The University of Southampton

New research aims to develop the future of manufacturing in the UK

Published: 23 May 2022
High power fibre lasers cut and weld faster and more efficiently than current technologies

The Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton has been awarded over £6.25m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council part of UK Research and Innovation, to develop the next generation of fibre lasers in Britain.

High power fibre laser (HPFL) technology has unique features that set it apart from other manufacturing technologies and could be the key to making the industry more efficient and sustainable. These lasers have the potential to reduce manufacturing emissions by more than 250 thousand tons of CO2 per year and are now routinely used in the most advanced production lines for cutting, welding and 3D printing.

The ability to precisely control the properties of the output laser beam and to focus it on the product, allow HPFLs to transform manufacturing in the digital age but new challenges are emerging.

Despite their acclaimed success, so far HPFLs are used rather primitively and remain at a relatively early stage of their potential.

Modern product life-cycles have never been shorter, requiring increased manufacturing flexibility. As new technologies like 3D printing move into the mainstream, and traditional manufacturing techniques require new degrees of freedom and accuracy, manufacturers need to move away from fixed, 'fit-for-all' beams to flexible 'structured' light that can be adapted according to the products they're making.

The future factory floor is expected to be 'smarter', moving away from dedicated static laser stations to reconfigurable, robotic, floorplans. Such changes require a new advanced generation of 'smart' laser tools and 'smart' fibre delivery suitable for the upcoming 4th industrial revolution.

This new project will address these challenges, confront the science and technology roadblocks, seek innovative solutions, and unleash the full potential of HPFLs as advanced manufacturing tools. The aim is to revolutionise manufacturing by developing the next generation of reconfigurable, scalable, resilient, power efficient, 'smart' fibre laser tools for modern day manufacturing.

Research for the next generation of manufacturing tools to drive economic growth should start now to make the UK global leaders in agile laser manufacturing - enabling sustainable, high-value manufacturing across sectors from aerospace, to food, to medical devices and automotive.

By taking advantage of these opportunities, British companies can create more manufacturing jobs in the UK, repatriate manufacturing, rebalance the economy, and promote the green agenda through efficient manufacturing.

Professor Michalis Zervas, Principal Investigator of HiPPO said, "High power fibre lasers (HPFLs), invented here in the ORC, are the latest addition to the laser ecosystem and have advanced beyond recognition. They offer the highest and 'brightest' output power with record efficiencies and have proved to be indispensable manufacturing tools.

"Standard multi-kW fibre lasers are rapidly replacing exiting technologies in the most advanced production lines for cutting, welding, 3D printing and marking a myriad of materials from glass to steel. As a result, market share is rising sharply.

"Despite their phenomenal success so far, HPFLs are used rather primitively as raw power providers. HiPPo gives us the funding and flexibility to realise the full potential of fibre lasers and develop the next generation of manufacturing tools to address the upcoming Digital Manufacturing challenges.

"We will exploit the massive parallelism offered uniquely by the optical fibre technology, utilise fully the vectorial nature of light by optimally combining their spatial, polarisation and wavelength attributes, deploy ?smart photon pipes? to deliver remotely ?structured? light down-stream to the workpiece, and embed advanced deep-learning to solve the multi-dimensional complexity control problem.

"Our longer-term research ambition is to catapult HPFLs to places no laser has been before, thus enabling them to not only manufacture our future goods and make the UK a more prosperous nation, but also to protect against malevolent drones, build the next generation of efficient, compact particle accelerators, clean-up space debris, treat nuclear waste, and all-in-all make the world a better, cleaner, greener and safer place."

Jane Nicholson, EPSRC Director for Research Base said, "Research into lasers over many years has led to new techniques that have made industry processes quicker, greener and more efficient. Light has a range of exciting properties, and by exploiting more of these HPFLs could improve manufacturing techniques for multiple sectors from aerospace to healthcare to help support a greener future for us all."

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