ANALYSIS & OPINION
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Theory meets practice at AKL'08

Laser systems are an accepted tool within many industries and provide for a flexible, automated, and precise process that will ultimately increase productivity and reduce costs, said Markus Rütering of Rofin-Sinar, Hamburg, at AKL'08, the International Laser Technology Congress.

Delegates gathered in Aachen, Germany, for the 3-day conference, held from 7-9 May 2008. Organised by the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT), the conference featured an extensive lecture timetable as well as live demonstrations of laser systems.

Rütering gave a flavour of exactly what laser technology is now capable of, with laser marking speeds of up to 2,000 characters per second being achieved; solid-state laser beams that can focus down to 10μm, allowing extremely precise processing; and remote welding within the automotive industry being carried out at a rate of 42 welds in 12 seconds, were just some of his examples. Also mentioned, were the various innovative processes being developed, such as glass cutting in wineglass manufacturing and photovoltaic production.

Prof Dr Reinhart Poprawe, director of the Fraunhofer ILT, in his lecture analysing predicted market trends for laser technology in 2012, suggested that sales of CO2 lasers, the workhorse for many industries, will remain consistently high, neither increasing nor decreasing. Sales of fibre lasers, however, look set to increase rapidly.

Dr Christoph Hertzler of Trumpf, Ditzingen, expressed similar views to Poprawe stating that 'no one single beam source will prevail'. In his opinion, there will always be a use and a market for different laser types.

Advances made in laser technology and those, in particular, that show promise for future growth were detailed by Christian Hinke of PhotonAix, Aachen. Hinke looked at hybrid laser systems, which are becoming increasingly popular. One such hybridisation is the combi-head, which combines cutting and welding on one laser system head. Traditionally, the laser head had to be changed to alternate between cutting and welding, which involved realigning the machine, but this is no longer necessary using a combi-head. Hinke suggested that other processes, such as annealing and surface processing, could potentially be added in the future, allowing one laser head to carry out a whole chain of tasks.

The market for selective laser melting (SLM), where a 3D structure can be built up layer by layer by selectively fusing metallic powder, is also expected to grow. The technology allows structural geometries to be produced that wouldn't be possible, or would be extremely costly, using traditional machining methods.

Both the combi-head and SLM processes could be seen in action at the Fraunhofer ILT during live demonstrations, which gave a much more practical spin on what was learnt in the lecture theatre.

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