Industry Interview: Laser-Based Production Processes

CfIM logoAt this year’s SMAS Annual Conference, we met with Veronica Ferguson, Industrial Outreach Officer from the ‘ESPRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Laser-Based Production Processes’ and heard how, as part of the UK National Centre led by Heriot Watt University, they are working with industry partners to develop new ways of using lasers in UK manufacturing, helping organisations across Scotland and the UK to take advantage of the latest innovations and developments in this rapidly growing field.

Intrigued to understand more about this growing, multi-billion dollar global industry we met up with Veronica after the conference to find out more:


 

Hi Veronica,

Thanks for talking to us about the work the Centre is conducting with Scottish manufacturers. 

Laser-based manufacturing is a growing industry but how long has it been established and what impact has it already had on the wider manufacturing and production industry?

People have been aware of lasers for a long time, particularly through Sci-fi and the cartoons of the 1960s. However, it’s only over the past 25+ years that industrial lasers have been replacing many ‘conventional’ tools in manufacturing across a range of sectors, increasing productivity, quality and functionality.

How has industry in the UK responded to the application of this new technology? The take up of laser technology in some key process areas, such as welding and machining, has been less than might have been anticipated. As illustration, it has been shown that laser material processing in UK Manufacturing is only about 10% that of Germany per unit of manufactured output. Recently, however, new opportunities for significant accelerated growth in industrial laser processing have arrived resulting in new processes becoming technically and commercially viable, e.g. joining dissimilar materials.

“increasing productivity, quality and functionality”

Which types of industries and organisations are using laser-based production processes? A system based on lasers can make a huge difference in any precision engineering environment.

Laser processing (cutting / joining / drilling / marking) has already revolutionised the automotive, aerospace, optics and electronics production processes with companies such as Mercedes and Rolls Royce leading the way in using laser technology to manufacture parts.

Laser additive manufacturing (LAM) is transforming the development and production of metal and polymer-based products as diverse as helicopter engine components, replacement hip and knee joints and industrial filters.

Design companies see the potential for using lasers to generate specific looks and finishes. An example of this is 4c Design, who designed the Queen’s Baton for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.  Rather than using cutting edge electronics, they choose to focus on cutting edge manufacturing. This ended up with the Queen’s message being internally illuminated to hint at the secret within, then surrounded by a titanium lattice framework that was grown using the latest additive manufacturing technology.

Laser-based processes are also used in biomedical settings, medical devices, in the semi-conductor and electronics space, and have huge potential to be more fully exploited within the oil and gas sector.

Tell us about the role of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing (CfIM).  The Centre  was launched in December 2013. Supported by £5.6m of funding from the EPSRC and £4.8m from 31 UK manufacturing industry partners, it opens the door to a range of new laser-based production processes and technologies, helping UK industry to take maximum advantage of these advances by bringing together a multi-disciplinary team of leading UK researchers and key industry partners. Academic partners include Heriot-Watt University, Cambridge University, Cranfield University, Liverpool University and The University of Manchester, and examples of some of the key industrial partners are Selex, Renishaw, Airbus, Rolls Royce, PowerPhotonic (based in Dalgety Bay) and Coherent Scotland.

How can organisations in Scotland benefit from working with the Centre? The Centre has built in to its offering what we’re calling Seedcorn Projects to allow Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to work with the Centre on 2 week feasibility studies or pump-priming projects at no cost to themselves.  Each project will be awarded up to 2 weeks Researcher time with input from members of the Centre academic team to develop or test laser-based production processes that could benefit the SME involved.

“a whole new suite of skills required”

What impact do you think this will have on job opportunities within Scotland’s manufacturing and production industry? To be honest, I don’t think that applying laser-based production processes in a manufacturing setting is going to result in a huge upturn in employment prospects. However, there are lots of different types of lasers eg gas lasers,  fibre lasers, solid state lasers, semiconductor lasers, free-electron lasers amongst others, and each has a different application working with different sectors and different materials. So, what I think is that there will be a whole new suite of skills required so that Scotland and the UK as a whole can take advantage of the world of potential that using lasers in manufacturing provides.

How can organisations get in touch to find out more about the Centre and the Seedcorn Project? If you have any ideas, queries or questions, please do not hesitate to contact Veronica Ferguson, Industrial Outreach Officer for the Centre for Innovative Manufacturing of Laser-based Production Processes on v.ferguson@hw.ac.uk  I may not know the technical answer to your query, but I can point you in the direction of someone who can. If you would like to take advantage of the Seedcorn Project, just contact me directly.


Many thanks  to Veronica Ferguson from the CfIM for talking with us about the laser-based manufacturing industry. You can find out more at: http://www.cim-laser.ac.uk/

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