April 12, 2024
Ict

Laser Automation Revolutionizing Manufacturing


Introduction of Laser Technology

Lasers were originally developed in the 1960s and introduced to manufacturing in the 1970s. One of the earliest adoptions was in printed circuit board manufacturing, where lasers could accurately drill holes in boards. Since then, laser technology has rapidly advanced and diversified the ways it can be applied across various manufacturing processes.

Increased Accuracy and Precision

One major advantage Laser automation provide over traditional mechanized tools is their high level of precision. Laser systems can direct a beam only a few micrometers in diameter with extreme accuracy. This allows for intricate cutting, welding, and marking patterns to be completed with minimal tolerances. Parts can be machined within a fraction of a millimeter of designs. The precision of lasers has enabled increasingly complex components to be fabricated.

In the automotive industry, laser cutting is commonly used to shape steel and aluminum vehicle body panels. Doors, hoods, and other parts can now be laser cut near net shapes, reducing post-machining steps. This precision laser cutting promotes material savings and process efficiency. Lasers are also utilized for things like tire mold texturing which requires an exceptionally high degree of resolution.

Wide Versatility in Materials Processing

While early lasers were mainly applied to non-metallic substrates, technology advancements have expanded the range of materials that can be laser processed. CO2 lasers are frequently used for cutting, welding, and marking of non-ferrous metals like aluminum. Fiber and solid-state lasers have become prevalent for laser processing of high-strength steels. Applications include laser welding of advanced high-strength steels in automotive manufacturing.

Dissimilar material joining is now possible using laser technology. For example, laser welding is enabling the assembly of mixed material components in electronics and electrical products. Plastics, wood, glass, and ceramics can also be cut, etched, or welded using appropriate laser wavelength and pulsing parameters. This wide versatility allows lasers to replace multiple discrete processes and consolidate manufacturing steps.

Increased Automation and Productivity

A key benefit gained from laser systems is their high degree of automation potential. Lasers can be precisely controlled and synchronized using computer numerical control (CNC). This enables complex patterns and geometries to be laser processed automatically with repeatable quality. Fully automated laser workcells can run unmanned for extended periods.

In many applications, laser processing has significantly increased manufacturing productivity compared to conventional techniques. Laser cutting of sheet metal, for example, is up to ten times faster than mechanical cutting processes. Higher laser beam power and improved optics have further boosted throughput rates. The ability of lasers to process at the speed of light also allows for real-time monitoring and process control. All this translates to dramatically reduced production times and costs for laser manufacturers.

Improved Part Functionality

Beyond speed and precision advantages, lasers enable new design possibilities through advanced materials processing methods. Laser drilling, for example, produces holes with a superior quality surface finish compared to other drilling techniques. This enhances fatigue life of drilled components. Laser microstructuring can precisely texture surfaces on microscopic levels to impart custom functionalities.

Laser metal deposition techniques like laser metal fusion now allow for additive manufacturing of production-grade metal parts. This opens up opportunities for lightweight design, topology optimization, and part consolidation through integrated design and manufacturing. Laser processing also reduces part distortion since it involves localized heating effects without impacting surrounding regions. All these factors contribute to improved part performance and new functional opportunities through laser technology.

Laser Applications in Different Sectors

The automotive industry has been a leader in adopting laser processing across their manufacturing operations. Lasers are heavily utilized for body panel cutting, welding, and assembly applications. They help fabricate increasingly complex vehicle structures from advanced high-strength steels. Laser steel butt-welding has also replaced resistance spot welding at some automakers due its higher quality.

In electronics manufacturing, lasers are indispensable for circuit board drilling and cutting, display structuring, and semiconductor engineering applications like doping and material deposition. Miniaturization trends in electronics have driven continued development of smaller laser beam sizes capable of incredibly precise laser micromachining.

The medical device industry extensively employs lasers for things like cutting tubes and wires, micromachining of implants, and processing of sensitive biocompatible materials. Dental laser procedures have also grown rapidly with lasers replacing mechanical tools for tasks like tooth ablation and bonding.

Lasers are also common in industries like aerospace, energy, defense, and manufacturing of appliances, furniture, and machinery. They fulfill narrow niche functions as well as bulk material processing needs across these sectors. Emerging laser technologies like ultrafast pulsed lasers continue introducing new capabilities that expand the range of laser applications.

Future Projections and Innovations

The global laser materials processing market value is projected to grow significantly in the coming years as manufacturing adopts more digital and smart technologies. Many experts expect laser processing to replace conventional techniques in various bulk manufacturing fields beyond its dominance in electronics manufacturing.

Wavelength diversity, increased power levels, and specialist laser types are enabling new avenues. Ultrafast lasers offer novel new avenues like laser shock peening for enhancing fatigue life and surface properties. Fiber lasers keep advancing with higher beam qualities and powers. Green lasers and new solid-state lasers based on emerging materials continue to diversify the laser toolkit.

Development of intelligent Laser automation systems integrated with AI, machine learning and advanced sensors will facilitate autonomous laser operations. This includes things like real-time process monitoring, defect detection, dynamic beam control based on in-process measurements, and predictive maintenance of laser equipment. Such smart laser factories will usher in Industry 4.0 standards and transform global manufacturing.

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  1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
  2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it