3d or 5 axis laser cutting is a relatively new manufacturing process which was first developed by the automotive industry as an alternative to using traditional trim and pierce tools for formed components. Automotive suppliers were already using flatbed lasers to produce parts from flat sheet metal so it was a natural progression to move to lasers which could cut in multiple axes. The main reasons that Automotive companies looked at 5 axis laser cutting as an alternative to press cutting tools is:
1. Flexibility: There is a certain amount of trial and error involved in producing tools so inevitably modifications need to be made at differing stages of a part lifecycle. Modifying trim and pierce tools can be an expensive and time consuming process, especially when car companies are looking to get new models to market in a short as time as possible. Laser cutting has a distinct advantage as modifications can be made quickly and at a lower cost than tooling. This is because changes such as trim profiles can be made using offline programming and then incorporated into the laser cutting path quickly and cheaply.
2. Initial Cost: Manufacturing tools and kits of tools for a car is an expensive process that runs into millions of pounds. These costs have to be incurred at the start of a project before any revenue is realised from selling cars thus having a negative effect on cash flow. However, processing parts using a 5 axis laser has a very low upfront cost and coupled with the flexibility mentioned above makes it a very attractive financial option. The costs incurred with 5 axis laser cutting match more the revenues recovered by car companies as they bring new models to the market.
3. Piece Part Cost: This is the one area where press tooling has an advantage over laser cutting. The cycle of a press tends to be far quicker than that of a 5 axis laser, thus making it cheaper to produce parts. However, this is only typically true when producing high volumes of parts, the reason being that with lower volumes setup times are spread across a lower number of parts making the overall pressing process more costly.
4. Prototypes: Many car companies like to produce prototype vehicles to test manufacturing designs or market reaction to the style of a vehicle. As these cars tend to be produce in low volume then 5 axis laser cutting can sometimes be up to 50% cheaper than producing a full set of tools. Furthermore, design changes can be incorporated within hours on 5 axis lasering compared to days and months with cutting tools.