Advances in Laser Technology for Diverse Material Processing

Advances in Laser Technology for Diverse Material Processing

Emily Newton 07/05/2024
Advances in Laser Technology for Diverse Material Processing

Lasers play a crucial role in many material processing workflows.

Most common as an alternative to cutting methods like milling, industrial lasers are still a relatively new technology and, as such, have undergone substantial changes in a short time.

As laser technology becomes more accessible, its role in manufacturing will only grow. Rising demands for diverse materials will spur this adoption, as lasers make it easier to work with new or unconventional materials. Here’s a closer look at seven specific innovations driving this trend.


One of the most straightforward applications of lasers in material processing is micromachining. This is the process of creating features between one and 999 micrometres, which is highly difficult with mechanical cutting tools. Lasers, however, can achieve that size easily.

Tool size alone isn’t the only concern with micromachining. Even if a mechanical drill can get that small, it will create friction, causing vibrations and burring on the cutting surface. These disturbances can cause some more brittle materials to crack or deform, especially at microscopic sizes, so friction-free lasers are ideal.

By enabling frictionless micromachining, lasers let manufacturers produce smaller components using lighter, more resilient or conductive materials. That’s particularly valuable for electronics and medical device manufacturing.

Laser-Based Material Inspection

Laser technology is useful for more than just cutting, too. Recent innovations in lower-power, nondestructive lasers can inspect materials for defects before machining or welding to prevent errors and maintain higher quality standards.

Unlike other nondestructive testing methods, lasers deliver results in real time, streamlining the inspection process. Their precision also makes measurements more reliable than mechanical alternatives. Consequently, manufacturers can detect potential defects more accurately without sacrificing efficiency, driving higher cost-effectiveness on both sides of the process.

Recent advances in machine learning take this potential further. Post-processing quality inspection systems can scan products with lasers then use machine learning to analyse the results. This approach eliminates human error and enables faster inspections to prevent the bottlenecks quality control typically creates.

Laser Surface Texturing

Surface texturing is another promising use case for novel laser technology in material processing. Many materials are prone to fouling or corrosion in industrial environments, like water management or aerospace applications. Recent studies suggest lasers provide an optimal solution.

Using lasers to etch microscopic textures onto a surface can affect its antifouling properties. That may look like etching metal pipes to be hydrophobic to prevent corrosion over time. Alternatively, manufacturers could make some materials more absorbent to create better filters for industrial applications.

Laser surface texturing is most impactful when it applies to novel materials. Etching graphene with lasers, for example, can improve its bacterial rejection from 20% to 99.9%, making it virtually immune to bacterial infection. Such properties are ideal for medical devices, or food and beverage equipment.

Cold Lasers

Another etching-specific laser innovation showing significant promise is the cold laser. These beams use shorter wavelengths to engrave a material without disturbing the area around it.

Conventional lasers generate significant heat, which isn’t ideal for thin or particularly sensitive materials. Green lasers — a kind of cold laser — avoid this by utilising a 532-nanometer (nm)  wavelength, as opposed to the typical 1064 nm other marking lasers use. While this wavelength is within the visual spectrum, the laser’s amplification is still powerful enough to engrave solid materials.

Cold lasers enable etching on materials where mechanical or conventional laser alternatives would be too damaging to be feasible. That includes reflective surfaces, soft plastics and precious metals. Consequently, manufacturers can mark and improve the traceability of sensitive, small components without risking damaging the material itself.

Ultrashort Pulses

Some new laser technologies tackle the pulse of a laser, not its frequency. Many conventional lasers have a pulse duration of a few milliseconds, with industrial applications staying within a fraction of a millisecond. Newer technologies enable ultrashort pulses of less than 10 femtoseconds (fs).

Ultrashort pulsing lets lasers deliver an astonishing amount of power without risking damaging the material or consuming too much energy. These high-power, low-temperature beams are ideal for machining microscopic components or thin materials, as they’ll cut cleanly without causing excess heat.

The delicacy of these pulses even lets laser machining apply to notoriously sensitive biological tissue. While few manufacturers work with tissue today, this possibility opens the door to many opportunities in genetic engineering, biomedical devices and lab-produced meat alternatives.

Photonics-Based 3D Printing

Machining isn’t the only material processing method lasers can improve. New laser technology can also drive 3D printing forward through photonics-based additive manufacturing.

This subset of 3D printing uses ultraviolet lasers to prepare materials for deposition, whereas conventional alternatives melt filaments. Lasers can also cure these filaments in less time, making this already efficient manufacturing method even more streamlined. As 3D printing becomes more efficient and reliable through these laser innovations, it lets manufacturers work with less conventional materials.

3D printing can now print in carbon fibre, wood, concrete and even biological materials. It can also form structures subtractive methods like machining can’t feasibly produce. Manufacturing processes can become more cost-effective and sustainable as a result.

Hybrid Wave Lasers

While many of these advances focus on novel types of lasers, some applications are significant because they combine multiple methods. That’s the case with hybrid wave lasers, which produce varying wavelengths without requiring equipment changeovers.

Hybrid laser machines use one wavelength to change a material’s properties before using another to cut it. Some can even deliver both wavelengths at once to streamline the process. In either case, this combination makes laser material processing more efficient and reliable.

Combining different wavelengths could enable safer cutting for sensitive materials. Alternatively, it could let a laser engraver work without consuming as much energy, helping manufacturers reduce costs and boost sustainability.

Laser Innovations Bring Improve Workflows on Many Fronts

As lasers become more accessible to a wider range of manufacturers, they’re reshaping the machining industry. These seven innovations mean this technology’s growth could unlock new standards of quality, efficiency and precision across the manufacturing sector. Novel materials would become more viable, too.

These improvements are crucial as demands for sustainability, product quality, productivity and cost-efficiency rise. While it will likely take time for each of these technologies to become widely accessible, that shift will take material processing to new heights.

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Emily Newton

Science & Tech Expert

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized. She is a science and technology journalist with over three years covering industry trends and research. 

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