No holes in modern laser cutting story

When CO2 laser cutting machines made their debut on the metal fabricating scene in a big way in the 1980s, people wondered about the future of the punch press. How could traditional punching technology compete with a machine tool that required no tooling to create holes and shapes?

Well, history has shown that CO2 laser cutting wasn’t the end of punching. In fact, precision punch presses still remain the technology of choice for those fabricators that produce a high volume of blanks with consistently sized punchouts. Laser cutting machines have emerged, on the other hand, as more flexible fabricating tools. Each contributes in a unique way to the success of a job shop.

But as more metal fabricators look to eliminate material handling of parts during production, they are seeking to accomplish more tasks while the blank sits in the bed of the machine tool. It’s one of the reasons fabricators are pushing their laser cutting machines to provide that most basic of fabricating activities: hole cutting.

A metal fabricator may need to create some perforated sheet, but doesn’t have the volume necessary to use a punch press; in this case, the laser can quickly knock out the holes and complete the job. Or perhaps the shop wants precisely cut holes to accommodate tapping or create a through-hole for some sort of support piece for the final assembly; in this case, the laser cutting machine’s ability to deliver a high-tolerance hole eliminates secondary drilling activities down the line.

These modern fabricating machines can accomplish such tasks thanks to advances in drive technology, piercing capabilities, and control software. These aren’t the machines from 20 years ago, which might have struggled with inconsistent beam delivery and with the effects of ambient heat on consistency. Today’s machines are up for the whole task of hole cutting in thin materials.

Drive to Cut Better
If a laser cutting machine is to deliver a high-tolerance hole, the cutting head needs to be in the correct position. “The more precise you can position your laser beam, the more precise is your hole,” said Stefan Fickenscher, TRUMPF’s product manager, 2-D laser cutting.

The same principle applies to punch presses.

“Realistically, it would be the same thing with a punching machine—how accurately you would position the sheet in turn relates to how accurately the hole would be positioned in the part. It’s a matter of moving the cutting head,” said Brian Welz, TRUMPF’s applications manager.

For many years ball screw-driven technology powered the cutting head over the laser cutting machine bed. The technology proved very effective in precisely positioning the cutting head where it needed to be. Keith Leuthold, director of inside sales, Mazak Optonics, put the positioning accuracy of a ball screw-driven system at approximately ±0.0004 inch.

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