Anyone who’s spent time in a sheet metal shop knows that lasers are an important fabrication tool. Modern laser-cutting machines can plow through steel sheet as thick as your hand, hold tolerances to a couple “thou” and deliver paint-ready edge quality to boot.
Fabricators aren’t the only ones who know the value of lasers. Need to measure something without touching it? A laser-measuring machine is just the thing. Plus, lasers can mark and engrave parts until the cows come home. And in abrasive materials—such as ceramics and fiber-reinforced plastics—they frequently outperform carbide tools.
But let’s face it: We’re talking about a beam of light. So unless you’re wielding Darth Vader’s lightsaber, how effective can a laser really be? Answer: Very effective—both as a standalone system and when used in tandem with a mill, lathe or other traditional machine tool.
A growing number of researchers at universities and in the private sector are investigating ways to combine lasers and other cutting technologies in a single system. Their collective goal is to raise manufacturing throughput, particularly when processing some of the newer, hard-to-machine materials used to make medical devices and parts for the transportation industry.
The U.S. Department of Energy has expressed interest in the research. The DOE recently awarded automotive-parts maker Delphi Automotive LLC $3.7 million to “advance transformational technologies and materials that can help American manufacturers dramatically increase the energy efficiency of their operations and reduce costs.”
Sounds great, but what’s that have to do with lasers? According to Delphi’s Dr. John Kirwan, the company plans to use the DOE grant to accelerate the development of a laser-based manufacturing process for micromachining flow holes in the company’s gasoline direct-injection (GDi) fuel injectors.
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