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State-of-the-art carbon dioxide laser speeds up production

by Crystal Toenjes
72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

6/7/2005 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AFPN) -- A unique tool used to cut parts for all weapons systems supported here brings a whole new meaning to cutting edge technology at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center.

“This (carbon dioxide) laser supports all weapon systems here … and the engine workload,” said Alan Casey, computer numerical control shop supervisor.

The Trumph CO2 Laser, which uses different combinations of carbon dioxide, helium, nitrogen and oxygen to cut through different metals, is an important part of the manufacturing process here, Mr. Casey said.

Before this technology was available, most of the parts were cut out by hand using a band saw, said Rick Harris, a machinist with the shop. Those cuts could be made with an accuracy of one-eighth of an inch.

“It could take a day to cut two parts,” he said. “With (the laser), we can cut 50 of them in the same amount of time, and they are all exactly the same.”

The laser is precise enough to cut out something as small as a thimble up to a part that is 5 feet across, he said. Its cuts are accurate to one one-thousandth of an inch. A sheet of paper is about five-thousandths of an inch thick.

“The majority of the parts we cut are from stainless steel, but we can cut aluminum and mild steel as well,” Mr. Harris said. “We’ve made everything from a simple washer all the way up to the high-tech engine parts.”

Mr. Casey said the largest workloads for this machine are sheet metal parts for the B-52 Stratofortress.

“They’ll bring us the sheets, something they can’t cut or that we can cut faster and more precisely,” said Paul Spurlock, a machinist. “Then we cut them flat, and they take them and bend and form them.”

Setting up for a cut can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, Mr. Harris said.

The sheet metal is placed inside the laser chamber on a special table with an open top and rows of grooved slats. A standard table top would not work because the laser would cut through it as well as the sheet, Mr. Spurlock said.

Parts can be cut from preset patterns already programmed into their computer, or the workers can draw a new pattern.

“We can take it from the print and model it on the computer and print out the machine code, and from that (we can) download it on a floppy disk and take the floppy to the machine,” Mr. Harris said.

Machinists can also lay a template on the sheet metal inside the chamber, and trace it with a black marker. The laser is then programmed to follow the tracing point to point and teaching itself the new pattern.

The laser is built to move along five different axes, making it possible to cut at any angle needed, Mr. Spurlock said. It also has a sixth axis used to cut round parts.

After a part is made in the sheet metal shop, it can be brought back to the laser to trim off any excess material.

Another advantage to using the laser is that it does not give off any heat, Mr. Harris said, therefore it does not damage or distort the metal and parts can be removed immediately after they have been cut out. There is also no radiation involved so the machinists are not required to wear any special safety glasses or clothing.

“It’s also a lot cleaner than the water jet machine which uses water and sand to make the same type of cuts,” Mr. Harris said. “This is basically the same as any other cutting machine we have, it just uses a laser instead of other types of tooling.”

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