Volume 15 | Issue 3 | Year 2012

Today, its advanced, multi-axis technology is deployed in numerous industries, in particular aerospace and automotive – and it’s seeking to develop new markets, particularly precision mechanical components and medical devices, reports Dan Harvey.

Prima Power Laserdyne recognized the value of supplying high performance, standard laser machining systems more than 30 years ago. The Champlin, Minn.-headquartered company maintained this mission through to today. Multi-axis technology enables its manufacturing customers to produce increasingly complex 3D-shaped components.

Prima Power Laserdyne’s products are deployed throughout the world, and in the most demanding cutting, drilling and welding applications. In the aerospace and automotive arenas, the company is renowned for offering the most innovative laser processing tools.

CAUSE TO CELEBRATE
In 2011, company and customers observed Prima Power Laserdyne’s 30th anniversary. The ongoing narrative began in 1981 when the company was established by two young engineers, Leigh Colby and current company President Terry VanderWert. They recognized the need for a standard-built laser system, one that would equip the laser with a motion system controller. Several years earlier, Colby and VanderWert (who had just graduated from the University of Minnesota) were working for the same company and were given the mission to develop a laser welding process. “We bought a Bridgeport milling machine, a Tektronix computer that would control everything, motors for the two milling machine axes and the necessary optics,” remembers VanderWert. “We integrated all of the components, and then placed the machine into production. It proved successful. That led to a second machine.”

After their achievements, Colby and VanderWert stepped back, took a breath and considered the complexity of the projects. This led to a realization.

“A lot of work went into creating the two machines,” recalls VanderWert, “and I imagined that there would be people who’d be interested in taking advantage of a company that could manage the various technologies – the laser, the controls, the motion system, the optics – and build for them standard laser systems.”

In March 1981, Laserdyne Corporation was formed to provide that benefit. It built its first product, the Laserdyne 780, a 3-axis machine that featured a System 84 controller. “We delivered the first one in 1982” relates VanderWert.

Potential customers readily recognized the ease of use and versatility. Early clients included Xerox and Harley Davidson. Continues VanderWert: “Harley Davidson then asked if we could develop a capability for trimming a formed metal part for their motorcycle.”

The burgeoning company was up to the task, and that led to the development of the BeamDirector®, which was introduced in 1984 and remains one of the Laserdyne’s core technologies, says VanderWert. The product represented a significant advance in laser technology, with its 5-axis motion and ability to deliver a laser beam in three dimensions.

The company then gained entrance into the aerospace industry when Pratt & Whitney, the US-based global aerospace manufacturer, purchased one of its machines for a cutting application. “We soon realized other applications in this sector,” says VanderWert. “In the early 1990s, another customer came to us with a design of a jet engine component, for the combustor section. At the time, the component was new, and it was aimed at improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions. We applied our technology to that purpose, and that was not only a milestone for our company but for the deployment of lasers in aircraft engine manufacturing.”

For the aerospace industry, VanderWert indicates, the lasers proved more precise and more rapid than previously available technology. Lasers were also able to produce holes at shallow angles to the surface. “Subsequently, designers developed components around laser capabilities,” he says.

So that put Prima Power Laserdyne in solid. “We became very heavily involved in the aerospace business, using laser technology in ways previously unused,” says VanderWert. “In the aerospace industry, we are still the leader in using lasers in cutting, drilling and welding applications.”

OWNERSHIP CHANGES
Throughout its history, Laserdyne ownership changed hands several times. In 1982, Data Card Corporation acquired the company. In 1987, the company was purchased by Lumonics Inc., which later merged with GSI (in 1999).

In 2001, Laserdyne was acquired by Prima Industrie S.p.A., of Torino, Italy, a world leading manufacturer of industrial laser systems. In 2003, the business was integrated into Prima North America Inc. In 2011, it became part of the Prima Industrie Group, which formed from the merger of Prima Industrie and Finn-Power (a sheet metal fabrication technology leader). That year, it became known as Prima Power Laserdyne and it operates in the Prima Power Division.“Like us, Prima Industrie was involved in 5-axis laser machines, so the association provided us with synergy,” observes VanderWert.

The Prima Industrie Group has manufacturing facilities in Italy, Finland, the United States and China, and it delivers systems throughout the world.

Along with designing, manufacturing and selling its brand of multi-axis laser systems, Prima Power Laserdyne also began doing final assembly, installation, training, and service for Prima Industrie’s RAPIDO multi-axis laser system used for trimming hot-formed steel parts.

In 2011 Prima Power Laserdyne started manufacturing RAPIDO laser systems at its Champlin production facilities. The high-speed 3D laser processing system is used by OEMs and subcontractors in a wide range of applications including cutting automotive hot-formed steel parts and hydro-formed components and the laser cutting and welding of components in several other markets.

In addition to high acceleration and rapid traverse speed (175 m/min) RAPIDO systems produce very high quality cut edges. These systems can cut and trim a typical automotive B-pillar body panel in just short of a minute. Their advantages were readily apparent: High quality cut edges are free from oxide and are weld- and paint-ready. No costly added operations are needed for preparation of the cut edges for welding, assembly and painting of the panels.

RAPIDO manufacturing at Champlin accompanied major industry developments in the United States: the growth of hot-stamped steel in automobiles and the overall revitalization of the nation’s manufacturing sector. Indeed, the company, now 31 years old, has played a substantial part in the major changes in component and manufacturing. As VanderWert points out, laser material processing provides engineers the flexibility to create product designs that demonstrate superior performance at lower costs.

Today, Prima Power Laserdyne serves industries that include aerospace, aircraft and land-based power generation turbine engines (OEMs and suppliers), turbine engine MRO, automotive, electronics, fine mechanics, and medical devices. The product line includes the Laserdyne 795 (which is equipped with up to eight motion axes and the latest design of the BeamDirector® laser contouring head), and the Laserdyne 430 and 450, which are equipped with up to five motion axes. The 430 is designed for automated precision laser welding of precision mechanical and medical devices. The high-speed system is capable of welding 800 inches with bidirectional accuracy of 0.0005 inch. It brings new levels of accuracy, productivity and quality to today’s increasingly complex manufacturing environment, particularly in the medical arena – where Prima Power Laserdyne is increasing its presence.

EXPANSION
In addition to its anniversary, the year 2011 represented another major milestone for Prima Power Laserdyne: It began expansion of its North American business. Expansion includes filling 20 new jobs (assembly technicians, installation and service technicians, applications engineers, design engineers, and customer service representatives) and the introduction of products into new and existing markets. The new hires will support the company’s increasing activity in the precision mechanical components and medical device industries. These industries have complex requirements, but other challenges are driving the expansion: new lightweight automobiles, more efficient jet aircraft engines, and the need for finer mechanical products such as couplings and sensors. Laserdyne products are designed to meet these challenges. They’re used increasingly for 2D and 3D laser cutting, drilling and welding because of their proven speed and accuracy. Further, all products incorporate proprietary electronics, computer numerical controls and laser sources designed and manufactured either by Prima Power Laserdyne or within Prima Industrie Group companies.

Expansion relates back to RAPIDO as well as the Optimo 3D laser systems – now that Prima Power Laserdyne has become the North American center for assembly, sales, installation, service and training for these systems. “RAPIDO is one of the main thrusts of the expansion,” says VanderWert.

Prima Industrie Group envisioned a high volume of products produced in North America, and it wanted Prima Power Laserdyne to take on the responsibility. There is a growing demand in North America, particularly in the automotive industry. “It’s taking us deeper into that industry, which coincides with the rapid implementation of hot stamped steels in automobiles for structural components,” says VanderWert. “These components are produced from material formed at 900 degrees Celsius, so in the press, it’s first red-hot and then cooled, and it comes out hard, so it can’t be trimmed or punched mechanically. The laser provides the solution. The technology was introduced in Europe and adoption was slow in North America, until the increased focus on improving fuel efficiencies. We’re addressing that need for the Group.”

Expansion efforts make new hires necessary, but the personnel must to be highly skilled. “We look for the right people,” comments VanderWert. “The machines are quite heavy – not in terms of weight but in terms of electronics, control systems and the laser portion. We are looking for those who can do the assembly and installation, as well as people who can provide the application’s training and process development to support customers. It’s all about the ability to think in three dimensions and the ability to visualize how to best implement a laser process.”

Prima Power Laserdyne has already entered next its 30 years, and VanderWert is confident about the future. He has plans for the company he helped create. “We will be wherever people are making jet engines, supplying our technology,” he says. “Meanwhile, demand for our products in the automotive industry keeps increasing. Also, we are developing a product that will take us into the creation of precision components, such as medical devices. This will give us three strong legs of a stool, in terms of the markets we supply. We’re counting on that third area. We have the experience, and we understand application needs.”