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What’s driving the laser revolution?

Readers of Laser Systems Europe and members of AILU are passionate about increasing the uptake of lasers for material processing applications in industry. The global industrial laser market is projected to grow in excess of 10 per cent compound annual growth rate (CAGR), according to several of the market research reports published in the past years. What has driven, and what is driving, this laser revolution? In my view, there are a few underlying themes emerging that drive consumer demand at the highest rates. These are related to the broad themes of health, convenience and environment. Let’s take each of these in turn and unpack some of the driving forces that have and will continue to pull the demand for lasers in the industrial manufacturing sector. 

Healthy futures

One of the ironies of the success in medical treatment and advanced surgical, pharmaceutical and diagnostic technologies, is that improvements in average life expectancy place a growing burden on the global pension pot and the cost of social care for our ageing population – and the drop in birth rates compounds this financial crisis. Nevertheless, we all want to live longer. Laser processing is used in diagnostics for preventative treatment or early intervention in serious conditions. Applications include micro-fluidics, fine hole drilling, polymer welding, laser etching and cutting.

Implants and surgical tools are another pillar of innovation including cardio-vascular applications and long-term slow-release targeted drug delivery mechanisms. These applications are also enabled by laser material processing, including fine laser cutting of foils and precision tubes, laser joining of metals and plastics, surface texturing for wettability or friction reduction, and etching for traceability and improved patient safety. 

Convenient technology

The march of the smartphone in the last decade has changed the way we live and work – for better and worse, I believe. We now carry around in our pockets more computing power than the super-computers of a generation ago. Buying and downloading entertainment, online shopping, recording our daily activities and communicating with family, friends and business colleagues make these items indispensable and so addictive we feel lost without them.

Lasers are central to the innovations these devices require to fit so much into such a small volume. From patterning touch screen coatings, to cutting toughened glass and sapphire windows, every smartphone on the market has been manufactured by multiple laser processes. Laser spot and seam welding assist miniaturisation, and fine cutting or drilling of foils and substrates in a range of new materials are key applications requiring industrial lasers. 

Environmental targets

Reducing carbon footprints, slowing and reversing global warming, and alleviating pollution that causes respiratory illness are strong themes that drive product innovations. A recent AILU workshop on laser manufacturing of lightweight structures highlighted the use of new materials (composites, alloys and polymers) and new technology (laser additive processes and joining techniques), which all can contribute to lighter vehicles and greater fuel efficiency. The tectonic shift from internal combustion engines to vehicles powered by electricity will soon see the end of gearboxes, exhaust systems and fuel tanks. New vehicles will have higher reliability and fewer components – but battery technology will also benefit from laser welding, foil processing and structuring by laser.

The new efficiencies of fibre lasers have taken the applications of laser cleaning out of the laboratory and into the factory. From pre-treatment of aluminium car bodies to improve welding quality (reducing porosity), to cleaning stone, brick and wood used in commercial, architectural and garden products, the recent AILU workshop on laser cleaning showed that the speed and environmental benefits of lasers are starting to make these applications commercially viable, with laser sources being more portable, affordable and wall-plug efficient. 

To find out more about the latest technology in micro laser processing, visit the Laser Precision Microfabrication Symposium (LPM 2018) from 25-28 June where the latest advances in ultrashort pulse laser sources and applications will be presented – driven by the thirst to satisfy the demands for this growing technology.

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