In recent years, laser technology has been playing an increasingly important role in industrial production.
With the advancement of the manufacturing industry to high-end, intelligent transformation process, the traditional processing technology has been difficult to meet the market requirements for higher efficiency and higher accuracy of product production.
Laser technology, with its high efficiency, low consumables, small material deformation and adaptability to the processing object, has been increasing its penetration rate in all aspects of industrial production and has become an important processing tool indispensable in high-end manufacturing.
In recent years, the laser industry has developed rapidly, not only the stability has been gradually improved, the power can also be made larger and larger.
Especially recently, 10,000-watt fiber lasers and processing equipment products are frequently released. We can hear similar news once in a month or two. We can’t help but wonder: why everyone is pushing 10,000+ watt fiber lasers and whether the power of fiber lasers the bigger the better, how big is the high-power fiber laser market, and how is the technical solution…
In order to understand the real situation of the market, we have interviewed the representative companies in the fiber laser industry chain.
There are companies that have already launched 10,000-watt fiber lasers, and there are companies that plan to launch 10,000-watt fiber lasers but have not yet done so, and there are fiber laser manufacturers and fiber laser downstream equipment manufacturers, in order to be more comprehensive and objective.
In the month-long research, we visited several fiber laser manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, fiber laser industry technical experts, market experts, we can only describe the current situation of high-power fiber lasers with “a long way to go”.
(If not specified, the high power fiber laser in this article refers to the 10,000+ watt fiber laser)
The current market situation of laser cutting
Among the many industrial applications, the laser cutting market occupies the most dominant share.
And with the popularity of fiber lasers and the growth of demand for medium-thick plate processing, high-power laser cutting machines with obvious advantages are gradually becoming the new market favorites.
Compared with small and medium power laser cutting machines, high power laser cutting machines for plates of the same thickness are more efficient.
In addition, along with the significant increase in power, the cutting process has also undergone a revolutionary upgrade, ensuring cutting efficiency while greatly reducing the cost of processing for users, and also solving the big problems such as “unstable production of thick carbon steel plates”.
As early as 2017, leading laser equipment manufacturers such as Hans’laser have launched 12KW laser cutting equipment and achieved small-batch shipments.
In 2018, 12KW laser cutting machines sprang up at major exhibitions, and after the launch of 15KW laser cutting equipment by Hans’laser, some other laser equipment manufacturers have also launched their own 15KW products.
In 2019, Hanslaser updated the power limit of laser cutting again, launched 20KW fiber laser cutting machine and introduced to the end market.
Fiber lasers also gradually break through the power limit, from 12KW, to 20KW, 25KW, and the highest power of 30KW fiber laser has been launched in the market.
What is the difficulty of the 10,000+watt equipment?
Functional components become the main constraint.
Despite the rapid development of high-power laser applications, the stability of functional components has become an obstacle to the development of ultra-high-power laser cutting equipment, the growth of the cutting head adapted power is much lower than the growth of the laser and laser cutting machine power.
The main components of the laser cutting head are nozzles, focusing lenses and focusing tracking systems.
Nozzles are the most commonly used consumables on fiber laser cutting machine tools, and there are mainly three types: parallel, convergent and conical.
The cutting quality has an inseparable relationship with the nozzle form and nozzle size.
The focusing lens is the core component of the cutting head. The original light beam emitted by the laser is focused by the lens to form a high-energy density spot.
With the increasing market demand for high-power lasers, the focal depth and focal spot of traditional lenses are restricted.
Increasing the focal depth will inevitably cause the expansion of the focal spot size, which cannot meet the requirements of laser processing in many cases.
Focusing lenses with long focal depth and high resolution have become a new market demand.
Both the focal length and focus position of the focusing lens have an impact on the quality of laser cutting. High-speed cutting of thin materials is suitable for short focal length lenses, and thick workpieces are suitable for long focal length lenses.
Focus tracking system
The focus tracking system of a laser cutting machine is generally composed of a focus cutting head and a tracking sensor system.
In the process of laser cutting machine processing, it can prevent the collision and uneven cutting from being unsatisfactory, quickly process graphics and reduce the defective rate of products.
Currently, there are mainly two types of tracking systems.
The first is a capacitive sensor tracking system, also known as a non-contact tracking system; the second is an inductive sensor tracking system, also known as a contact tracking system.
At present, the domestic high-power cutting head market presents a dominant position in Precitec. Most laser cutting machines above 10,000 watts are equipped with Precitec cutting heads.
In this situation, some Chinese laser and other equipment manufacturers have been catching up, and have also increased their R&D investment in cutting heads for the stability of their high-power laser equipment and achieved certain results. And some of the companies have launched the cutting head that can withstand 15kW ultra-high power and has achieved mass production, and the 30kW cutting head technology has also achieved a breakthrough.
What is the difficulty of high power cutting head?
According to a senior researcher who has been engaged in fiber laser research for a long time, in order to obtain a larger fiber laser output, such as a 10,000-watt fiber laser, combining multiple medium-power fiber lasers is an effective means, in which the key component required is the fiber combiner.
Therefore, for high-power fiber lasers, the beam combiner, the thermal management technology in the beam combiner, and the quality of the output beam after the beam combiner become the key to obtain high-quality high-power fiber lasers in the industry today.
At the same time, most of the new applications involved in high-power fiber lasers require high beam quality.
To determine whether a particular high-power fiber laser is stable and reliable, and how technologically advanced it is, these three perspectives can be compared.
In the military field, fiber lasers mostly use spectral beam combining to obtain high power, but in the industrial field, there is no innovation in technology in China, still mostly using multiple single fiber modules to achieve beam combining, such as the use of multiple 2000 W, 3000 W modules for beam combining, to obtain 10,000 W fiber laser.
The high power of the combined beam converges in the beamer, and if the beamer does not have the ability to carry such high power, it is easy to be burned out.
Because the high power combiner is basically imported from abroad, only a very few domestic manufacturers can produce.
In addition to the fiber laser itself from the technical gap with foreign countries, high power fiber laser products for supporting the laser cutting head also has higher requirements.
Taking laser cutting machine as an example, fiber laser is used as the light source to match the cutting head, and then applied to the machine tool.
However, there are few domestic manufacturers of high-power laser cutting head, which requires high overall stability of the equipment and represents the highest level of the industry.
According to industry insiders, domestic cutting heads are mainly used for low-power matching cutting heads, and foreign cutting heads are basically used for high-power lasers above 6000 W.
For high-power laser cutting, the stability of the cutting head is a big problem.
The difficulties of cutting head are mainly reflected in the lens coating techniques, optical path design, cooling system and motor positioning.
Lens coating techniques
The most fundamental difficulty of high power cutting head is the lens.
As the laser power is higher and higher, the power density of the lens is higher and higher. To ensure the stability of the high-power cutting head, the lens is the biggest difficulty.
Some enterprises have solved this problem through the breakthrough of lens coating technology. At present, the cutting head on the market can stably withstand the power output of 15kw.
Optical path design
After the lens problem, the optical design is also a big problem.
Because the zoom mode of high-power cutting head is basically collimating lens zoom, which is different from the traditional low-power cutting head using focus lens zoom.
For high power laser head, if the collimator moves closer to the fiber, the power density will be higher.
In addition to lens coating process and optical path design, cutting head cooling system and motor precision control are also difficult problems of high-power cutting head.
In the process of plate cutting, the increase of laser power brings more energy and increases the probability of temperature rise of lens and cutting nozzle. The cooling in the process must be ensured by water cooling or other refrigeration schemes.
In the aspect of motor control, some feedback methods are set on the motor to compensate by feedback, which can correct the position, make the positioning more accurate and accelerate the response speed of focusing.
Is the higher the power, the better?
High power fiber laser is mainly used for laser cutting and welding in the industrial field. The higher the power, the better. Many laser enterprises we interviewed put forward the concept of “limit power”.
They believe that for laser cutting applications, the cutting process itself has a limit power, beyond which the cutting quality and speed will no longer be improved
Switching to other lasers, such as excimer lasers or CO2 lasers, may be more cost-effective.
They generally believe that for the industrial market, 6 kW can meet more than 95% of the cutting demand of the market, and the fiber laser with more than 6 kW is a very small market in the cutting field.
The introduction of 12 kW, 20 kW and 20 kW fiber laser cutting equipment can only show that there is a demand for high-power laser equipment in the market.
However, this is a specific requirement in a very small range, and there is no requirement for large-scale applications at present.
Therefore, we call high-power fiber laser a development direction when fiber laser has not broken through 10000 watts. When everyone has this technical strength, it is more suitable to talk about its application field.
In the special materials which are difficult to process, the low power laser is slow, unable to cut, and the cutting effect is poor.
At the same time, high reflection materials need higher energy to meet the needs of processing, which is the “place of use” of 10000 watt laser.
At the same time, laser equipment manufacturers feedback that high-power laser is mainly used in the processing market, and the demand of enterprise customers in the processing market is mostly 6000-8000W.
The capacity of the whole market is closely related to the national macro-economy.
Stainless steel cutting – efficiency up to 400%
Carbon steel cutting – high speed cutting of medium and thin plates with air instead of oxygen
As shown in the figure above, when cutting the bright surface of carbon steel, there is a limit power when the plate thickness is determined.
If the actual power is less than the limit power, with the increase of power, the cutting speed will increase correspondingly; if the actual power is greater than the limit power, with the increase of power, the cutting speed will remain unchanged and will not improve; at the same time, the cutting effect will not change.
At present, the main focus of customers is still 12 kW fiber laser.
Considering the different processing efficiency and market demand, most laser manufacturers still regard 3000-8000W as the main battlefield of market competition, although they have mastered 10000-watt laser technology and have prototype products.
The above point of view is considered from the limit power of industrial processing.
In the research, we also heard another voice: simply from the application of laser as a tool and heat source in laser processing, the higher the power (either instantaneous power or average power), the better the processing capability.
Ultra-high power applications, breakthroughs in heat treatment effects as well as key core technologies, have been tested using 15 kW/20 kW fiber laser products and found to cut better compared to 6000 W.
Current 10,000 W products can complete cutting of medium-thick plates such as carbon steel and eliminate the need for secondary grinding.
As the performance and output of high power lasers improve, users will also switch to more appropriate high power lasers when the benefits exceed the costs.
The metal melting threshold is one million watts per square centimeter, and the metal surface modification threshold is ten thousand watts per square centimeter. From these two basic data, it is normal to see 100,000 watts or even one million watts of laser power in actual use in the future.
In terms of application areas, the main applications of high-power lasers in rail transportation, aerospace, shipbuilding, military applications. In terms of ship welding, high power lasers are very suitable, but have not yet been applied in China.
What about the cost?
The advantage of laser technology lies in high quality and high efficiency, that is, the quality of optical fiber transmission and photoelectric conversion efficiency.
The higher the power, the faster the depth of processing and the speed of welding. Of course, the advantages and disadvantages depend on each other.
For high-tech enterprises, technology and product R & D investment is the first category of cost, which needs to invest corresponding talents, funds and time.
Some of the core components can not be supplied by themselves, but also need to purchase raw materials such as optical fiber, pumping source, combiner, grating, circuit control system, etc. the cost is even higher, sometimes up to 70% of the total cost.
The cost investment is so huge, why should the enterprise move forward to high power?
There is a profit-driven nature.
Industry insiders said that although China’s low-power market has been occupied by domestic fiber laser brands, compared with imported products, domestic low-power products have won a rolling victory, but there are too many enterprises entering the market, and the price has dropped sharply, resulting in fierce competition and low profit margin, such as 1000-3000 W fiber laser.
However, the total market demand of 3000-6000 W, 10 kW or fiber lasers with higher power is small, but they can achieve differentiated competition. The added value of products is high, and the profit margin is relatively large, so they become a new market for enterprises to enter.
In addition, the display of technical strength is also an important reason.
For example, IPG Photonics advertises to the public that it can sell customized 500,000-watt class all-fiber industrial-grade lasers. We don’t know if there are places in the industry where 500,000-watt class products are used, but we have to give a thumbs up in admiration for its advanced technology.
So being able to develop higher power lasers not only proves a company’s R&D capability, product quality, but also enough to become a promotional point for the company.
From the point of view of equipment manufacturers, industry insiders said that only a few manufacturers of 10,000-watt products in quality and stability can meet the requirements of equipment manufacturers, other laser suppliers still need a promotion and feedback process.
More fiber laser companies get involved, and for equipment manufacturers, there will be more choices, and the purchase price ratio will naturally increase.
And whether the higher the power of the fiber laser, the better, this “good” is not a question with absolute answers.
Continuous breakthroughs in technology, localization of core components, improvement of supporting equipment, market demand and development of application areas will all promote the development of fiber laser and manufacturing transformation and upgrading.
High-power fiber lasers still have a long way to go.