Softening is a process step for transforming steel components. During the softening process, the steel, hardened by martensite formation, is heated in locally defined areas. This changes the steel’s microstructure: depending on the temperature, the martensite is either annealed, and by extension, softened, or transformed into a more ductile, less rigid ferrite-pearlite structure via austenitization. Lasers are the best tool for this heat treatment because they guarantee flexible and high-precision treatment of material, with a small transition zone to the surrounding material affected by the heat. Neither gas flames nor infrared radiators offer a comparable process quality.
Annealing is a heat treatment that is typically applied after a hardening process. Here, too, a material is heated in order to influence its properties, in particular, to relieve tension. The higher it is tempered, the softer hardened steel becomes. This reduces its hardness and increases its toughness. In addition to traditional steel-related processes, the compensation of internal tensions within materials and components also plays a role in non-metal-related production processes, such as semiconductor production. .Here, annealing processes based on diode lasers are being tested to compensate for internal tensions in wafers during the production process.
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Heat treatment with diode lasers does not only enable the material to be hardened: it also does the exact opposite, namely, softening the material. Here, the solidified structure is softened in certain zones by heat exposure (“tempered”) or is, for instance, turned back into a ferrite-pearlite structure by austenitization followed by slow cooling. The result is a sheet that is easier to shape or weld. Here, the diode laser is a better tool than other methods, such as induction, gas flames or infrared rays. On the one hand, material processing can be carried out in a highly flexible and precise manner, just like with hardening; on the other hand, the transition zone created between the processed and unprocessed raw material is smaller than that created with other technologies. However, diode lasers have a very homogeneous intensity distribution, even for big spots, which makes the results of the softening especially even.
Softening can actually save lives: in car body construction, soft deformation zones can be created at press-hardened areas, these zones absorb impact of energy in the event of crashes and thereby protect the body. This flexible material processing ensures that the total stiffness of the steel is maintained in the remaining zones. A further field of application is deep drawing, which sees the circuit board be softened in the intended bending zones before pressing to avoid cracks or fractures during the forming process.
The process advantages of diode lasers
Compared to other types of lasers, Laserline's diode lasers have a bigger spot and a more homogeneous intensity distribution. Together, they both make consistent all-over softening possible. Thanks to the technology of double-sided radiation that was developed in collaboration with the Fraunhofer ILT, process speeds of more than 10 meters per minute will be a reality in the future.