Extreme Remote Welding
Micro Welding in Far-Removed or Hard-to-get-to Worksites
Strain gauges can create as much stress as they measure. Designed to record or detect stress or force being applied to bridges, tunnels, wind turbines, or other load-bearing structures, oft times engineers are attaching strain gauges in places far removed from the nearest electrical outlet or in spots that are difficult to access. Moreover, temperature conditions may require gauges to be welded to key components rather than attached using epoxy.
When strain gauges are attached using a fine spot weld, usually less than one millimeter in diameter, remote work areas may not have power for your run-of-the-mill micro welder, like a Sunstone CDSP welder. Or, the work area may be difficult to access, such as at the top of a wind turbine or communications tower.
In those instances, engineers are turning to the Sunstone Scout, a battery-powered, micro welder. The Scout packs 100 Ws of power, more than enough energy to attach a strain gauge or work with other electronic devices. With a single charge the Scout will deliver up to 2,000 welds and recharges in six hours.
“The Scout serves a unique niche in civil engineering,” says Thane Kennedy, product manager at Sunstone. “For those times when you need a tiny weld in a tight spot, the Scout is the perfect solution. In Australia, for example, energy companies are taking the Scout into the bush. It’s small enough to throw into the back of truck, helicopter, or bush plane.”
Weighing in at 11.4 kg, the Scout can be attached to a utility belt or safety point using it’s unique, center handle. Operators will also appreciate the Scout’s storage compartment, which keeps hand attachments and cables safely tucked away when not in use.
To promote the Scout’s remote appeal, Sunstone produced an entertaining video that turned heads for its creativity and cinematography.
Sunstone Pico DC and Micro E
By Andy Jensen
Once upon a time, the last chore of my day was to charge my phone. I’d struggle to find the charging cable amid a jumble of cables, books, and glasses and then struggle again to fit the end of the cable into my phone.
That was then. The now story is I place my phone on a charging pad and I’m done. I can place my wireless ear buds on the same pad and charge them, as well, which is a bonus.
Wireless power technology is projected to grow at 60% CAG through the 2020’s, according to New England Wire Technologies, a New Hampshire-based wire manufacture founded in 1898. Sales of wireless power technology is expected to reach USD $22 billion.
While the scientific principle of wireless charging technology has been around since the 19th century, the introduction and use of Litz wire has turned principle into profits. Litz wire is comprised of many, very thin strands of insulated wire weaved or twisted in a specific pattern. The pattern is key to how Litz wire minimizes loss from the skin effect and proximity effect.
Overcoming the Skin and Proximity Effect
The skin effect refers to the behavioral tendency of AC power to accumulate and travel on the peripheral edge of a wire, leaving the center nearly unused. As a result, the flow of power becomes congested, creating resistance. The Litz wire pattern directs the power to use wire more efficiently, thereby increasing capacity. Compared to other wire of the same diameter, Litz wire can be 20 times less resistant, an outcome that catches the attention of electronics manufacturers.
The proximity effect can also increase resistance by a factor of ten. In short, when current flows through a conductor, the current distribution will be constrained to smaller regions and thereby experience more resistance. Because a wireless power device is comprised of one or more conductors, the proximity effect poses a challenge to the device’s efficiency.
Litz wire resolves the challenges posed by the skin and proximity effects due to each strand of wire being insulated from the other. The individual insulation and pattern was a game changer.
Litz Wire: Every Rose has its Thorn
Three cheers for Litz wire! However, connecting Litz wire to a PCB board is another matter. Sure, with enough solder and a steady hand, the insulation from each wire can be melted away, leaving the wire firmly connected to the board. But soldering sucks. It’s hot, toxic, dirty, slow, and inefficient. In the R&D lab, soldering makes sense. On the production floor, soldering is a profit killer.
Welding eliminates the toxic and dirty conundrum, is significantly faster, and a process that neatly fits on any assembly line with added digital control.
Litz Wire Conquerer: The Picó DC
The ability to weld a Litz wire to a PCB board or other connection is possible with at least two other micro welding manufacturers. Avio and Amada both offer a welding configuration that will produce a satisfactory weld. Both companies introduced their systems long before wireless power started to become a thing.
Sunstone’s recent introduction of the Pico DC is a more modern and less expensive solution than the others. The Pico’s eight-inch color touchscreen interface may be reason alone for a manufacturer to prefer the Pico over the others. But when paired with Sunstone’s new Micro E weld head, the Pico monitors real-time displacement and force. When you factor in price, the Pico stands as a clear winner.
Sunstone reduced the cost of the Pico by combining all components into one unit, in addition to the weld head. The Avio and Amada configurations require multiple independent components, plus the weld head, which nearly doubles the price.
“The Pico’s closed-loop feedback, force, and displacement technology makes it an attractive welding solution,” says Jonathan Young, president of Sunstone Engineering. “In a fully automated environment, the Pico will significantly contribute to a manufacturer’s quality control efforts and save on capital equipment costs.”
Litz wire isn’t the only material the Pico seems to conquer with relative ease. Manufacturers who work with solar cells, PCB’s, magnet wire, coil terminations, electronics, heating elements, or fine ribbon bonding will find the Pico exceptionally valuable to their production processes.
Bigger is Not Better. Better is Better
The Evolution of Benchtop Laser Welders
Not that long ago, purchasing a laser welder would set you back USD $40,000 or more. In those days, laser welders were large, pedestal-style machines that offered a maximum output of only 75 Joules of weld energy. Despite the large space requirements, the high price tag, and 75 Joule max-power output, early adopters with the means to purchase one of those welders will tell you that “buying a laser welder was the best investment I ever made, and I only regret I didn’t buy it earlier.”
Sometime around 2007, laser manufacturers started building benchtop units designed to fit on a tabletop. The benchtop revolution produced smaller, lighter, and more affordable units than the pedestal laser welders. The space-saving features did have their trade-offs, though: The first benchtop welders had a max-power output of 25 Joules. You might be thinking, ‘who would buy such a unit? It only has 25 Joules?’
But your initial thought would be mistaken.
Benchtop units revolutionized the laser welder market, similar to how tablet and laptop computers have replaced the larger, immobile desktop PCs. Few, if any, complained about the low power output of only 25 Joules. Instead, they gushed about the compact design, and somehow, 25 Joules gave them enough power to make the welds they needed to make.
Let us fast forward to 2021. If you go shopping today for a laser welder, you can still find some pedestal-style welders, but most laser welders will be a benchtop model. Prices have come down considerably while the max-output power has dramatically increased. If buying a 75 Joule pedestal laser for $40,000 was the best investment some ever made, it is a wonder that people today balk at a laser welder at a considerably lower price. For example, at the time of writing, Sunstone offers a 75 Joule benchtop welder for $14,900. What a steal!
But let me acknowledge that $14,900 is still a significant amount of money, and everyone I know has more than just a laser welder on their wish list. Even with all the reasons to buy a laser today, for some, it might not be the right timing, or it might not fit the budget, or there might not be enough space to house the laser. If you can relate to the hurdles of budget or space limitations, you may be in luck! Technological advancements are constantly driving prices down while simultaneously expanding feature sets.
Introducing the Budget Laser Welder
The first actual budget laser welder, the Dado, came to market in 2019. The development process of the Dado was a bit unusual. Rather than starting with a list of features, capabilities, and competitive analysis, and then establishing margins and a retail price, this development project began with a target retail price and then worked backward, incorporating as many features as possible while still maintaining the target retail price. The Dado is not the flashiest welder available, nor does it have a never-ending list of features, but it is an awe-inspiring machine considering how much it offers for how little it costs.
In the first year of sales, the Dado quickly exceeded sales projections. Even though the target customer was the small shop that could benefit from laser welding technology but that previously could not justify the expense, big-name companies also jumped at the opportunity to buy a Dado welder. These big companies exponentially increased the number of laser welding stations in their facilities, for a minimal investment. In short order, larger companies significantly reduced production costs thanks to the Dado.
The Competition Fires Back
In response to the Dado’s success, other budget laser welders entered the market soon thereafter. Orotig S.p.A., an established player in the laser welder market, introduced the MiDi and the Neutec PulsePoint™ Studio™ Plus 25, two budget laser welders designed to compete with the Dado’s price and small footprint.
How do they stand up to the Dado?
While the MiDi and PulsePoint Studio have sold well, they fall short in beating the Dado in price and footprint. In terms of power and adjustability, the Dado offers up to 10.8 Joules of energy with 12 unique power settings. The MiDi and PulsePoint Studio, in comparison, provide 20 and 30 Joules respectfully but have only nine available power settings. The spot size adjustment options are equal (0.3-1.3mm) for all models and are adjusted manually via a lever or knob inside the weld chamber. The most significant difference remains the price. The Dado sells for USD $4,200. The MiDi and Neutec sell for USD $7,500 and USD $7,995, respectfully.
“If I were to simplify the buying decision for budget laser welders, I would group the Dado and the Orotig’s together in terms of features and capabilities,” my long-time colleague, Jonathan Young, said in deep thought. “And in that case, I think the Dado wins in every time based solely on price. If you have the budget to spend more, I will say that buying the LZR35 over the Orotig options is a no-brainer.”
What We Can Learn from Orotig
If there is anything to be learned from the Orotig lasers, it is that a market exists for that spot between the Dado and high-end models. Shops everywhere will be attracted to a more powerful, more capable model than what the Dado offers, yet less powerful and less capable than what the higher-end benchtop laser welders provide.
Enter the Orion LZR35 laser welder from Sunstone. The LZR35 was unveiled at the JCK jewelry show in 2021 and was an immediate success. The LZR35 fits perfectly in Sunstone’s laser product offering, nestled snugly between the Dado and the more powerful LZR75 benchtop laser welder.
The LZR35 provides up to 35 Joules of max weld energy and allows for complete customization and selection of both weld power and weld time, resulting in 5,000 power settings versus the 9 or 12 available on the other budget laser welders. The LZR35’s user interface consists of a 7” full-touchscreen display with a digitally controlled, motorized spot size adjustment for precise and repeatable welds. The spot size adjustment ranges from 0.2-2.0mm.
The LZR35 looks and acts like its more powerful LZR cousins, given that its feature set closely mimics those found on the higher-powered benchtop laser welders. The only aspect of the LZR35 that can be labeled as “budget” is the price tag: USD $9,900. See the included comparison chart for a complete side-by-side comparison of the LZR35 and the other budget laser welders.
What’s the Big Deal?
After so many words, my point is simple: Affordable access to advanced welding technologies and robust feature sets has never been greater. Arguably, anyone in need of a budget laser welder can find one that fits their needs, whether based on affordability (Dado at USD $4,200) or on getting the most bang-for-your-buck (LZR35 at USD $9,900).
The data in this table was collected from public sources and is subject to change. Blank cells in the table indicate data that could not be found or verified.
When a critical vaccine must be stored at sub-zero temperatures, Blaze Technical Services rose to the challenge
By Andy Jensen
In the early months of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had the attention of the United States Government. Daily infection rates and subsequent death rates were increasing at an alarming rate. The White House needed a plan that would remove bureaucratic hurdles, provide financial assistance, and pave a clear path for a vaccine to be developed, tested, and distributed as quickly as possible.
The resulting plan was dubbed Operation Warp Speed, taking a page from Star Trek lore to emphasize the plan’s emphasis on rapid progress, with a single objective: Faster approval and production of a vaccine.
The plan was bold. And when it was officially announced on May 15, 2020, when 22,845 new cases and 1,367 deaths were reported every day, the United States needed a bold plan.
In an opinion piece written by Peter Pitts for The Washington Times, nearly a year later in 2021, Pitts writes, “Operation Warp Speed recognized that all of the members of the health care ecosystem (the innovative biopharmaceutical industry, academia, government, transnational organizations and providers) had to work as a team to solve the many difficult scientific and public health problems created by a new, highly infectious and deadly virus… Warp Speed had to design expedited regulatory review criteria and coordinate manufacturing capabilities on a global scale.”
The background behind Operation Warp Speed lays the groundwork and paints the scene for a phone call placed to Blaze Technical Services April 2020. Brian Hickman, the operations manager at Blaze took the call.
“The sense of urgency that came through the call was something I’ve never experienced before,” says Hickman. “We were asked to produce a prototype temperature probe under strict confidentiality, and we delivered. Very soon after that we were asked for a thousand, then they would say ‘can you get us 2,000?’ then they’d say ‘can you get us 10,000?”
The pressure to manufacture the probe in high numbers was new to Blaze. Brian explains, “We’re not a high production type of shop. We’re a custom shop. The numbers they were asking for were far beyond what we had ever done. We weren’t sure what the probe was for, although we understood that whatever function it provided was considered a national priority.”
The team at Blaze began to ramp up production. Immediately they ran into several hurdles, but one in particular threatened the plan for mass production. The probe’s element, the part that measures temperature, was connected to a 24 AWG stranded copper wire with a Teflon jacket. The other end of the wire was connected to a port that would connect to a device that would display, record, or transmit the temperature data.
“We needed a stronger weld than what our plasma welders were able to deliver,” says Ralph Hickman, president at Blaze, but an engineer at heart. “When we increased the energy, the heat would melt the Teflon jacket. What we needed was a more focused weld. I was familiar with laser welders and thought it would solve the problem for us. So, I called Sunstone.”
The pinpoint accuracy of a laser welder, combined with digital control over the amount of energy delivered and how the energy is delivered was exactly what Blaze needed. “That was half the problem,” Ralph recalls. “Although I knew the laser created a strong weld that didn’t damage the wire’s jacket, I wasn’t sure the laser could stand up to the production numbers I needed. And there was also a concern about operator training. We had very little time to put it all together and a long training curve would not be welcome.”
The Blaze team was pleasantly surprised. “The first laser arrived, an Orion LZR 60, and we immediately put it to work. Our team picked it up really fast. It easily kept up with production rates, was highly accurate, and generated little heat,” says Ralph. “We ordered a total of six Orion LZR’s and they did the job for us.”
Bryce Bytheway, the laser welding consultant at Sunstone who took Ralph’s order for welders remembers the call. “Frankly, we scrambled to fulfill Ralph’s order for five more laser welders. He made it very clear they needed them immediately. For us it was all hands on deck to make it happen.”
With the welding challenge hurdled, the Blaze team still needed to build a high-production assembly line and find suppliers. Ralph calculated that to complete the order for the probe, they would need 3.5 million feet of wire. Of course, he ran into more roadblocks. “Nobody has 3.5 million feet of wire in stock,” he explains. “That’s 663 miles of wire. With the help of my team, we contacted TE Wire and Cable and Dynamic Temperature Supply and told them what we needed. Of course both suppliers laughed at us, which we expected. But after we explained, both suppliers rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘what can we do to help?’”
Blaze also had to solve the issue of finding enough elements to fulfill the order. They turned to a supplier based in Germany who demonstrated their commitment by building a new production facility specifically for Blaze. “Every element that facility produced went directly to us,” says Ralph.
By August 2020 Blaze was now producing 4,000 probes every day, an impressive number. More impressive was how they got there. “This is a great source of pride for the company,” says Ralph. “I’m proud of our people, very pleased with their effort. They put together a plan and then had an assembly line up and running in ten days.” Hickman, who values a work-life balance, was concerned the project would keep his workers from families but says they were able to keep their over time in check. “We worked a few Saturdays, but my team was able to be with their families. And we couldn’t have done that without the laser welders.”
Even before they began full production, Blaze was left in the dark about the probe’s application. While it was clear they played a part in the United State’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, how exactly remained a bit unclear. Some members of the team, after reading news articles, speculated the probe had something to do with shipping the vaccine. The vaccine required a storage temperature of -80° F, which fit within the specs Blaze had been given when designing the probe.
Not until September 8, 2020, did all the pieces come together. On national television, during a White House press briefing, Ralph and his team saw their probe in full display. “We were under a tight NDA and to see it all shown on national television was interesting,” he recalls.
To ship COVID-19 vaccine around the country a special shipping box had to be designed. The fundamental packing isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but the recording and tracking of the box is new. Dry ice lines all sides of an interior box packed with 1,000 doses, capable of maintaining a -80° F temperature for up to 10 days. If more ice is added, the doses remain viable for up to 30 days, which is key for medical facilities that lack adequate storage freezers.
The Blaze probe monitors the temperature surrounding the doses, relaying this data to a minicomputer for storage and transmission. Using a cellular network, the data is transmitted to a central monitoring facility. In addition to temperature, another probe monitors humidity, a GPS tracker provides real time location, and another device records the number of times the box is opened. At any time, the vaccine manufacturer knows the location of any box and its disposition.
For Blaze, which manufactured a total of 350,000 probes, the adventure is pretty much over. For Brian, Ralph, and everyone at Blaze, they have a story to tell the grandkids when they are asked about the great COVID-19 pandemic. “It was a surreal experience,” Ralph recounts. “Many times, my team and I were living in the moment and solving problems on the fly. What I saw as a simple business opportunity in the beginning, turned into a fulfilling experience. And we couldn’t have done it without the laser welders.”
Brian concurs. “Everyone helped out with production. It didn’t matter what your job title was; we leveraged the individual skill set of every team member to get the job done. You ask any other probe manufacturer if they could do 350,000 probes in a year and they’d balk. We sprinted for a full year and we’re proud of what we accomplished. We could not have done it without the laser welder.”
The Sunstone line of Orion LZR benchtop laser welders consists of five different models, each providing a different energy range, from 35 Joules up 180 Joules. The Orion LZR stands apart from other laser welders for its broader feature list, such as on-board HD cameras with an HDMI video port, argon gas connections, compressed air nozzles, larger color touchscreens, and advanced digital interfaces for better energy control.
“What I like about the Blaze story is the positivity, the we-can-do-this approach exhibited by the Blaze team,” says Sunstone’s CEO, Jonathan Young. “They came together to solve a national emergency and did so marvelously. I tip my hat to them for what they accomplished. Sunstone sells welders to many different companies who are pushing the envelope in aerospace, electric vehicles, medical devices, and the arts. Many of these stories we can’t share. In this case, with Blaze, when we can share the story, it’s rare and valuable.”