Advanced fibre laser drilling at MTC aims to improve aero components

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The speed and quality of aerospace component manufacture is to be improved with the introduction of advanced fibre laser drilling at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry.

MTC said it was working with Rolls-Royce to investigate the potential of fibre lasers for drilling of aerospace materials, especially the holes in aero engine turbine blades that allow them to function without beginning to melt.

MTC is using technology – said to be the first of its kind in the world – from US firm IPG Photonics, a high performance laser manufacturer.

Sundar Marimuthu, a research engineer at the Coventry unit specialising in laser processing of materials, told The Engineer that he did not believe it was available elsewhere in the UK.

The technology had only been on the market for two years, and the MTC had been working with it for more than a year, Marimuthu said.

“However, it is likely that aerospace manufacturers in the US and Europe are also exploring fibre lasers for drilling,” he said.

Turbine blades in aero engines are drilled with holes to keep them cool as very hot gases circulate around them.

Marimuthu explained that Nd:YAG lasers had been used for 20 years to drill holes in blades, but fibre lasers were more controllable and had benefits in terms of quality and speed of manufacture.

Advances in technology meant fibre lasers could pulse for very short spaces of time – between 0.1–10 milliseconds – allowing them to be used for this application for the first time.

The IPG laser equipment at MTC has a high operating efficiency and is also more compact than traditional lasers, allowing better use of factory space, and reducing the need for multiple machines.

Marimuthu said lasers were being used for a wide variety of materials processing operations at the MTC, including cutting, hollowing, drilling, cladding and additive layer manufacturing.

“In fact, lasers are used in every department at the MTC in some form or another,” he said.

The Manufacturing Technology Centre opened in 2010 and is a partnership between some of the UK’s major global manufacturers and three universities: Birmingham, Nottingham and Loughborough, as well as TWI, the operating division of The Welding Institute.

It is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, supported by Innovate UK.