Laser Technologies for Future Manufacturing

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


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 changs 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.
Description 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.
Exploitation Route Material processing labs can use this laser to explore the insulator machining capabilities
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology