Just as steam brought about the industrial revolution, and petroleum drove the automobile industry, photons are set to become the new ‘fuel’ of the 21st century. This is partly because they support greater efficiencies in materials processing. Breakthroughs in materials technology and medical science are possible only with laser innovations. And these innovations made the laser and auxiliary industries more competitive and profitable.
By 2008, femtosecond lasers were preferred over Nd:YAG, DPSS, and other lasers for surgical procedures and industrial applications. The impact of photonics on various industries led one insider to forecast that by 2050 the photonics industry would be the largest in the world. For the moment, fiber laser is helping to revitalize and invigorate the US manufacturing sector.
New applications have helped the laser industry attain double-digit growth in certain areas. Worldwide laser sales was $8.73 billion in 2012, and these sales reached $10.49 billion by 2016.
Innovation in Material Technology
Single industrial laser systems may process a wide range of materials. This is important because modern manufacturing relies on the rapid development of material science. Before 2013, high-strength aluminum and steel were the most promising materials for aircraft assemblies and automobile manufacturing. Now it’s carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, CFRP, which is half the weight of steel and 30% lighter than aluminum. At the same time, it is as strong as its predecessors, if not more so. Research has commenced on reducing the costs of processing CFRP. It is the right time since McKinsey Global Institute predicts that CFRP demand is expected to increase by 20 percent through 2030.
Because lasers don’t exhibit the same wear and tear as drills and cutters, it lowers the cost of mechanical processes and implements. This contributes to “higher yields and more predictable processes”. Emerging materials, such as natural films, ultra-thin eyeglasses, and some semiconductor materials, are optimally processed by lasers. Industrial processes and materials uniquely suited for laser cutting will continue to propel laser sales.
Lasers in Manufacturing: Fact or Myth
In many manufacturing processes, CO2 lasers have prevailed over other lasers for decades. But lately, because of its efficiency and low cost, fiber lasers have begun to supplant it in many industrial applications, such as mechanical cutting, surface texturing, or welding.
Although there’s a good deal of publicity for laser-only manufacturing applications, such as 3D printing, it is not realistic. $1,000 to $3,000 3D printers are mostly used by students or small-businesses. They are incapable of mass producing a product. Professional 3D printers are much more expensive and are unlikely to become available to the average consumer. Commercial deployment will depend on a substantial reduction of costs in manufacturing 3D printer parts.
The hype over 3D printing, however, will inevitably benefit laser producers in the long term, by fostering adoption, innovation and economization to this industry.
"It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor – who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom," said President Obama. And I write about their creativity and resourcefulness.