Digital Multimirror Devices for laser-based Manufacturing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Optoelectronics Research Centre


This proposal falls under the Manufacturing with light call and investigates the use of digital multimirror devices (DMDs) to perform controlled laser ablative machining, and multiphoton polymerisation for subtractive and additive laser-based manufacturing respectively. We will process a range of materials such as metals, semiconductors, paper, high value items such as gemstones, as well as polymers and biocompatible polymers. DMDs are computer-addressable arrays of reflective mirrors (typically up to one million mirrors per chip), which can have a pattern such as a letter, logo or even a full-page display imposed on the array surface. A laser pulse can then be reflected off the patterned mirror array and the image demagnified by several orders of magnitude before being directed to the workpiece intended for machining. The laser energy density at the workpiece can be high enough to cause ablative material removal or multiphoton polymerisation in the exposed regions, thereby 'printing' a minified version of whatever was displayed on the DMD.

Rapid laser-based single-shot machining of complex patterns at micron (or even smaller) size scales is a novel and industrially-relevant process technology. The programme here is to extend our DMD-based machining to the manufacturing sector, in areas such as security, safety, anti-counterfeiting, MEMS and silicon photonics, biocompatible templates and more. The programme will optimise this laser-based processing technology and then apply it to the widest range of materials across the identified user spectrum. We will engage with engineers and technologists as well as laser-based manufacturing companies who have a need for rapid, low cost and flexible processing techniques.

Planned Impact

The main beneficiaries of this research will be laser integrators (such as LML in the UK), manufacturers of precision systems, those working in security and anti-counterfeiting, the photonics area (and in particular the field of silicon photonics), laser processing of biomaterials, and aviation safety via studies of metal fatigue.

Laser and system integrators will benefit from the generation of new markets for their industrial lasers, when coupled to DMD hardware, and the introduction of new techniques in laser-based processing. The UK can effectively exploit such an opportunity and the PI has also worked in the past (in both academic and laser fabrication contexts) with one of the founders of M-SOLV, a major laser materials processing company near Oxford.

We have identified and will work with as project partners, several companies and industries in the areas of marking, printing, security, and processing of biomaterials. All of these have immediate relevance to the interest of society in the context of job creation, greater levels of security, safety and financial stability (in the area of anti-counterfeiting and prevention of fraud for example). We see this area of laser-based manufacturing as novel, disruptive and potentially a world-leader.
Description By using digital mirror devices to control the shape of a pulse of laser light, we can pattern materials down to sizes that are below one micron in a single laser pulse. Such image-based patterning is a very effective, very fast, and very manufacturing-friendly approach to materials research, and is attracting attention from several laser companies
Exploitation Route Within the manufacturing sector, any industry that wants to achieve fast and high precision laser-based materials processing is likely to take an interest as the process is simple, fast and high precision.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Electronics,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description We have published our results, and also presented to several conferences. We also have engaged with UK industry and laser companies as project partners in particular in the areas of security encoding and marking. In addition, as a direct consequence of this award, the researcher co-I, Dr Ben Mills, won an EPSRC early career fellowship, EP/N03368x/1, in which he has used these digital micromirror devices coupled with AI to generates a series of papers centred around intelligent machining, where the neural network interacts with the laser-based machining to predict outcomes and optimisation procedures. This is a really exciting new area, and has generated several further EPSRC proposals (one submitted, two more in preparation). All this is a direct result of this first award.
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Economic

Description EPSRC call
Amount £1,768,136 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/P027644/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2017 
End 06/2022
Description EPSRC fellowship scheme in manufacturing - awarded to a researcher co-I emplyed on this grant
Amount £861,709 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/N03368X/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2016 
End 10/2021
Description De La Rue 
Organisation De La Rue
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We engaged in repeated discussions with De La Rue about the application areas that would be enabled by our laser forward-transfer technique for security and encoding applications. The company was keen to take this forward if we received subsequent funding.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Peter Cooper from De La Rue visited us twice and the team then visited De La Rue to pursue possible collaborations. Much was gained by these joint discussions, and ideas that we learned led directly to the award of an EPSRC Early Career Fellowship for one of the team members
Impact This collaboration led to the award of an EPSRC Early Career Fellowship for one of the team members, as described in the Further Funding section
Start Year 2014
Description Laser Micromachining Limited 
Organisation Laser Micromachining Limited
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution we engaged in extensive discussions with this company about the usefulness of our precision manufacturing process for real industrial need.
Collaborator Contribution They hosted several visits, including a week-long stay to trial our portable laser-processing prototype. They also provided regular feedback on our work in the context of practical laser-based machining.
Impact the real outcome was information supplied to us based on their knowledge of laser-based processing, as applied to customer need. Having access to 'market' need as opposed to academic inside views is vital.
Start Year 2014