Review: International Laser Technology Congress

Every two years, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT holds the International Laser Technology Congress AKL in Aachen. Europe’s biggest industry conference for applied laser technology in production drew more than 690 participants this year – an increase of 10 % on 2014. The conference has also become more international, this year attracting 196 visitors from abroad, from a total of 27 different countries. The sponsors’ display also filled up very early on, with 52 companies represented.

The sponsors’ exhibition was fully booked, again offering visitors ample opportunity for discussion. (Source: Fh.-ILT)

The sponsors’ exhibition was fully booked, again offering visitors ample opportunity for discussion. (Source: Fh.-ILT)

The core of the AKL program was the specialist conference with three separate sessions, but on top of that there were also a variety of additional events, including an introductory seminar on laser technology, specialist forums on process monitoring and additive manufacturing, and a number of evening events. Lasertechnik Live, a guide to the laser application center of the institute, proved extremely popular this year, with 91 live presentations of current projects underway at Fraunhofer ILT.

A definite conference highlight was the presentation of the 2016 Laser Technology Innovation Award in the coronation hall of the Aachen town hall. The prize is awarded by Arbeitskreis Lasertechnik e.V. and the European Laser Institute ELI in recognition of an outstanding contribution in the field of industrial laser technology. This year, first place went to Dr. Armand Pruijmboom and his team at Philips Photonics GmbH Aachen for their development of VCSEL arrays as a new high-performance laser technology for the digital heat treatment of workpieces.

Improving efficiency and the commoditization of laser sources
The Laser Technology Conference at AKL’16 in Aachen. (Source: Fh.-ILT)

The Laser Technology Conference at AKL’16 in Aachen. (Source: Fh.-ILT)

AKL’s specialist technology conference examines every step of beam source development, right up to the most diverse applications. This year revealed multiple trends. First of all, it seems that beam source development is focusing less on disruptive technologies and more on improving the efficiency and performance of existing ones. Fiber lasers are now available at powers of up to 100 kW, while direct diode systems are reaching the 50 kW mark. Initial investigations at Fraunhofer ILT also confirm that diode lasers are now suitable for laser cutting. At the same time, we are seeing that systems are becoming more and more comparable, with commoditization leading to a price war and further consolidation within the sector.

Ultrafast lasers are still relatively new to system providers‘ portfolios. The market for systems up to around 150 W is growing disproportionately quickly, and applications in the electronics, semiconductor and consumer goods industries were presented at the AKL. The missing ingredient is productivity. One solution is the multi-beam system offered by Aachen start-up Pulsar Photonics, while the availability of suitable laser cables (PT Photonic Tools) should also help. Various groups are also working on developing ultrafast lasers with kW power. It seems only a matter of time before these will be available to industry.

 Special forums on process monitoring and additive manufacturing
The 91 live presentations in Fraunhofer ILT’s laser application center ignite visitors’ enthusiasm. (Source: Fh.-ILT)

The 91 live presentations in Fraunhofer ILT’s laser application center ignite visitors’ enthusiasm. (Source: Fh.-ILT)

Participants in the full-day forum on laser additive manufacturing were also agreed that productivity is the key to the wider spread of additive manufacturing techniques. Components made using additive manufacturing techniques have already proved to be game changers in turbine construction, and we are seeing constant stream of new applications in aircraft design and the automotive sector. Multi-beam approaches could be a way to ensure even more widespread use, a corresponding project at Fraunhofer ILT is aiming to increase productivity thirtyfold.

The new forum on process monitoring attracted a good crowd, with the number of attendees far surpassing organizers’ original expectations. Presentations looked at various sensor systems and experiences in implementing process monitoring systems in an industrial context. Here, inline measurements are becoming more and more widespread. Great progress has been made on the various sensors; the problem now has to do with evaluating individual images, as the rate of pseudo errors is often still too high. Understanding of many processes also remains limited, which restricts the chances of an effective simulation.

In order for users to share their experiences regarding the increasingly varied and complex processes more efficiently, the ‘Industry working group for process control in laser material processing’ has now been set up in Aachen.

Growing complexity and dynamic market movement

In the Gerd Herziger session, representatives from Trumpf, Rofin-Sinar, Coherent and Jenoptik discussed the outlook and challenges for various markets. Peter Leibinger (Trumpf) took a look at the lightweight engineering market and observed that though this is a big market for laser technology, it consists of many niches experiencing moderate growth. However, he assessed the requirements in these niches as complex, leading to high development costs. In his opinion, the only chance for growth in this market is to open up new niches or drive out other providers from the marketplace.

Mark Sobey (Coherent) gave a talk on the semiconductors and electronics market. He expects to see more use of fast and ultrafast lasers at reduced cost per watt. In his estimation, no one platform would be likely to emerge victorious; the crucial factor will be adapting processes to the applications. With a view to the increasing labor costs in China, Sobey expects to see a surge in automation technology. He believes the greatest challenge lies in offering fast global service for the various applications in question.

In the subsequent discussion, all participants agreed on the need for more efficient development processes. However, opinion differed as to the merit of expanding cross-sector partnerships, Leibinger seeing it as an effective way forwards and Sobey rejecting the approach, pointing to bad experiences in the telecoms sector.

Photonics Cluster: Networking 4.0

Fraunhofer ILT can look back on a long history of success when it comes to the partnership between industry and research. This year a new chapter began on April 28, 2016 with the ceremonial opening of the first building of the Photonics Cluster on RWTH Aachen’s new campus. Here, companies from industry will work with experts from RWTH Aachen University and several of the Fraunhofer Institutes on new projects focusing on the use of light as a tool in industrial production. (Source: Fh.-ILT)

Links: International Laser Technology Congress AKL’16, www.lasercongress.orgInnovation Award Laser Technology, www.innovation-award-laser.orgphotonicsviews.com microsite International Laser Technology Congress AKL’16

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