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UK backs laser production with new £5.6M development center

27 Feb 2013

'Industrially focused' effort with 31 industry partners will be co-ordinated by Duncan Hand at Heriot-Watt University.

Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University is to lead a new £5.6 million multi-site research and development center focused on developing new laser-based production processes for UK industry.

The center, funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physics Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), is part of a wider £21 million investment in four new locations dedicated to different aspects of innovative manufacturing, bringing the total number of centers in the UK to 16 and total funding to £45 million.

The new EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Laser-based Production Processes will feature no fewer than 31 industrial partners, and co-ordinated research from five of the UK’s leading research teams in the field.

Led by Duncan Hand at Heriot-Watt, the center will start operations in October 2013, and will aim to exploit state-of-the-art lasers, including ultrafast and fiber sources, to develop new manufacturing processes at both micro and macro levels.

Two key research themes have been identified: laser precision structuring; and joining and additive processes. Research will extend from the basic science of material behavior modeling and laser-material interaction to manufacturing feasibility studies with the industrial partners.

Another of the newly funded centers, this time focused on large-area electronics, will also feature photonics technologies. Led by Chris Rider at the University of Cambridge, it is aiming to develop new kinds of photovoltaics, lighting, displays, sensing systems and intelligent objects.

Industrial strategy
Speaking ahead of the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Manufacturing Summit on February 28, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said:

“The UK has a proud history of manufacturing but to build on this success industry needs access to the very latest science and technology. This £45 million package of investment [of all 16 centers] will see our world-class research base investigating innovative new manufacturing equipment and techniques. This will support our industrial strategy in a range of important sectors, driving growth and keeping the UK ahead in the global race.”

In total, the four new centers involve academics from 15 universities across the UK and more than 60 project partners from industry – suggesting that the laser production center has sparked a very high level of industrial interest.

According to the EPSRC announcement, although industrial lasers have already replaced conventional tools in many areas of manufacturing, their penetration into some areas has been less than anticipated. “Recently there has been a significant 'step change-opportunity' to take laser-based processing to a new level of industrial impact,” the research council says.

It highlights the latest generation of sources based around laser diodes and fiber architectures, which it says can provide “major improvements” in existing laser-based processes and the viability of new processes such as joining of dissimilar materials.

Five universities; 31 industrial partners
The EPSRC adds: “A new generation of high average power laser technologies is also becoming available, offering controllable trains of picosecond and femtosecond pulses, with wavelengths selectable across the optical spectrum, from the infrared through to the ultra-violet. Such technologies open the door to a whole range of new laser-based production processes.”

While such technologies are already being exploited in other developed economies, the aim of the new Heriot-Watt-led center is to allow UK industry to compete with the likes of the US and Germany by bringing together a multi-disciplinary team of leading UK researchers and key industry partners, with the goal of exploiting what the EPSRC calls “tailored laser light”.

An outreach program will also aim to create a “more effective and coherent” laser manufacturing community in the UK that is better able to influence policy and investment strategies at both the domestic and European level, as well as promote research excellence and greater industrial take-up of laser technologies.

The new center’s industry/academic team is expected to undertake a wide-ranging program of coordinated research that will enable significant business growth opportunities, stimulate the broader UK community, provide leadership in developing UK public policy, infrastructure access for SMEs, and education and training for the industry.

As well as Heriot-Watt, the multi-university center includes Cranfield University’s School of Applied Sciences, the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing, the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Materials and Structures and the School of Materials at the University of Manchester.

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