Terry VanderWert, President of Prima North America, discusses challenges, new technology and what’s ahead for its Laserdyne Systems business.
Q. What technology challenges do you see for your customers in the next 18 months and what is Laserdyne doing to address those challenges?
A. The aerospace industry and increasingly the land based power turbine industry rely heavily on laser drilling for producing cooling holes in components. These components are made of difficult-to-machine, heat resisting alloys and now, more frequently, include a thermal barrier coating through which the holes must be drilled. Since the early 1980’s, Laserdyne® has been a leader in designing hardware and software to produce large numbers of cooling holes accurately and at very high speeds. Two immediate and pressing challenges for engine makers are to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions from engines. For us, this translates into an opportunity to provide modern systems and features to produce holes in large quantities with more consistent air flow. It is also creating growing interest in the application of laser processing for producing a new generation of shaped holes. We are also well aware of the ongoing pressures to deliver more robust systems and processes. These are the main challenges faced by our Laserdyne business and those being addressed with our new product offerings and new services.
Laserdyne’s newest systems are capable of producing hundreds of thousands of these shaped cooling holes with high quality, accuracy and very high production speeds.
Q. How are you addressing this need for more consistent air flow?
A. We are addressing this in two ways. First, we have added features to our standard systems, based on the principal of At Focus Drilling™, that make the drilling process more robust. By drilling at focus and then controlling the resulting hole size using the unfocused beam diameter from the laser, the process is much more forgiving to changes in the position of the part surface relative to the laser beam. This will also replace defocusing as a method for controlling hole size. Second, and possibly most important, we are providing tools for more easily ‘dialing in’ the process. This can be used to control hole size directly or based on air flow measurements. The operator doesn’t have to make a judgement about how much to change the beam size or how much to defocus to make changes to the hole size. All that is required is to measure the hole size with gauges or other everyday measuring devices. So reducing operator skill level requirements is definitely in the future for these systems.
LASERDYNE has customers effectively using this new technology. For example, one of our important aerospace customers is using the “At Focus Drilling” feature in a completely automated laser system which employs full robotic part load/unload features. The end result is consistent around the clock production and airflow held to very tight tolerances. This is an example of technology allowing quality parts to be made faster. Much credit goes to the imagination and hard work of the customer in helping us devise this process.
Q. Explain the significance of shaped hole design, how these holes have been made, and will be made in the future?
A. Shaped holes are an important design element for turbine engine designers since they can be used to fine-tune the cooling of engine components. While they are used sparingly today, they would be utilized more widely by engine designers if the holes could be produced more efficiently and on a variety of surfaces. Shaped holes of a few specific designs have been produced on Laserdyne machines for more than five years using our BeamDirector® technology. In these cases, laser has replaced EDM, which is considered the incumbent technology for shaped hole production. Because EDM is relatively slow, shaped holes have been used sparingly in new engine designs. Additionally, ceramic-like thermal barrier coatings on engine parts can’t be processed using the EDM technique. Laser drilling is the best alternative method and that’s what the new Laserdyne systems will address.
Q. How did Laserdyne develop this shaped hole technology?
A. Laserdyne literally wrote the book on this most recent evolution in laser drilling going back more than 25 years. The story of our recent shaped hole development effort is somewhat parallel to what Laserdyne accomplished in the 1990’s. At that time, there was a transition from combustor designs with a few hundred relatively large cylindrical holes produced on our systems to the effusion cooled combustors of today with hundreds of thousands of shallow angle holes. We met this requirement with a new generation of Laserdyne systems. The next evolution in engine cooling – shaped holes – is what our next generation of systems, those we are introducing now, is addressing. Interestingly, the advances that make this possible will also translate into increased production rates for conventional parts.
With no tool forces with laser drilling, Laserdynes’s systems integrate the optics of the laser with sensors in the machine tool motion system structure for optimized laser processing.
Q. Why is Laserdyne introducing so many new products and what are they?
A. There are two models, the 795 and the 450. Each model addresses a specific market need.
The Laserdyne 795 brings together the many new designs and system enhancements introduced over the last nine years since the introduction of the first 790. For drilling applications, the 795 has the new CL50K Nd:YAG laser, many new integrated software features, and an entirely new “look.” It’s an all-new system designed for the next generation’s customer needs. For cutting and welding applications that require a CO2 laser we are using the CP and CV lasers from Convergent Lasers, also a division of Prima North America. (Photo Four)
The Laserdyne 450 is a system designed for drilling smaller turbine engine components such as blades, nozzle guide vanes, shrouds, and heat shields. It has new features such as touch probing and onboard post processor.
A key component in both of these systems is the new S94P controller. This combination laser, sensing and motion controller has allowed our engineers to perform tasks that were impossible a few years ago.
Q. Why is it important that Laserdyne design and manufacture the entire system, including machine design, software, numerical control, laser, etc?
A. We learned in the early days of Laserdyne that the key to getting the most from laser processing involved integrating the laser, motion system and control, user interface, and process sensors. Our goal has always been to provide systems that were capable of precision laser processing. Designing and manufacturing all of the major components of the system allows us to introduce technology as it becomes available to more tightly integrate the various components. The end result is process capability and control. Drilling with today’s systems integrates the optics of the laser with sensors in the machine tool structure and a motion system all optimized for the unique features of laser processing. Remember, there are no significant tool forces with laser drilling. Without this control over key components, it would be difficult to achieve the performance levels, the speeds and quality our systems deliver. The performance we are achieving is just too difficult to accomplish by ‘bolting together’ a collection of commercially off-the-shelf components. Frankly, this is why we refer to our products as “systems” and not just lasers or machine tools.
Q. Learning to operate multi-axis laser systems, like any multi-axis machine tool, is challenging. What is Laserdyne doing to train both old and new users to get the most out of these systems?
A. First of all, Laserdyne is making these systems less operator dependent. We are adding intelligence and processes to these systems reducing the amount of user training and knowledge required to have earlier model systems function properly. For example, setup of our BreakThrough Detection feature initially required a fairly technical operator to perform the set up and then use the software. Consequently, this was a barrier to its widespread adoption and use. To reduce the skill level and time required to start deriving benefit from this capability, we have designed an automated setup process that allows the operator to use the feature without having to understand how it works or how to set it up. The amount of training is much reduced. (Photo Six)
Second, we’re introducing new methods of training our customers. These methods include internet based short training segments. We’re also producing short DVD training programs in 15 and 30 minute lengths on various system features such as the S94P control. These DVD’s are designed for both new and experienced operators and work in conjunction with our factory training programs. We also make available to all customers unlimited use of our S94P simulator. This has proven to be a great training aid as well as allowing engineers to have the entire operating software available on a desk or laptop.
Third, we’ve brought back our annual User Group meetings. These are very effective for introducing Laserdyne users to new system features. It’s also a great venue for users to get to know each other and share experiences and information.
Fourth, the Laserdyne Technology Center provides existing users or prospective new users access to the latest systems with a full suite of features to solve a current manufacturing need. Users of the Technology Center can program and operate these systems as if they were their own and use our Applications Engineering resources to help them work out solutions to manufacturing issues. A common use of the Center is for an existing user to bring their part program and fine tune it, in some cases integrating a new capability based on system feature that they had not previously used. They then go back home and introduce processing programs and procedures that are more productive and are leading to improved quality.
Q. How is Laserdyne responding to competitive pressures?
A. We’re aggressively communicating the value of the integrated suite of Laserdyne capabilities and features -- how they improve quality, consistency and processing speed on the shop floor. While it may be interesting to tout specific design features, users of the technology care primarily about performance and reliability.This is a product of the entire system and experience of the company behind the product.
Q. Prima is a name relatively new to the North American laser industry. What is its mission and what is it doing to grow its position in this market?
A. Prima has three businesses in North America. Laserdyne Systems which designs, manufactures and sells high precision laser systems worldwide. Convergent Lasers designs, manufactures and sells industrial processing lasers. Prima Systems, the third business, is responsible for sales and support for the 2D and 3D laser sheet metal cutting and welding systems designed and manufactured by Prima Industrie. Our mission is to grow each of these businesses by providing our customers with the finest, most productive systems available anywhere and to make the customer experience an extremely successful one.
In 2007, Prima North America had over 500 laser system installations in the North American market and 632 worldwide. We have experienced a 20 percent growth rate the last few years. We intend to continue that growth through aggressive introduction of new products that make our customers even more productive and profitable.
Q. Looking beyond 2008, what do you see in Laserdyne’s longer term future for high power CO2 and Nd:YAG laser systems?
A. We have within our ‘skunkworks’ projects to develop new capabilities and applications in welding and micromachining based on new integrated laser sources, including short pulse length solid state lasers.
These are not just distant visions. Laserdyne now has the skilled personnel and facilities to apply this new technology as it is developed. We recently hired Peter Thompson to the position of Technical Director to head up new technology implementation. Also, our new Technology Center is now open to all existing customers to capitalize on this new technology. They can come to Laserdyne for the development of new processes with our technical help so that they can become more productive now.
Also, from watching the evolution toward significant unattended manufacturing in 2D sheet metal cutting, I expect that the future will include greater use of automated (robotic) load/unload of all types of laser systems. We already have designed and built systems that operate unattended 24/7 for aerospace manufacturers. We will certainly refine this capability and expect that it will have wider future demand.
The future in multi-axis laser system will belong to those who use advanced technology to make it easy for the customer to operate with high speed, high quality and high profitability. We believe that with our technical background in laser system design, manufacture, and application and our resources within the Prima Group, the future will belong to Laserdyne.