distortion, which would otherwise occur in a traditional marking software. It's even possible to process a cylindrical part up to 160° without having to rotate it.

The 3D software is not the only significant feature of the TruMark 6030.

Excellent beam quality paired with high average power and pulse energy cuts process times by up to 25 percent, the company said. Highly reflective materials such as brass, copper, and aluminum can be marked with high contrast and speeds.

ABS, POM, PC, PEEK, PA, and many more plastics can be marked on the TruMark 6030 with good quality due to the innovative design of the laser power control. Using an external modulator, the power can be linear scaled between 1 and 100 percent. This allows the operator to fine tune the heat input into the plastic to get the perfect marking result every time.

It's obvious that laser cutting and marking provide a number of benefits for companies in a wide range of industries. From automotive to aerospace, lasers are built to make manufacturing easier without the worry of unnecessary waste, material compromise, or slow turnaround times, not to mention the versatility and reduction in power needed to run these tools.It's with this in mind that laser processing is having its moment, and it isn't expected to slow anytime soon as companies become more comfortable around the technology and adopt it for broader applications.

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Brad Marley Improvements in efficiency and scaling make laser processing a preferred choice for manufacturers.