Burgeoning Plasma Technology Can Provide Huge SavingsTue, 09/01/2015 - 14:59
Q: What opportunities did Hypertherm detect in the automotive industry that led to the company introducing its products to the sector?
A: Hypertherm has been operating in Mexico for 13 years, but our opportunities in the automotive industry emerged recently. Our manual plasma units have been mainly marketed for maintenance purposes, but since 2013, we have also detecting new opportunities in the manufacturing segment. The automotive industry normally uses laser technology, but there has always been an interest in cutting the costs of this process. Therefore, we approached the sector with more competitive technologies, and we are currently working with companies to develop a more feasible solution. The cost of the equipment is so low that it truly raises eyebrows, and it obviously attracts the attention of manufacturers who want to optimize their operations. A plasma unit can be one tenth of the cost of a laser unit, so it is really a dramatic difference. Furthermore, as plasma technology improves and robots become more flexible, the quality gap is narrowing impressively.
Q: How does the plasma cutting process work, and how has Hypertherm worked to minimize the inherent risks of this technology?
A: Plasma is one of the five states of matter, and it is basically an ionized gas conducting electricity. In nature, this happens when the electric potential difference between the clouds and the ground becomes so large, that it breaks through the existing air gap producing lightning. This basic principle is similar to what happens inside a plasma torch, the only difference being that we have developed technologies to control the plasma arc to make it tighter and more stable, while giving it a higher current density. In terms of risks, the main challenge is probably eye safety, but we have a table to determine the right shade at which to operate any amperage. The other possible concern is that, depending on the system, the operator could be dealing with a cylinder of compressed oxygen. Obviously, there is also a risk in terms of temperature, but our systems have several options to make the operations easier. The torch has a sensor to detect when the consumables are not in place, and all our manual systems have safety triggers to avoid any accidents. Similarly, our high-end products include a cooling system for the consumables, to make replacements much easier. However, welding is significantly more complicated than cutting, and we have gauging applications that massively improve the accuracy of these processes. Gauging with a carbon rod is one of the noisiest processes in any factory, whereas plasma is significantly quieter.
Q: What would have to change to make plasma cutting more popular in fabrication processes?
A: Our market has typically been divided into two segments. On one hand, we have been extremely popular with people that repair and restore cars. On the other hand, we have targeted our machines toward the manufacturers, but rather than using them directly in the fabrication process, these companies are using our units for small repairs and maintenance operations. Laser has been the most widelyused technology given its quality and the ability to integrate these solutions with automated processes, so our challenge is to make sure that our products can be adapted to any robotic arm in the market. There is also a growing trend to program each component offline. Therefore, we have to design solutions that our clients can implement remotely, rather than programming directly on the robot. Plasma technology has come a long way in terms of speed and precision, and combined with its attractive costs, it is a strong alternative to other cutting technologies. Another huge advantage for plasma is that the material does not require any heat treatment before the cutting process. Additionally, the heat affected area in the material is significantly reduced with plasma, drastically decreasing the mechanical effects on the component.