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The industrial manufacturing sector relies on numerous technologies to operate. Lasers are among them. Here are some of the leading applications of lasers and how they make sure the industry keeps progressing.
Some manufacturers use lasers to improve the speed and overall outcomes of industrial welding. These efforts make assembly lines more productive and efficient.
One application involves the manufacture of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). Manufacturers use welding when creating the bipolar plates of those components. However, each weld can take up to four seconds to complete. Some FCEVs have hundreds of welds. Thus, bipolar plate welding is a production bottleneck that could take approximately 13 minutes per car to do.
One way to increase the overall speed with lasers is to set up multiple stations, with each one handling a particular cut or mold. However, that approach requires more production stations and associated resources.
Alternatively, recent improvements in optical phased array technology allow combining numerous single-mode laser beams into one. Then, it’s possible to dynamically change the laser’s shape in real-time without the need for mechanical manipulation. Research indicates this progress could allow faster laser feeds with fewer defects.
Using laser welding for production in manufacturing is a relatively newer option. Previously, people mainly used applications of lasers for high-value repairs and to fix tools. However, laser welding can cut out post-processing steps, such as grinding and finishing. That advantage makes the option worth exploring when manufacturers want to achieve better productivity.
Engraving and Marking
Many applications of lasers in manufacturing are used to put permanent marks on products. In addition to adding visible details, some regulators require this to assist with traceability.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires many medical products to have unique device identifiers (UDI). These include details such as the item’s manufacturer, serial number, and digits associated with the batch or lot number. Laser marking works well for adding the UDI because it won’t wear off due to time, heavy use, or cleaning product exposure. Companies in the aerospace industry also depend on laser marking when putting identifying marks on fireproof materials.
The type of marking needed in manufacturing can impact the overall production time. For example, adding something resistant to shot blasting can double or triple the timeframes, although manufacturers can reduce that effect by using higher-powered lasers. Some look for opportunities to let robots handle some laser-marking steps, too.
Companies also use laser engraving methods to engrave logos onto materials, such as to strengthen branding. Similarly, fashion companies benefit from the applications of lasers by using them to add specific stylistic elements to fabrics like denim. Industry practitioners say doing this significantly decreases water waste and toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process.
Many applications of lasers help achieve enhanced quality control for a wide variety of products. Sometimes, they assist with verifying measurements for items with especially tight tolerances.
In one example, British Steel uses a measurement system with eight individual lasers. It can provide millions of dimensional readings per bar rolled, contributing to better quality control oversight and problem detection within the company. More specifically, this system measures each bar every 10 millimeters to multiple decimal places. Company leaders also tweaked it at the factory after installation to make it give the most accurate results possible.
In another case, a Japanese snack company invested in a laser-sorting system after experiencing bottlenecks while trying to manually check that almonds and cashews met quality standards. Corporate leaders faced numerous challenges, such as an aging workforce and the fact that many people found the monotonous task undesirable.
The laser-assisted technology can remove more than 98% of foreign objects, such as plastics. It can also detect other unwanted aspects, such as shells. The system also works faster than humans can.
Another benefit is that the machine uses a three-way sorting system. It groups products as acceptable or not acceptable for sale to consumers, plus those that could get used in processed items. Besides keeping quality levels high, this approach reduces food waste.
3D printing has dramatically changed what’s possible in the manufacturing sector. Not all 3D printers use lasers, but they’re often instrumental parts of the process. One example is stereolithography. It cures a light-sensitive resin with an ultraviolet laser so that the completed product reflects a digitized, 3D model. There’s also the laser powder bed fusion technique. It relies on a beam as a heat source that selectively melts powdered material, making it form parts once cooled.
This option has led to groundbreaking results when using 3D printing to create metal objects. One company in this space aims to bring this production process to semiconductors, which could help alleviate the global shortage of these components.
One of the downsides of using laser powder bed fusion is that it can cause porosity and cracks that make the manufacturing method unsuitable for load-bearing or mission-critical applications. However, researchers recently devised an option that could reduce those problems, making overall defects less likely to occur.
It uses ceramic nanoparticles to manage the instabilities that can make defects happen while using laser powder bed fusion to make metal parts. The team reported that their results were comparable to a commercially manufactured part purchased off the shelf. They said the nanoparticles caused fewer variations in the melt pool, which stopped droplets from spraying outward and creating large spatters that could lead to defects.
Which Applications of Lasers in Manufacturing Will You Try?
These examples represent some of the most widely used ways manufacturers depend on lasers to get the desired results. However, it’s not an all-encompassing list of possibilities. If you’re thinking about incorporating lasers into your production process, assess the biggest challenges that make output slow down or become less effective in some other way. Those areas may be good candidates for laser implementation, especially if you’re hoping to see substantial benefits.
Remember that you may need to make ongoing modifications based on trial and error for optimal results. Even so, using lasers thoughtfully and with a goal-oriented mindset can strengthen manufacturing processes by removing or reducing issues. They can also help people do their jobs better, either by streamlining aspects of production or giving humans more time to focus on other tasks.
These benefits make it well worthwhile to examine how and where lasers could most benefit a manufacturing company. Then, decision-makers can engage with companies that provide laser-based solutions and see what’s possible and relevant to their identified needs.