UK-Japan project developing diode lasers for metal 3D printing

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Vector Photonics believes that PCSELs will enable an entirely new class of next generation, metal printers. (Image: Vector Photonics)

A £1.5m project is developing PCSEL-based chips for 3D metal laser printing – a market set to be worth $10 billion by 2025*.

PCSELs (photonic crystal surface emitting laser diodes) are able to offer high power, high reliability and high manufacturing efficiency to rival that of the laser technology currently used in 3D printing.

Led by UK firm Vector Photonics and funded by Innovate UK, the ‘Bloodline’ project also comprises a semiconductor epitaxy manufacturer and an industrial equipment manufacturer, both from Japan. The latter will provide product assessment and, ultimately, a route to market for the chips – although the chips produced will be suitable for any printer manufacturer. 

In addition the UK’s Compound Semiconductor Applications (CSA) catapult will undertake reliability testing of the chips. 

3D metal laser printers hold metal powder in a powder bed at just below melting point. Currently, CO2 or fibre lasers directed by mirrors scan over the surface of the powder, melting the metal powder to the layer below – a process known as selective laser melting (SLM).

Vector Photonics’ PCSEL technology has the potential to further optimise SLM, according to Dr Richard Taylor, CTO at Vector Photonics: ‘PCSELs offer: a unique combination of increased laser power, by scaling up the PCSEL arrays; improved reliability, by removing the mirrors and offering an entirely solid-state solution; and greater manufacturing efficiency – the result of higher resolution printing with less finishing overheads and faster printing speeds.'

Some may be more familiar with VCSELs (vertical cavity surface emitting lasers) or EELs (edge emitting lasers), which according to Vector Photonics are today’s most commonly used semiconductor laser technologies.

'However, they each have drawbacks,' says the firm. 'GaAs-based VCSELs are low cost and robust, but compromise wavelength range and power. InP-based EELs, which include distributed feedback (DFB) lasers, have the speed and power, but are expensive to produce and fragile, making handling difficult.' 

'We believe that PCSELs will enable an entirely new class of next generation, metal printers and contribute to even greater market growth,' Taylor commented.

The full name of project Bloodline’s is ‘Bright laser diodes for advance metal addItive manufacturing systems.’

*SmarTech Analysis: Additive Manufacturing with Metal Powders, 2019.

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