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GE speeds steel welding with hybrid laser tool

21 Apr 2011

Hybrid approach combines arc welding with a 20kW IPG fiber laser to reduce welding time for inch-thick steel components by 80%.

Engineers at GE’s Global Research division say that a hybrid laser arc welding (HLAW) system under development there will dramatically reduce both the time needed for welding thick steel components, and the amount of the metal consumed in manufacturing.

Incorporating a 20 kW fiber laser provided by IPG Photonics, the system is powerful enough to weld steel close to one inch in thickness in just a single pass – taking about 10 seconds (see video below). Using conventional welding, up to six passes would be needed, taking more than a minute to complete the job.

10-second laser weld:

According to the giant industrial company, using the HLAW technique in the future will mean that industrial products can be made much more quickly, more flexibly – because the HLAW system can be used on-location, instead of at a centralized site – and with much-reduced material consumption.

GE cites as an example that using HLAW to produce the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier would have saved around 800 tons of weld metal. Part of the reason for that material saving is that using a laser allows a square-butt joint to be welded quickly, whereas a conventional weld relies on the steady build-up of a join using additional metal.

“GE is exploring this technology for application across its infrastructure manufacturing operations, including the oil and gas, power generation, aviation and rail industries,” stated the company, although there are no details yet on any specific deployments.

Flexible approach
Luana Iorio, who heads up the manufacturing technologies division at GE Global Research, highlighted the additional advantages of flexible manufacturing that the portable hybrid approach can provide:

“The portability of this new high-power laser platform will enable us to think very differently about how parts are welded,” Iorio said. “We can now think about welding parts on-site, where a product will be located – as opposed to the traditional manufacturing floor. This will also simplify and reduce time in the shipping process.”

As one of the world’s largest diversified manufacturing firms, GE has previously developed a number of laser-based industrial applications. For example, it uses the technology to drill holes in aircraft turbine blades, and in surface treatment of fan blades to improve durability. More recent applications also include repairing components used in power generation, as well as solar panel material processing.

IPG Photonics dominates the market for high-power fiber lasers currently, and last year stepped up its laser manufacturing capacity significantly. The Massachusetts company is still embroiled in a patent disupte with rival IMRA America that is now set to go to a jury trial. A pre-trial conference has been set for September 2011 - five years after IMRA originally brought the case against IPG.

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