Laser Technologies for Future Manufacturing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC)

Abstract

Modern manufacturing has been revolutionised by photonics. Lasers are central to this revolution, as they continue to transform the fast-changing manufacturing landscape. Photonics manufacturing represents an industry worth £10.5bn per annum to the UK economy, growing at about 8.5% annually and directly employing more than 70,000 people. UK Photonics exports are currently the 4th largest by value of any UK manufacturing sector, following automotive, aerospace and machinery exports. More importantly, UK Photonics exports more than 75% of its output relative to the UK manufacturing average of only 34%. Laser technology in particular underpins a number of leading UK industries in the aerospace, automotive, electronics, pharmaceuticals and healthcare engineering sectors. Over four decades, the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton has maintained a position at the forefront of photonics research. Its long and well-established track record in fibres, lasers, waveguides, devices, and optoelectronic materials has fostered innovation, enterprise, and cross-boundary multi-disciplinary activities. Advanced fibres and laser sub-systems, manufactured in Southampton by companies spun-out from the Optoelectronics Research Centre, are exported worldwide.

Working closely with UK photonics industry, our interconnected and highly synergetic group will optimally combine different laser technologies into hybrid platforms for miniaturised, efficient, low-cost, agile and reconfigurable smart laser systems with software-driven performance. This is only possible because of the controllable, stable and robust, all-solid state nature of guided-wave lasers. A smart laser looks like its electronic equivalent - a single small sealed maintenance-free enclosure with a fully controlled output that is responsive to changes in the workpiece. The laser knows what material it is processing, how the process is developing and when it is finished. It is able to adapt to changes in the materials, their shape, reflectivity, thickness and orientation. This leads to new tools that enable innovative manufacturing processes that are critical in increasing competitiveness in important manufacturing sectors. Finally, the advanced laser technologies developed within this platform are expected to have a wider impact outside the manufacturing arena, in areas such as sensing, healthcare, and the medical sectors, as well as homeland security helping to establish an important laser sovereign capability.

Planned Impact

The proposal will deliver academic, economic and societal, environmental, as well as wider national impact.

1. Academic impact: Innovative manufacturing research will benefit from the exploitation of the synergies between mature advanced technologies. New research ideas, as well as ground-breaking and disruptive manufacturing laser tools are expected to be developed by the proposed hybridisation and optimum combination of the technology strengths of the two proven and complementary guide-wave laser technologies. This will result in a number of innovative research proposals, high impact journal and conference publications and patents. The group will also be working with leading UK academics through the newly established Southampton/Sheffield Future Photonics Hub further increasing its academic and industrial outreach and impact.

2. Economic and societal impacts: The Optoelectronics Research Centre has an extensive track record in turning ideas into viable businesses, as evidenced by the number of start-ups in the local area, and working closely with industry. This platform grant will enable the investigators and researchers to work closely with laser manufacturers and industrial end-users to develop new laser-based manufacturing tools, which add value and provide advanced performance tailored to the manufacturing processes. The platform will also train people with skills needed by the modern advanced manufacturing industry, and develop the next generation of manufacturing research leaders. This is expected to create new jobs and offer job security in the fast-changing and highly competitive manufacturing sector.

The Platform aligns well with the EPSRC's strategic view of Digital Manufacturing and UK Laser-based Manufacturing Applications roadmap, as well as with the Innovate UK delivery plan. It will contribute to future UK economic success and development of emerging industries. UK manufacturing sectors expected to benefit from the Platform's outputs include precision/micro processing laser manufacturers, leading additive laser manufacturing developers, as well as, defence/security/aerospace system manufacturers, laser manufacturers supplying life-science instrumentation, industrial biotechnology, laser component manufacturers and national trade associations for industrial laser users/developers (e.g. AILU). The Platform will also benefit important emerging industries in additive manufacturing, short pulse (femto/picosecond) processing, composite material processing, functional surfaces, as well as, energy sectors in efficient integrated photovoltaics.

In addition, it will address other key UK societal challenges, such as Sustainable (Green) Economy (e.g. by building light weight cars, batteries and fuel cells), and Ageing Society (e.g. by enabling better quality affordable life enhancing devices, from pace-makers to synthetic bones).

3. Environmental impact will be achieved through developing the next generation of energy efficient and agile laser tools, which is very important in heavy-duty manufacturing. Using laser tools with the right wavelength tailored to the manufacturing process and increasing laser efficiency can minimise the electrical power consumption and increase the manufacturing speed. For example, using green rather than infrared laser radiation can double the speed and half the power requirements of micro-welding copper, silver and gold, materials extensively used in the electronics industry, resulting in substantial savings.

4. Wider Impact: The advanced laser technologies developed within this platform are also expected to have a wider impact outside the manufacturing arena, in areas such as homeland security, sensing, healthcare, the medical arena, as well as helping to establish an important laser sovereign capability.

Publications

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Liang, S. (2018) A watt-level supercontinuum source from a fiber-laser-pumped fluoroindate fiber spanning 750 nm to 5 mum in 2018 Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO). Proceedings

 
Description 1) A 2 W deep-ultraviolet (DUV) source at 274 nm with 5.6 kW peak power is demonstrated by frequency quadrupling a diode-seeded, polarization-maintaining (PM), Yb-doped fiber master oscillator power amplifier (MOPA) system delivering 1.8 ns pulses at a repetition rate of 200 kHz. This is the first kW peak power pulsed UV system reported at 274 nm which has great potential for machining insulators, 2D materials, isotopic separation of Calcium-48, and fluorescence analysis of biological molecules.

2) An all-in-fiber device that modifies the spatial modes in the delivery fiber removes the need for complex and expensive additional optical components and ensures maximum power is maintained across the beam profile, regardless of the chosen mode. The switching time from low to high BPP is typically around 30ms, which is fast enough to easily change between piercing and cutting applications 'on the fly'. The two modes currently available have been carefully selected to address a wide range of materials processing applications:
a) A Low Beam Parameter Product (BPP) mode profile, excellent for fast cutting of thin metals, especially bright highly reflective ones, but also for producing high speed high quality pierces in thick sheets.
b) A High BPP mode giving excellent, smooth cut edges at good speeds when cutting thick metal sheets, especially mild steel.
The technology has been transferred to SPI Lasers Ltd and it is marketed by the trade name variMODE. It is the most important USP in the 3-10kW fibre laser product range.

3) Novel apparatus to provide variable beam profile/quality, and true single-mode delivery with adjustable output beams into higher-order azimuthal modes that form "quasi-ring" profiles through a single MM delivery fibre. Preliminary application results have shown unique metal cutting and welding performance.
Exploitation Route Material processing labs can use this laser to explore the insulator machining capabilities

The variMODE technology has been transferred to SPI Lasers Ltd and forms now the most important USP introduced in the 3-10kW fibre laser product range.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

URL https://www.spilasers.com/varimode/
 
Description In the past few years there has been an intensive collaboration between the Advanced Laser Laboratory (ALL) and the teams in SPI Lasers both in Southampton and Rugby. The major aspect of this collaboration was based on beam control of high power fibre lasers. Following our continuous progress, the first demonstrator and a commercial product 'Varimode' was introduced within the industry SPI Lasers. Varimode allows users to tailor fiber laser system to optimise the beam characteristics (including spot size and beam profile), specific to the application (cutting, welding, piercing or additive manufacture).
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Electronics,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Economic

 
Description Impact Acceleration Project
Amount £120,000 (GBP)
Funding ID SP2001/M 
Organisation SPI Lasers UK 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 09/2019
 
Description Lighting the way to a healthy nation - optical 'X-rays' for walk through diagnosis & therapy
Amount £5,446,592 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/T020997/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2020 
End 05/2025
 
Description RAEng Chair and Advanced Laser Lab
Amount £247,000 (GBP)
Funding ID SP2001/N 
Organisation SPI Lasers UK 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2019 
End 08/2020
 
Description RAEng Chair and Advanced Laser Lab
Amount £233,000 (GBP)
Funding ID SP2001/L 
Organisation SPI Lasers UK 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 08/2019
 
Description Research Chair
Amount £250,000 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Academy of Engineering 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 11/2021
 
Title Preform Dopant Distribution Research Tool 
Description This version of the research tool provides extremely useful information about the dopant distribution in fibre preforms. In contrast with traditional methods, this tool provides non-destructive measurements and enables the use of the preform after characterisation. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The first version of the tool has already been available to other fibre fabrication groups in the ORC and the supporting company (SPI Lasers) and has a positive impact on the active preform screening. This technique has now been extended to provide nondestructive information about the Refractive index and Dopant Profile as well as the absolute dopant concentration. The technique has been transferred to the supporting company. 
 
Description Collaboration with Fujikura Ltd on multicore doped optical fibres 
Organisation Fujikura
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The development of rare earth doped multicore fibres and associated beam combined fibre laser demonstrations.
Collaborator Contribution Supply of high concentration ytterbium doped preforms with excellent length homogeneity.
Impact High profile academic papers anticipated.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Collaboration with the Institute for Life Sciences (University of Southampton - Prof. Sumeet Mahajan) in the area of multimodal medical imaging using fibre lasers 
Organisation University of Southampton
Department Institute for Life Sciences
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Development of optical fibres and fibre laser sources for biomedical imaging, supervision of a joint PhD student (funded 50:50 by the Optoelectronics Research Centre/Institute for Life Sciences)
Collaborator Contribution Lab access, imaging experiments on biological/phantom structures, data interpretation and design of experiments/target setting, joint PhD supervision).
Impact Academic papers in press. The collaboration is strongly multidisciplinary (Photonics/Life Sciences).
Start Year 2016
 
Title Novel Fibre Laser Azimuthal Beam Shaping apparatus 
Description Novel apparatus to provide variable beam profile/quality, and true single-mode delivery with adjustable output beams into higher-order azimuthal modes that form "quasi-ring" profiles through a single MM delivery fibre. 
Type Of Technology New/Improved Technique/Technology 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact Preliminary results have shown that the biggest advantage with the azimuthal beam has been reactive thick section mild steel cutting. A 1.6kW laser using an output high order ring-like beam (LP51) can cut 20mm mild steel. With a 2kW output laser with the same azimuthal beam we can cut 20mm mild steel with a good cut quality, decent speed at 0.5m/min, and a large process window. To explore also the welding potential of azimuthal beam, we performed keyhole welds for a 3mm thick mild steel sheet using Nitrogen shield gas, for a single mode beam M2 1.4 shape and an azimuthal beam with M2 ~6.8. The full penetration weld show distinct differences between a Gaussian- profiled weld and the new azimuthal beams. The azimuthal beam has a broader weld section with parallel hot affected zone boundaries which is advantageous. We also compared weld width and weld depth for three different beam profiles, namely standard singlemode, new azimuthal mode, and standard multimode. The beams were focused above and below a piece of mild steel with a 780µm surface spot size and 2kW of output power. The azimuthal mode beam proved to be much more tolerant to focus position while achieving good penetration depth and mininizing the weld width. 
 
Title Novel Fibre Laser Beam Shaping apparatus - variMODE 
Description This novel Fibre Laser Beam Shaping apparatus allows users to tailor their Fiber Laser system to optimise the beam characteristics (including spot size and beam profile), specific to their application, whether that be cutting, welding or piercing. It is based on an internal, all-in-fiber device that modifies the spatial modes in the delivery fiber. 
Type Of Technology New/Improved Technique/Technology 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Based on an internal, all-in-fiber device that modifies the spatial modes in the delivery fiber, this innovative approach uniquely maintains the laser output totally through the central core of the delivery fiber, removing the need for complex and expensive additional optical components and ensuring maximum power is maintained across the beam profile, regardless of the chosen mode. Having both modes available means there is no need to compromise on the laser beam quality when configuring your laser. The switching time from low to high BPP is typically around 30ms, which is fast enough to easily change between piercing and cutting applications 'on the fly'. he two modes currently available have been carefully selected to address a wide range of materials processing applications: 1) A Low Beam Parameter Product (BPP) mode profile, excellent for fast cutting of thin metals, especially bright highly reflective ones, but also for producing high speed high quality pierces in thick sheets. 2) A High BPP mode giving excellent, smooth cut edges at good speeds when cutting thick metal sheets, especially mild steel. The technology has been transferred to SPI Lasers Ltd and it is marketed by the trade name variMODE. It is the most important USP in the 3-10kW fibre laser product range. 
URL https://www.spilasers.com/varimode/