Strategic thinking in the UK

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Dave MacLellan, executive director at AILU, writes about a UK strategy for laser material processing

The release of the Green Paper ‘Building our industrial strategy’ in January was a welcome sign that the UK Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was serious about the British industrial manufacturing sector. At around the same time a working group headed by Duncan Hand (Heriot-Watt University) on behalf of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) funded Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Laser-based Production Processes was putting the finishing touches on a UK laser material processing report, titled ‘Lasers for productivity – a UK strategy’, which was released in draft form in March at the 2017 Industrial Laser Application Symposium.

In spite of the distraction of a general election in the UK on 
8 June, there is an opportunity to explore a business-led sector deal for the UK laser manufacturing sector, which AILU is looking to facilitate with a meeting and workshop on 
the same day as the AILU AGM on 18 May.

UK businesses involved in the sector are welcome to attend this event, even if they are not AILU members. If you are interested but unable to attend, your input is still important – so keep in touch ( for more information about this or other events).

Key recommendations from the draft report are:
• Skills and training: Increased vocational training, building laser processing into further education and apprenticeships.
• Access to finance: Easing the purchase of capital equipment, assisted by Innovate UK loans.
• Process demonstration: Demonstration of proof-of-concept and proof-of-process to help SMEs implement laser manufacturing.
• Laser and laser process innovation: Ensuring product and process development is supported by funding to maintain competitive edge.
• Industrial strategy: To promote best practice and deploy laser manufacturing in UK industry benefiting deprived geographical areas and high-growth business sectors.

A copy of the full draft report is available from AILU; the final report will be issued on 18 May.

Taking the pulse of UK industry

The recent AILU Industrial Laser Applications Symposium (ILAS), held in Grantham, UK, at the end of March, was a great place to take soundings from the 225 delegates about the state of the laser material processing industry.

Many people have commented to me that the Brexit process presents opportunities and threats. There is a sense in which media coverage and public dialogue has focused on the negatives and the threats, and that this needs to be balanced by the positives and the opportunities that a new relationship with Europe and the rest of the world presents.

Conversations with laser equipment manufacturers and system integrators at ILAS indicate that the sector is strong and confident.

Business continues to grow, order books are very healthy and the temporary lack of confidence which kicked off after the June referendum is largely a thing of the past. The job shop sector is perhaps the quickest to respond to the barometer of business confidence and most sub-contractors report activity meeting or exceeding targets that were set last year.

During ILAS there were some very interesting innovations presented, and three of them stick in my mind. Firstly, the tipping point seems to have been reached in wall-plug efficiency of laser cutting systems for metals, with fibre, disk and direct diode lasers announcing efficiencies in excess of 40-50 per cent, which makes the return on investment decision for buyers looking to replace some or all of their CO2 laser systems much more straightforward. Secondly, the growth in the application of laser cleaning is a very interesting development, facilitated again by laser source improvements. This topic will be addressed in a dedicated AILU workshop in September this year. Finally, the range of applications and equipment in the ultrashort pulse laser sector means that this market is now showing exciting growth potential, and many solid and economically viable applications are appearing.