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Smaller, lighter, thinner - how micromachining firms meet market demands

laser micromachining

When physicists Charles Townes, Alexander Prokhorov, and Nikolai Basov received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the laser in 1964, they opened a new world of possibility. 

Over 60 years since its initial development, the flexibility and precision of the laser has led to it becoming established across industry for processing a wide range of materials in countless applications. 

Micromachining, in particular, is one such application where the full might of the laser is being brought to bear. The systems involved push the boundaries of manufacturing precision up to and beyond the threshold of a single micrometre, enabling the manipulation of minute areas of the workpiece without damaging surrounding material. 

Consequently, laser micromachining enables the fabrication of increasingly smaller components, which of course lends itself to the ever-present trend of miniturising mechanical, optical and electronic devices. The laser technologies involved are therefore seeing increased uptake across industry.

Such is highlighted in a new market report published by global analytics and advisory firm Astute Analytica, which confirms that ‘Smaller, lighter, and thinner is the product development paradigm of the 21st century’. The report, which covers systems for micro- drilling, marking, cutting, welding, and shaping, developed by firms such as 3D-Micromac, Lasea, Oxford Lasers, Amada Miyachi, and IPG Photonics, states that the laser micromachining market is currently valued at $207.3 million, expected to increase at an annual growth rate of 6.84 per cent over the next eight years – totalling $368.2 million by 2030.

VR/AR devices driving demand for greater miniaturisation

In order to keep up with the latest industry and end-user demands, laser micromachining firms are having to continuously develop their machines, responding to innovative applications and emerging technologies across different sectors.

Echoing the market report, Frank Richter, head of product management at laser system manufacturer 3D-Micromac, confirms that ongoing miniaturisation with increasing complexity is a common development within the current high-tech industries. 

‘Drivers for these developments are emerging technologies such as virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) and the Internet of Things (IoT), with the demand for low power consumption,’ he says. ‘However, even the tiny tasks have to be performed on a macro scale in order to ensure productivity and low-cost.’

Thus machine manufacturers such as 3D-Micromac need to cover a wide field of applications with the highest accuracies, without being incredibly expensive. ‘In order to do so, we are focusing on our core competence of laser processes and engineering abilities,’ said Richter.

Augmented reality eyepieces cut from high-index glass wafers using an ultrafast laser (Image: 3D-Micromac)

The emergence of VR/AR is driving the development of technologies such as microLEDs, the corresponding sensors and additional technologies involved, and this is where laser micromachining comes into play. ‘We have had to develop our machines for the laser lift-off, transfer and repair of microLEDs, as well as the cutting and structuring of eyepieces for VR/AR systems,’ Richter explained.  

3D-Micromac’s machines are used by almost every high-tech industry, according to Richter: ‘Ranging from the cutting and structuring of optical components in the display industry, all the way up to customised solutions for the medical industry, such as the manufacturing of micro-meshes for filter or evaporation tasks. Our tools are also used for annealing and cutting tasks within the semiconductor industry, and much more.’ 

In terms of the materials being processed, Richter says the most common materials currently in use in the mentioned industries are PET, silicon and sapphire. While other, more specialised materials such as gold, lithium, or titanium are of course also in use – placing different demands on laser technologies in terms of the wavelengths and powers involved – these aren’t quite as abundant.

Moving towards the future, and again echoing the aforementioned market report, Richter expects considerable growth in the coming years. ‘For our target markets we see a huge growth, however, it’s unpredictable where it’s really going. We are covering niches, thus we are collaborating closely with industry leaders, answering their needs directly,’ he concluded.

Automation and robotics playing an increasing role

Since its founding in 1998, GFH Micromachining has remained focused on the continuous development of its laser technology, which, similar to 3D-Micromac, applies it to many different types of processing.

The company, which heralds itself as one of the global leaders and technology pioneers in the design and engineering of high-precision ultrafast laser micromachining systems, has a strong presence within the sector.

Michael Prasser, sales expert in laser technology at GFH Micromachining, notes that emerging developments and demands include new, hard materials and the drilling of higher aspect ratios. ‘Higher cutting speed is required to reach a higher productivity of smaller parts with smaller tolerances,’ he says. For the next few years, the micromachining development trends Prasser expects to see are geared towards higher laser powers, full automation, and consequently higher productivity.

A sample part processed using laser micro- cutting, welding, drilling and ablation (Image: LLT Applikation)

GFH Micromachining has a presence in all the top markets placing high demands on precision and the need for gentle material processing. This includes automotive, electronics, semiconductor, medical device, watch, textile, and mould manufacturing, all of which, according to Prasser, can expect to reap the benefits of the increasing automation and productivity of laser micromachining.

The trend towards full automation is already fully underway, with GFH Micromachining having equipped its GL Series machines – introduced to the market in 2019 – with a range of automated robotic systems. As a result the machine can offer a wider range of micromachining options with increased laser-on time and higher output over shorter cycle times.

Prasser spoke at the recent LANE 2022 Conference on Photonics Technologies at the start of September in Fürth, Germany. Although he cannot disclose any details about his presentation at the time of writing, he says his talk will include an introduction into smart ultrafast laser processing with rotating beam lasers as a new tool for micro-drilling, cutting, and turning in the industrial sector. An upcoming microtechnology trade fair to keep in mind is Micronora 2022, to be held in Besançon, France from 27 to 30 September, which will be packed with the latest innovations and great opportunities for networking.

Flexibility is key 

Sebastian Kull, from laser micromachining system manufacturer and service provider LLT Applikation, highlights the increasing industrial use of ultrafast lasers as one of the latest development trends in laser micromachining. ‘While ultrafast lasers were mainly used in science a few years ago, they are now increasingly used in industrial environments,’ he confirms. 

According to Kull, there is also more laser power being put into processes, accompanied by improved image processing technologies. ‘Manufacturers of laser sources increasingly offer functionalities to be able to use higher powers in the machining process, such as burst mode functionality,’ he explained. ‘Additionally, in order to measure smaller and smaller components for the machining process, more advanced components for image processing are being developed.’

Another sample part, processed using laser micro- turning, cutting, drilling and engraving (Image: GFH Micromachining) 

Similar to other micromachining system manufacturers, LLT Applikation has had to adapt its process and machines in order to address demand. ‘This is done dependent on the accuracy, materials, component shapes, cycle time, and automation requirements,’ said Kull. 

Looking more closely at LLT’s system offerings, it is clear that one of the key ways of addressing varying manufacturer demands is to produce a system with as much flexibility as possible. The LLT.micro system, for example, offers a combination of different laser sources for use with two processing heads equipped in parallel, enabling it to cut, weld, drill, and structure a wide variety of component geometries and materials with accuracies up to ±3µm. 

Kull concluded by listing several trends and developments he expects to see in the next few years that will influence the advancement and application of laser micromachining:

  • Continuing trend to miniaturisation of products: This increases the demands on the accuracy of components, which is why laser manufacturing processes continue to develop in the direction of more accurate and smaller structures.
  • Further development of materials: New materials or material alloys are constantly being developed that have special properties such as memory capabilities, increased hardness and heat resistance, etc. New laser technologies and processes must always be developed for these new materials. For example, particularly gentle laser processing in order not to influence their special properties.
  • Processing of composite materials: This requires the development of technologies and parameters capable of processing individual material layers without affecting neighbouring layers.
  • Partial automation: Due to the increasing demand towards the automation of sub-processes, for example, the feeding of components into a machine, LLT increasingly has to automate parts of its systems, such as for fixing components in place prior to micromachining.
  • Traceability and process documentation: Due to the importance of product safety, processes and process parameters must be fully documented nowadays, a topic LLT is having to increasingly deal with.

Similar to 3D Micromac and GFH Micromachining, LLT Applikation operates in a variety of top markets, manufacturing medical devices, metrology and sensor solutions, microsystems, microelectronics, tools, watches and jewellery.

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