Flexible manufacturing with lasers

By Dave MacLellan, AILU executive director

Selective laser melting

The trend towards light-weighting for improving energy efficiency of transportation vehicles lends itself ideally to laser manufacturing. Lasers can cut, weld, clean and engrave virtually all metals – and the trend towards digital manufacturing reduces labour costs and required training levels. Innovative construction of laser cut and welded assemblies results in significant weight reduction without compromising strength or safety in crash-test results. As the power and wall plug efficiency

of laser cutting and welding systems has continued to increase, it is becoming more practical to consider laser cutting, CNC folding and robotic laser welding in the manufacturing of vehicles for the 21st century. Not only are the applications suited to car body (BIW) metalwork, but also to 3D printing. The march towards electric vehicles is creating demand for laser welding in the manufacture and interconnection of cells for electric cars, trucks, and future aircraft propulsion.

Growing market In the early 1990s there were a relatively small number of laser job shops – in the UK, perhaps 200 or so, with the bulk of

Square tube cutting

them offering flat sheet profiling with high- power CO2 lasers and not much else. Today there are at least five times the number of organisations equipped with in-house flatbed laser cutting machines – many offering a service, as well as satisfying their own capacity. In the UK there are now sales of 150 to 200 high-power (multi-kW) laser

“In the UK there are now sales of 150 to 200 high-power laser cutting machines per year”

cutting machines per year, with the product mix more than 95 per cent fibre laser – a few CO2 laser systems are being sold where there is a requirement to cut wood, plastic or other non-metals. As well as the well-known laser cutting job shops, there are a significant number of subcontractors offering laser marking or engraving, and a smaller number offering laser welding – often niche suppliers in the automotive, aerospace, jewellery or nuclear markets offering pulsed or CW laser welding, with or without filler material.

Thick metal cutting

Laser is the new normal A lack of training for skilled welders (many of the most experienced welders are nearing or beyond normal retirement age) is creating a skills shortage worldwide, whilst desire for


cost reduction, repeatability and short lead times is resulting in an increased uptake in automation. Whilst many different processes (such as TIG, MIG, plasma or electron-beam welding) can be automated, the benefits of choosing a laser source as the tool of choice are clearer as the technology matures.

AILU workshops – thick and thin There are two AILU events coming up in the autumn which will be of interest to those vehicle manufacturers looking to add laser processes to their supply chain, and there are opportunities to network with experts and explore the state of the art in laser manufacturing: On 19 September at Queens University

Belfast, AILU is holding a workshop for the transportation sector, including off-highway vehicles, trucks and trailers, maritime and rail. Presenters will illustrate with case studies the improvements in laser welding (and hybrid welding) in joining thick section metals. Laser cutting is also able to achieve the economic edge in thicker metals, and with better edge quality than plasma cutting, there is typically minimal (if any) finishing required before welding. On 3 October at Mini Plant Oxford, AILU is holding the Annual Job Shop Laser Business Meeting. It’s a chance to find out more about grants and initiatives to reduce cost and become greener, as well as an update from machinery suppliers, and feedback of our laser breakdown response survey results, which gives the annual independent yardstick of supplier performance in regard to looking after flatbed cutting systems. l

Find more information visit: or contact AILU at: +44 1235 539595





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