Laser technology in manufacturing is everywhere, touching our lives in many, invisible ways. For example, lasers are used to cut the material that the airbags in our cars are made of, the glass for our smart phone and tablet screens and the tiny, delicate medical stents used to improve our health and enhance our longevity. Lasers are used to weld airbag detonators, and the batteries in our handheld mobile devices; to drill engine components for planes; and to mark or engrave all of the above.
The key driver of using laser technology in the manufacturing sector was laser cutting of sheet metal. The (then) new process turned out to produce cuts that were more accurate and precise than those produced by any other technology, leading to many advantages in the process downstream.
I think, specifically, of the ship building industry, which used to utilize plasma to cut parts. Many of these parts, however, needed post cut reworking to fit correctly, and shipyards used to reverberate to the sound of a thousand hammers. I remember asking an overseeing manager what he thought of his new laser cutting machine after it was installed, and he gave me a one-word answer – “Silence!”
Fast forward 20 years and here’s my take on the 5 key trends in laser use for the manufacturing sector:
- High volume laser welding – Maximizing weld time and minimizing non-weld time is always a top manufacturing process goal. Laser welding is a non-contact process, so the laser can be directed very quickly by moving mirror systems known as scan heads, making welding almost instantaneous. A great example of this is welding car seat assemblies– a robot carrying a scan head moves above the assembly without stopping making all the welds on-the-fly. A job that previously took minutes now takes just seconds.
- Laser part marking – Laser engraving is the fastest growing laser market in recent years, and it continues to expand as the need for part tracking and traceability increases. Laser engraving provides a permanent direct mark on a wide variety of materials, with any feature; text, graphics, barcodes. Read more in our related blog Laser Marking, Etching and Engraving: One Flexible Tool.
- Laser additive manufacturing – Finally hitting the big time after waiting in the wings for almost 30 years, laser additive manufacturing can be used for both part repair and part creation. For part repair it’s great for reworking expensive components or tooling that wear over time, like molds and aero engine turbine blades. Metal layers are deposited in the region of repair with the slight excess machined back to specification. For part creation, I’m seeing a lot more fabrication of custom parts for medical implants, lighter single piece complex aero engine components, and fast component prototyping. Reducing cycle times is going to be key to keep up this success.
- Ultra short pulse laser micromachining – With pulse durations of 10-12 s and 10-15 s, picosecond and femtosecond lasers can process metals with no or negligible heat affected zone. They can machine plastics, brittle materials like glass and ceramics, and virtually any metal. The laser removes material by a sublimation method, solid to vapor. The machined edges are of the highest quality – clean, precise, and burr free. The extreme precision is being used in production to drill holes into gas injectors, for example, that must have a precise geometry to maximize efficiency. The medical device industry also has many requirements for plastic and metal machining that work well with ultra-short pulse laser capabilities. These lasers tend to be expensive, but prices are falling, and they can be a good choice if you need to create a unique part design or dramatically reduce post processing operations. Read our related blog Update on ROI for Disk Femtosecond Lasers.
- Flatbed laser cutting – Now we’ve come full circle, back to the operation that kick-started the laser processing industry and is still by far its highest revenue sector. The latest huge laser cutting advance occurred with the development of fiber and disk lasers, which have significantly pushed the envelope for cutting speeds. A 2kW fiber or disk laser can now cut faster than a 4kW CO2 laser! Systems require 5G accelerations with cutting speeds through the roof to keep up motion. More recently, these lasers can be externally controlled to optimally cut both thin and thick sections on the fly. A new twist on the scene is the diode laser, which is creating a lot of interest for aluminum cutting.
The future is bright for lasers in manufacturing. There is still work to be done – one of the primary obstacles for laser technology uptake is lack of education on what lasers can do in the manufacturing workforce. I’ve been involved for years with the Industrial Laser Community, a technical community within the SME that is addressing this with webinars and conference presentations. Look out for laser sessions at Fabtech this year! I’d love to share more about these manufacturing trends.