How innovative laser applications are disrupting manufacturing7 minutes
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Spurred on by science – and a bit of science fiction – lasers have long held a unique fascination in the minds of the public for their seemingly magical ability to slice objects as formidable as steel using nothing more than a beam of light. Ever since James Bond nemesis, Goldfinger, nefariously deployed a laser in the 1964 film of the same name, scientists have been dreaming up industrial applications for the technology.
Laser-based cutting and welding machines soon found their way onto the factory floor and have until recently comprised the bulk of industrial applications. However, as laser devices have steadily grown smaller and less expensive, new and exciting laser-based applications are disrupting manufacturing and rippling throughout entire supply chains.
Lasers are increasingly being deployed to imprint Unique Identification (UID) numbers on everything from spark plugs to soda cans and from heart valves to handbags. Manufacturers across several industries require their suppliers to imprint parts with UIDs so that their origin can be easily traced in the event of a recall. Laser markers have become the imprinting method of choice given their permanence and ease of application.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that medical devices carry unique identifiers. Lasers are ideal for marking medical devices, especially reusable ones, as laser-created markings are difficult to tamper with and stand up to washing and sterilization. Further, laser marking will not remove the corrosion-resistance coatings, usually chromium oxide, from stainless steel instruments. Maintaining the integrity of the chemical passivation layer is crucial to preventing germs from becoming embedded in the outer material.
Keeping it real
Global trade in counterfeited goods is currently estimated to be a staggering $1.7 trillion per year. From a numbers perspective, that makes counterfeiting the largest criminal enterprise in the world. From a human perspective, it endangers lives when forged parts infiltrate supply chains that serve critical industries like aerospace, automotive and medical devices. Laser marking has emerged as potent weapon in the fight against the counterfeiting of all types of products, protecting intellectual property along with profits and jobs.
Aerospace, automotive and medical device OEMs have begun covertly marking parts with UIDs such as QR codes or barcodes that are either hidden or so small as to be invisible to the human eye. This not only enables the tracking of marked products back to their source but also identifies suppliers trafficking in counterfeit goods, unwittingly or not.
Laser marking components can also protect manufacturers from warranty fraud. John Henderson, Regional Sales Manager for Panasonic’s Laser Marking and Processing Group gives an example. “We did a project with a large farm equipment manufacturer who was having some issues with unscrupulous customers putting old parts on newer equipment and then requesting under-warranty replacements. They began lasering unique IDs on parts in places you couldn’t detect, and now they can consult a database and quickly confirm if a part is original to the machine in question. Pretty simple solution.”
Laser markers can now imprint 3D dimensional objects as they move down the assembly line. Panasonic’s new fiber laser devices can rotate two inches in any direction and imprint curved objects, like exhaust pipes, eliminating the cost associated with extra handling or slowing down the line.
A wide variety of industries have begun utilizing laser etching, engraving and marking to protect the integrity of their products. Wineries imprint bottles with unique cask numbers to help ward off fraud. Pharmaceutical companies mark capsules and tablets. A renowned French oyster farm even laser engraved its oysters to ensure its shellfish couldn’t be faked.
Permanent, versatile, green
Industry is making laser marking the preferred imprinting method of choice for several reasons. Laser marking is permanent with a high degree of contrast and precision. Lasers are extremely versatile, able to mark a wide of variety of materials with varying degrees of hardness including plastic, paper, acrylic, wood and organic materials at one end of the hardness spectrum to steel, aluminum and ceramics on the other.
Another reason for the increasing acceptance of lasers on the factory floor is the fact that their physical size has dramatically been reduced along with the cost. “20 years ago, laser devices were the size of refrigerators,” said Panasonic’s Henderson. “That made them unattractive to manufacturers who have a cost associated with every square inch of the factory floor. Now they’re the size of a small microwave oven. Plus, laser markers require hardly any maintenance at all, making them even more cost effective.”
Compared to other imprinting methods, laser marking is environmentally friendly. There are no consumables involved and no waste generated. Other methods such as adhesive labels, inkjetting and chemical etching require inks and other chemicals, which generate waste. By contract, laser marking is clean. “It’s really just powered by mother nature,” remarked Henderson.
Laser technology and 3D printing
3D printing continues to disrupt the way in which products are designed, prototyped and ultimately manufactured – and laser technology is being deployed in unique and creative ways to enhance the 3D additive process.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) assists in 3D layering by exposing a bed of material powder, nylon for example, to a laser beam, melting it into a solid object. The process is repeated layer by layer until the product or model is complete.
3D printing using SLS has many advantages. Not only is it fast – the material only needs a brief exposure to the laser – but it negates the need for a support structure as hollow spaces are filled with superfluous powder. This enables the construction of more intricate, geometrically complex structures. SLS prints are also exceptionally strong with uniform tensile strength and hardness in all directions.
Laser focused on the future
Panasonic is a pioneer in fiber and CO2 laser technologies, and we are among just a handful of companies with the capability to mark items in motion. We remain deeply engaged in laser and other disruptive technologies, which hold the keys to propelling industry forward and improving the quality of life for our partners and customers.