The laser was originally invented in 1960, one year before the silicon chip, and the development and industrialisation of laser technology has carved a parallel path in transforming the world in ways that could not have been imagined in the 1960s. Industrial lasers are well-established tools for manufacturing, and the UK has a strong focus on research and innovation in lasers and photonics with a number of indigenous companies that are world leaders in laser technology and the supply chain which exploits lasers for manufacturing. Currently UK industry uses far fewer laser material processing lasers in production per head of population than Germany, USA or Japan. This is something that must change over the next decade, to assist UK growth in particular in the wealth-creating (and job-creating) manufacturing sector where there are excellent export and investment opportunities.
Far from the image of films including Star Wars and James Bond, the industrial laser has become a real and commercially attractive alternative to conventional joining, machining and manufacturing technologies. With a proven track-record in reliability, efficiency and versatility, the industrial laser is no longer only to be found in research institutes and universities. Global brands like Apple, BMW, Gillette, Hewlett Packard and Rolls Royce rely on laser technology to make their products more attractive, efficient and commercially successful.
Lasers are used in welding, cutting, drilling and engraving of virtually any material. The laser can be attached to a set of simple optics, a CNC machine tool or a robot arm and achieves impressive performance in an incredible range of applications which can be further leveraged to improve the efficiency, productivity and profitability of UK, European and Global businesses.
Lasers are used in everyday objects like the plastic tags used to label livestock in farming, laser welded razor blades, car bodies with laser cut features to customise them on the production line, sound proof panels on aircraft including small laser-drilled holes and touch screens used in smartphones and tablet computers which are laser-patterned. The new manufacturing revolution known as 3D printing is driven by laser welding too.
In the future, laser technology continues to advance with cost reductions, performance increases and new parameter regimes. In the UK, AILU is promoting the use of laser technology to enhance the productivity or British industry, increase exports and create new employment. Barriers of access to finance and skills shortages need to be overcome, and the availability of centres for the proof of concept of new machinery and the proof of new processes needs to increase to enable the digital laser processing revolution to transform industrial output.