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Researchers developing rapidly changing 3D beam shapes

Researchers at Heriot-Watt’s University National Robotarium research facility for robotics have secured funding to develop ‘3D laser beams’ whose shape can be changed rapidly.

The innovation is designed to transform the manufacturing and healthcare technology industries, making it easier and more cost effective to produce products that require highly-precise manufacturing, such as medical equipment and mobile devices.

The £586,000 funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, will support the research and development of the 3D lasers and accelerate the commercialisation of the technology for the benefit of businesses and the wider UK economy.

In the announcement of the project the researchers say that the current approach to laser-based manufacturing depends on melting or vaporising material, which requires a laser’s energy to be focussed on the right points. They explained that the standard shape of a laser beam shape makes it difficult to tailor this process for specific manufacturing processes, decreasing efficiency and limiting what can be made.

The research to be undertaken at the National Robotarium will therefore develop laser beams that have been designed specifically to meet the exact manufacturing requirements of products, improving efficiency and precision. 

Dr Richard Carter, assistant professor of applied optics and photonics at Heriot-Watt University, and the project’s lead, said: ’This research will address the priority area of digital manufacturing, enabling a bespoke, rapid response capability for the first time. The new methods we are developing represent a paradigm shift in the capabilities of laser-based manufacturing, making it possible to move between 3D beam shapes with zero down-time, low cost and minimal technical know-how.

UK Government Minister for Scotland Iain Stewart added: ‘These 3D lasers are set to unlock previously unheard of levels of precision and so transform our manufacturing and medical technology industries, boosting the UK's global reputation for innovation and attracting jobs and further investment.’

Optimising applications

The new technique could be harnessed to improve how holes for sensors and cameras on smartphone screens are drilled and to increase the density of information on semiconductor chips, helping to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for more memory in devices.

Medical applications could include cancer surgery, where it is hoped more precise medical instruments could allow the resection of tumours without removing healthy surrounding tissue.

Other examples include fabricating waveguide devices to support telecommunications and the internet, microscopy and even astronomic telescopes.

The researchers will be working with three industrial partners throughout the project to optimise the approach and final product for commercial application. Industrial partners PowerPhotonic, Oxford Lasers and the G&H Group will also support testing in real-life industrial settings.

‘Through collaboration with our industry partners, we’ll be able to develop the lasers in line with what industry needs, providing solutions to manufacturing challenges across a wide range of sectors,’ said Carter. ‘However, this technology could also support research in quantum technology, waveguide physics and the bio-sciences - anywhere where light must be controlled and manipulated.’

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