From cutting and processing to welding and measuring, lasers are becoming increasingly important to modern manufacturing companies.
Now the technology is poised to revolutionize the texturing and surfacing of manufactured goods by seamlessly reproducing digital renditions of finishes on a broad range of products.
Using a laser to sublimate material—the process of changing from a solid to gaseous state—manufacturers can texture molds directly from digital image files, removing layers of material to achieve the desired depth of architecture on a given surface.
This technique opens the door to very precise mold design and functionality.
A relatively new technology in manufacturing, GF AgieCharmilles (GFAC) has been refining it since the launch of the Laser line of three- and five-axis machines in Europe in 2009.
In a market dominated by chemical etching, laser ablation is a game-changer.
It greatly exceeds the layer, depth and consistency of traditional chemical bath methods.
According to GFAC director of business development Gisbert Ledvon, using a grayscale image, the machines etch as many as 256 layers (one for each shade in an eight-bit grayscale) compared to the five layers most chemical processors offer.
But that’s not to say laser technology will replace the age-old acid process, with GFAC promoting their technology as something that can be used alongside chemical etching to increase efficiency.
Ledvon says chemical etchers can use the laser machines to remove layers of paint from molds before dipping them, a painstaking process traditionally done by hand.
Laser texturing is also expanding business for companies already working with molds.
While lasers are nothing new to his firm, Ian Murray, president of Windsor, Ont.-based ICS Laser Technologies, says laser texturing allows ICS to add to its stable of services all from one digital file.
According to Murray, ICS has been using lasers for some 20 years, usually lettering molds for identification.
From the word ‘airbag’ to a little horn symbol on a vehicle’s steering wheel, Murray says ICS uses a laser to engrave identification directly on molds.
“Every time a mold opens and a plastic part drops out that impression is in (there),” he says of his company’s work in the automotive industry.
“Almost every plastic part needs some sort of lettering or logo or plastics material code.”
With the help of a newly-acquired GFAC five-axis machine, Murray says ICS is capable of producing seamless, repeatable textures on molds for automotive interiors.
“It’s going to allow us to expand our services offered to our existing customer base and it’s going to allow us to get into new markets as well,” he says.
No matter what the market, though, Murray says ICS is already seeing how clean the laser texturing work can be.
“Probably the biggest and strongest benefit is when you start to computerize and you’re using electronic data to do a job, the consistency is almost perfect,” Murray says. “Global repeatability is one of the biggest things.”
Ledvon says it’s that capability to reproduce high-quality molding without crease lines or distortions over turns and edges that sets laser texturing apart.
During a presentation at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago in September, Ledvon said quality, coupled with repeatability, is making the technology increasingly popular with luxury automotive brands in Europe.
As the technology gains traction in markets around the world, the future looks bright for laser texturing.