Fiber laser cuts into sheet metal fabricating

Three years ago I reported, along with my colleague Antonio Vendramini, on the rise of high-power fiber lasers for sheet metal cutting applications.1 We had just visited a company in Italy, Finsomac s.r.l. (www.finsomac.com), that had initial success in supplying a 1 kW fiber laser powered unit to some Italian sheet metal fabrication. With Finsomac personnel we also visited some of the company’s customers in the Milan area and learned that contrary to our (somewhat prejudicial) view of CO2 as the only laser source for that application, these users convinced us that the fiber laser, because of its operating cost, might have a larger role to play in the fabricated metal products industry. At that time we asked the question “Is it possible that this so-called niche laser cutter may have a larger market than anticipated?”

Now, three short years later, aluminum extrusions the answer appears to be a decided yes. Starting from a 2006 market of less than a dozen units, the annual sales of fiber laser cutters has recently been estimated at about 3% of total 2009 sales of high-power laser sheet metal cutters. The total number of fiber laser cutters installed through 2009 is estimated at 170-175 units and is expected to double the total this year with growth next year projected at 50-60%.

It is important, at this point, to establish the market size. Laser sheet metal cutting systems, powered by high-power CO2, total more than 50,000 units installed worldwide since 1980; and annual sales are in the 3500-4000 unit range. So penetration into this market by high-power fiber lasers will produce waves in the system supplier industry. First, fiber lasers will likely take market share from the CO2 laser suppliers. Even if only 3% of last year’s sales would have been for fiber–a mere pinprick in the market–it could be considered a growing competitive nuisance by high-power CO2 laser suppliers. Second, fiber lasers may expand the total cutter market by their appeal to entry level users, who would not have shown interest in the CO2 units. And third, the suppliers of flat sheet cutters, currently numbering more than 50 global companies with commercial systems may, when faced with new competition, move to add the fiber laser product to their marketing mix; an example is noted later in the review. These are three key factors that will certainly cause some market disruption in the next few years. For example, in this review we report on two new suppliers of fiber laser cutters just entering the market–one an established CO2 laser system supplier, the other a new system entrant.

The History of Aluminum Extrusion

Aluminum extrusion has been applied in many innovative ways since its earliest beginnings more than 100 years ago.
From its early use in creating pipes and wires to futuristic applications in space station construction, aluminum
extrusion has a rich history.

The extrusion process was first patented in 1797 for making lead pipes, which was done with manual labour until the
introduction of the hydraulic powered press in 1820. By the end of nineteenth century, extrusion methods were also
in use for copper and brass alloys, but the application of aluminum extrusion followed a unique path.

Origins of Aluminum

Compared to other metals like copper, bronze, iron and steel, which have been in use for thousands of years, aluminum
is relatively young, having been identified as an elemental metal in 1807. Aluminum was first refined in 1825, and at
that time it was considered a luxurious metal which was more expensive than gold. It was not until the late 1880s,
with the invention of the smelting process by Hall and Héroult and the development of commercial production,
that the silvery metal became affordable for everyday purposes. The initial working processes consisted of
rolling, casting, and forging.

The burgeoning demand for aluminium profile reached new heights during the two world wars for use in aircraft
manufacturing and other military requirements. The rapid development of extrusion continued after World War II,
and began to expand into various industries including the residential housing sector, which experienced
substantial growth in the postwar period.

In subsequent decades, the transportation and construction sectors have always been the principal benefactors
of aluminum extrusion products. Even in present times, the bulk of extrusion usage is in manufacturing doors
and windows, followed by passenger vehicles. Other major extrusion products and applications are consumer
staples and the construction of bridges and highways.