Laser professionals got a fresh global perspective and real-world look at laser-additive manufacturing during the Laser Institute of America’s third-annual Laser Additive Manufacturing workshop in Houston on Feb. 16-17.

Leading LAM practitioners like GE, Pratt & Whitney, Alstom, Caterpillar, Hardchrome Engineering, and even the U.S. Navy, gave attendees a look at successful efforts in laser cladding, prototyping and in-situ repair. Meanwhile, keynote speaker Minlin Zhong discussed China’s embrace of LAM for development and in production, detailing that nation’s efforts in research and systems produced and noting the more than 50 companies providing cladding services. In fact, the Chinese government has launched a national remanufacturing program.

“There are still a lot of new things presented at the conference which had not been addressed at the two previous LAMs,” said General Chair Paul Denney, senior laser applications engineer at Lincoln Electric in Cleveland, Ohio. “The number of companies presenting on their interests and applications helped people realize that there are a number of success stories out there. There were also new technologies that may have an impact on the industry — Alabama Laser’s efforts with hot-wire cladding, induction heating-cladding from Fraunhofer, and (University of Cambridge professor) Bill O’Neill’s efforts on supersonic laser deposition to name a few.”

The workshop — geared not only to showcasing the latest laser-cladding applications but also how those applications can boost profitability by trimming manufacturing costs — has grown consistently each year since its introduction in 2009. Texas has been the site of all three LAM workshops because of the state’s critical role in the oil and gas, aerospace and agriculture industries — all of which derive major benefits from LAM.

For example:

  • Caterpillar is undertaking extensive efforts in remanufacturing with laser cladding. The firm worked on 600,000 pounds of hardware a day with more than 115,000 pounds of cladding in 2010 at its facility in Fargo, N.D. The company is also investigating the use of laser cladding to increase the life of mining and construction equipment.
  • Fraunhofer IWS uses induction heating in front of its cladding operation, allowing for higher deposition rates and lower-power (and lower-cost) laser systems. The firm believes it can achieve 30kg-per-hour deposition rates with 10kW in laser power by combining induction heating with high-deposition nozzle designs and optics, according to Executive Director Dr. Eckhard Beyer.
  • GE Global Research is exploring LAM and direct-laser sintering for fabricating parts and prototypes in the broad range of industries GE is involved in, especially in aerospace.
  • Hardchrome Engineering illustrated its success in using developments in LAM to benefit customers, particularly with in-situ laser-clad repair of steam turbine blades for power plants.

“Companies are realizing that it may be better to use lasers to shorten (production, prototyping and repair) time and lower the cost to produce functional prototypes,” Denney said. “It is also a technology that can be used for extending the life of very high-value items.”

Promoting the varied applications of LAM is a priority for Wayne Penn, president of platinum workshop sponsor Alabama Laser. “(We are) very interested … in promoting the industry, the art and the science of laser cladding,” said Penn, who gave the presentation, “A New Benchmark for Claddings to Improve Boiler Component Reliability” with Juan Nava of Alstom Power. “There’s enough of the industry out there that all these different players are going to be needed; each one has its own niche — whether in net shaping, coaxial powder or side-feed powder, cold wire or hot wire. We see (laser cladding) as a game-changer.”

LIA once again ensured that the engineers and managers, precision-parts specialists and original-equipment manufacturers, system integrators, academic and government researchers, and representatives of national labs who came to the workshop learned:

  • How to apply laser-additive manufacturing in a broad range of industries, including automotive, biomedical, defense, heavy equipment, agriculture, offshore, mining and power generation.
  • New cladding techniques for component repair and general manufacturing.
  • Powder specifications, emerging applications, high-deposition cladding, turbine repair and selective laser-melting technology.
  • The relative merits of powder vs. wire applications.
  • How to maximize return on investment.

This year’s workshop drew 170 attendees from across the U.S. and 10 other countries, as well as 25 vendors.

“Word of mouth from previous attendees is what is bringing more people to this conference,” Denney says. “Many of the people I spoke to talked to someone who had been and heard about the presentations and thought that is was a good idea to attend.”

Added Bill Shiner, sponsor committee chair and vice president of industrial markets at IPG Photonics in Oxford, Mass: “Many of this year’s attendees were companies looking to utilize and expand their use of cladding technologies. The papers were very well attended right up to the conclusion of the conference. The vendor exhibits were very active and lasted longer than the allotted time due to interest. The overall opinion was that the conference has now reached the level where it will continue to grow on its own momentum.”

To maintain that momentum, Denney says: “We are looking to continue to bring new application examples where laser-additive manufacturing is being used successfully. We also hope to present some of the economics of when and where LAM is the best process to utilize.” The fourth LAM in 2012, also stated to be held in Houston, might feature a special addition – a visit to a laser-cladding shop for those who have not seen the process in action.

“The best part of LAM was the rich mix of users, operators, manufacturers and researchers who came together for discussion and understanding,” said Dr. David Bourell of the University of Texas in Austin, who presented an overview of the history of rapid prototyping to direct manufacturing. “The exhibit was a focal point for discussion and learning about what is available commercially.

Applications development presenter Dr. Emma Ashcroft of the TWI Technology Centre in Yorkshire, U.K., also applauded LIA’s effort: “The LAM workshop was very successful, covering a wide range of topics and applications. I thought Pratt and Whitney’s presentation gave great insight into aerospace approaches to LAM.”

“LAM’s continued growth should be credited to the overwhelming support from the 25 companies who shaped the exhibit like Alabama Laser, IPG Photonics, Fraunhofer ILT, Joining Technologies, Fraunhofer IWS, Coherent, Huffman, Laserline and Rofin-Sinar,” says LIA’s Marketing Director Jim Naugle. “Without the support of Industry leaders including TRUMPF, Optomec, POM Group and Stratonics this workshop would not be a success.”

To learn more about the conference, visit the LAM website at www.LIA.org/LAM. The site includes detailed explanations of cladding and rapid manufacturing.