Laser Technology: Industry 4.0 at the Speed of Light

July 9, 2019

Cats aren’t the only ones chasing lasers. Applied scientists around the globe are working with lasers to move Industry 4.0 at the speed of light. From variating length, power and time to simply exploring how old tricks make new tech, labs keep lasers on the drawing board. Now, optical discoveries are pushing sensing technology and advanced manufacturing into new capabilities, driving smart operations.

What is a laser?

Laser stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, but the name is a slight misnomer for the true process: the oscillation of a matter’s electrons to produce a photon that emits light. This light comes out coherent, or “in phase.” This coherency ensures a consistent energy emission. The photons also arrive at the same wavelength, which is monochromatic and, in part, helps determine the power of the laser.

Since its initial invention in 1958, the laser process has been tweaked by applying different “amplifier” materials. These materials are what force the electrons to oscillate. Materials vary in the level of control they have over the oscillation, which affects the power and precision of the laser. However, emitted photons can destroy the amplifying material or the matter being examined under the laser light. This consequence partly drove the search for Chirped Pulse Amplification, a laser generation process that achieves high power without denigrating the production system.

The laser process has also been experimented with in relationship to time and space. From applications like LIGO for astrophysics research – which uses a sustained, narrow beam of coherent light – to the ophthalmology surgeries relying on picosecond pulses, the when and where of lasers continues to be explored.

What does a laser do?

Simply put, lasers carry energy from light-emitting photons. This energy can accomplish tasks such as laser drilling, machining and other activities related to the manipulation of matter. Lasers can also be used as tools for measurement due to the coherency of the light, among other factors.

Lasers in Additive Manufacturing

One of the first events to come out of Industry 4.0 is the upgrade of the manufacturing and factory floor. Through IIoT and industrial automation, factories have become increasingly connected, efficient and one-batch ready. Entire facilities can be programmed for small batch production, and just as quickly reprogrammed to deliver on other goals. This intelligence has led to the research and development into additive manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing is a subset of 3D printing that relies on laser-based processes to construct items. Initially developed for rapid prototyping, it has moved from R&D to every-day. The additive description comes from the idea of “adding” layers together to create a single product without combining multiple parts. Lasers play two essential roles: depositing materials, especially metals, in layers and sections on whatever platform or body receiving the material; and selectively melting those materials to fuse layers and create a cohesive product. The deposition of the metal is made possible by the precision of lasers. Guiding the robots that lay the metal, the lasers set the limits of where the material goes. Although optical tweezers can move bacteria, there is not a large-particle application of them, such as moving metal.

Aerospace industries rely heavily on this new technology for several reasons. First, the consolidative nature of additive manufacturing means parts built this way tend to be lighter. There are also fewer moving parts, which reduces the risk of failure and increases ruggedness for the harsh conditions inherent to aerospace applications.

Lasers in Smart Cities

Photonic technology, which includes smart LEDs and optical sensors, will play one of the biggest roles in the design and infrastructure of smart cities. In the short term, as cities become smarter, lasers will play less of a novel role in them. However, in the long term, laser technology offers plenty in terms of measurement and telecommunications.

When it comes to building smart cities of the future, lasers will make even their initial construction smarter than urban development in the past. Laser-based imaging, such as LIDAR, ensures that infrastructure gets installed with the most information possible about the environment or pre-existing systems in place.

LIDAR stands for light detection and ranging. It generates detailed 3D maps from remotely-gathered measurements using light pulses in conjunction with other available information. As a software-produced image, a LIDAR map can be analyzed in other applications to digitize the construction plan from foundation to installation.

Consequently, buildings, transit systems and even water utilities will be built to optimize placement. Once the actual structures are in place, lasers can be used in conjunction with automation and nanotechnology to create smart facilities. One of the biggest issues facing older cities is the evaluation of structures, such as bridges and roads, for wear, tear and strain. By spraying the surfaces of these new constructions with laser-activated carbon-nanotubes that light up when detecting strain, engineers can create a smart maintenance system. When an autonomous repair vehicle periodically scans these structures with laser light, it will reveal any illuminated tubes and indicate need for maintenance.