Lasers are used widely by industry to produce precise incisions and mould materials into specific shapes.
According to the National Robotarium, this approach to laser-based manufacturing depends on melting or vaporising the material, which requires the laser’s energy to be focussed on the right points. The standard laser beam shape makes it difficult to tailor this for specific manufacturing processes, decreasing efficiency and limiting what can be made.
The EPSRC-funded research will develop laser beams which have been specifically designed to meet the exact manufacturing requirements of products, which will improve efficiency and precision.
"This is cutting-edge technology in every sense of the phrase,” Iain Stewart, UK government minister for Scotland said in a statement. “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.”
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.
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. In an academic partnership, the project’s research into this kind of medical application will be supported by Professor David Jayne at Leeds University.
The National Robotarium is focussed on industry collaboration to solve global challenges, and to that end researchers will work with PowerPhotonic, Oxford Lasers and the G&H Group, who will support testing in real-life industrial settings.
Dr Richard Carter, assistant Professor of Applied Optics and Photonics at Heriot-Watt University and the project’s lead said: “Manufacturing is of key strategic importance to the UK, with a particular focus on high-tech and high-value manufacturing.
“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.
“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. However, this technology could also support research in quantum technology, waveguide physics and the bio-sciences - anywhere where light must be controlled and manipulated.”
The global laser processing market is projected to grow from $4bn (£2.8bn) in 2020 to $5.8bn (£4.1bn) by 2025.