Explore the precision of laser welding for complex and delicate industrial tasks.

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Advanced Laser Welding: To Be Precise

Welding traces its roots back to the 5th century BCE (and arguably earlier), and while the core concept of heating materials until they fuse together has never changed, the methods and technologies used to perform welding have advanced many times over. The most recent evolution of welding technology – laser beam welding - has recently entered mainstream use.  

In the right applications, laser welding provides a host of benefits over traditional methods. It’s quickly becoming industrial manufacturers’ automated welding solution of choice.  

Laser Welding in Industrial Fabrication

Laser Welding in Industrial Fabrication

All welding methods are based on a simple concept: Separate materials are heated to a temperature in which their molecular structures become fluid enough that they can commingle, resulting in a newly intertwined structure that in effect fuses the two separate pieces into one. 

Some welding styles achieve this heat by applying ignited gas, others through electrical current and still others through mechanical vibration. In all cases, the materials "melt" together, and once the weld cools, these materials become permanently bonded. 

Laser welding is an evolution of this concept, not a replacement. Its differentiating feature is the ability to focus its extreme heat-generating energy better than any other method, thanks to the novel use of an optical laser as its heat source.

Laser welders generate a high-intensity laser, transmitting this light to a weld head where the beam is exposed to the materials being welded. Unlike torch and electrical arc welding methods, laser welding is far more accurate and consistent, providing improvements in both weld quality and speed. These features are what make this method so attractive to industrial manufacturers today, pushing many to replace older equipment with laser welding systems anywhere that they can.  

Laser Welding Benefits

Means and Methods in Laser Beam Welding

Laser beams are very interesting natural phenomena that provide us with highly potent energy that we can harness for all types of scientific and technical purposes (manufacturing being only one of many such uses). The word “laser” is an acronym, in fact, standing for light amplification by stimulated emission radiation. 

In short, certain materials can be energized or “excited” to the point that they emit light, sometimes visible to humans, and sometimes above our ability to see. When excited, these materials radiate photons (light particles) in all directions. When these photons are emitted in a specially designed environment, they can be concentrated into focal beams that we can direct at specific targets. Further, when we use certain mediums and electrical excitation levels, we can control the wavelength of these photons as well.  

Altogether, by exciting specific mediums in specific environments, we can produce very high power, sharply focused laser beams that can transfer their energy over long distances to perform definitive work.

While the general concept of generating laser beams is universal, there are several different methods used in practice, as follows:

  • Solid-state laser welding uses solid crystals to generate their laser beams, resulting in low laser power, low-frequency light waves that are visible and harmful to the human eye. Ruby laser and Nd:YAG laser (neodymium in aluminum garnet) crystals are commonly used. These lasers reach power outputs in the 6,000 W to 20,000 W range, making them useful for small-scale, thin, low melting-point material welds.
  • Gas laser welders are similar to gas laser cutters, as both utilize a gas-flooded laser tube to generate their laser beams. Electrical power is applied to the gas laser tube, exciting the gas molecules enough that they reach higher energy states and create laser beams. Gas lasers fall in the infrared light spectrum, requiring use of fixed lenses and mirrors to transmit their beams. Also like gas laser cutters, gas laser welders typically use CO2 laser gas as their laser tube medium, though many specialized systems call for advanced gas blends.
  • Fiber laser welding systems transmit their laser beams down fiber optic cables to the weld head, making them ideal for mobile, high-flexibility, handheld and robotic welding applications. Fiber lasers extend into higher light frequencies and are not visible to the human eye. Also, fiber lasers can reach power levels up to 50 kW and are quickly becoming the preferred laser method for industrial manufacturing.

Applications in Laser Welding

Based on the benefits that we described above, we can infer that a great application for laser welding would be any weld that needs to be performed quickly, accurately, with minimal distortion or risk of defects, on non-structural joints and in a semi-controlled environment.

Successful laser welding is heavily dependent on the materials being employed. Metals are the main material types used, including stainless steel, titanium, steel alloys, aluminum and copper.  

Laser welding plastic is the next-most common material application, namely using thermoplastics such as ABS, polypropylene and polycarbonate, as thermoset plastics cannot be fused by any means after they're initially formed.

Specific examples include:

Automating Industrial Manufacturing Laser Welding

A few key factors go into laying a proper laser weld: joint orientation, weld rate and weld penetration. Since all three of these factors are rooted in the relationship between the materials being welded and the weld head, they can all be addressed by controlling each element's physical position and motion. If that doesn't sound like automated robotics, nothing else comes close! 

Automating laser welding is rather straightforward, and is essentially common practice in industrial manufacturing for both small- and large-scale productions. We can group processes into three levels of automation: 

Manual laser welding, which is performed by hand, is admittedly not automated in terms of position and motion, but because of the advanced technology needed to generate the laser beam itself, it’s considered automated on the laser emission end of things. Hand-guided laser welders are great for small, bespoke fabrication projects, or conversely, where parts are too big or difficult to access otherwise. 

Semi-automated laser welding is a step up from manual welding. Semi-automated welding typically employs a robotic armature to position an automatic laser weld torch to individual parts placed into a weld chamber. Medium-scale, moderate-volume, repetitive part operations mostly rely on semi-automated laser welding, which targets replacing a human welder with robotics to speed up production, alleviate repetitive stress and improve consistency in the finished products.

Fully automated laser welding is essential for the highest-volume applications both small and large in scale. Most commonly, robotic welders are positioned over continuous conveyor or gantry feed systems, performing welds as parts move through the production process. These systems are usually intended to solve volume and throughput concerns in less-automated solutions, but also serve the most sensitive applications where human errors or product defects cannot be tolerated.

AMS' own automated robotic systems are great examples of semi-automated metal and plastic laser welding equipment, which can be designed with multiple robotic types, feed systems, single or multi-head welders, and safety enclosures to suit all types of applications.  

Most recently, we've even integrated multiple assembly steps into single machines, combining assembly, welding, insertion and quality inspections into singular platforms.

Automating Industrial Manufacturing Laser Welding

Sealing Up With Laser Welding

From our own direct experience, we can attest to the significant strides that laser welding is taking in improving industrial manufacturing. In appropriately matched applications, laser welders consistently provide higher throughput, smaller footprints, fewer rejects and lower total operating costs (in terms of both post-weld cleanup and electricity) over other welding methods.  

While there are situations of lasers not living up to expectations, that tends to be the result of poor upfront process testing and material matching. When conducted correctly though and in partnership with experienced system integrators knowledgeable in the application at hand, laser welding can easily become the best tool in a business's manufacturing toolbox.     

Would you like to learn more? Contact us today for an application review.

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