The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is growing at the speed of light — partly thanks to lasers and photonics. Manufacturers interested in becoming “smart” may greatly benefit from adopting laser technologies and software into their equipment portfolio, as IoT-enabled industrial lasers are more and more used in the industry.
Yet, why should manufacturers care about laser tech, and how does laser tech benefit industry?
Types of Laser Tech
Almost immediately after lasers were first created, laser tools were applied in manufacturing environments. A laser is much more than a beam of light; it is powerful energy that can be used to manipulate materials in a bevy of ways. Initially, laser technology was expensive and limited, but today, thanks to several advances in laser generation and manipulation — not to mention improvements to laser software — manufacturers can use laser tools to accomplish nearly every material processing task. Here are a few of the most common jobs for laser manufacturing:
- Cutting. The most recognizable laser manufacturing task, laser cutting is possible on nearly any material including stainless steel.
- Drilling. Faster and less messy than other drilling tools, lasers can produce thousands of holes in 3D surfaces of most materials.
- Welding. Among the first tasks for lasers, welding with lasers is faster than traditional methods.
- Micromachining. It is difficult to fabricate structures on a micrometer scale, but lasers make the process almost effortless.
- Marking and engraving. Nearly as common as laser cutting, marking and engraving are essential laser tasks.
- Additive manufacturing. Perhaps the most innovative manufacturing endeavor, additive manufacturing requires lasers to construct structures by fusing powder.
Different types of lasers tend to be used in different environments. Here are a few laser options present in industrial settings:
- Gas. Lasers generated from helium, helium-neon, and CO2 are best for cutting hard materials, like metal.
- Excimer or exciplex. A variation of a gas laser, mixing reactive gases with inert gases, is best for micromachining, such as the production of microelectronic devices.
- Dye. Generated from a liquid solution, lasers of this type are perhaps the most versatile thanks to their wide range of wavelengths.
- Solid-state. Lasers generated from a solid matrix are the newest type. They can be used for extreme precision marking and scribing.
How to Use Laser Tools in the IIoT
Lasers are innovative tools that continue to evolve, and many laser solutions are joining the Industrial Interned of Things thanks to smart control boards. These connect to the factory network the same way any smart, connective device might, and they allow manufacturers to control laser operations quickly and efficiently. Without smart technology, manufacturers must have individual computers connected to each laser tool. To change a job, an engineer would need to manually adjust the laser settings on each laser’s PC; with smart control boards, that engineer manipulates the job on a single PC, which then communicates the changes to each laser. Further, manufacturers utilizing the IIoT might connect their devices to the internet, giving remote customers and developers the option to upload their own designs without manufacturer interference.
Plus, smart control boards allow for superior maintenance, monitoring, product support, and remote troubleshooting opportunities. Like other devices, laser tools need regular software upgrades, and smart enhancements enable automatic upgrade and patch downloads. Using the IIoT, consumers and manufacturers can also track the progress of their laser projects — or track the location of their laser tools, should they frequently move between or around factories.
The Benefits of Lasers
Laser tools are not the only manufacturing machines that can be added to the IIoT. However, lasers do boast a number of benefits over non-laser tools, for example:
- No contact. Because lasers do not put tools in contact with the materials being processed, manufacturers do not waste money on sharpening or replacing tool bits.
- Gentler. Lasers can process brittle or pliable materials, which are often difficult to work with traditional tools.
- Less energy. Newer laser machine models require less energy than machines or plasma cutters, reducing manufacturing costs.
- Faster. In most cases, laser materials processing is more efficient at higher speeds than other methods.
Lasers have long been advantageous tools for manufactures, and with the addition of smart control boards, they become indispensable. Undoubtedly, the future of the IIoT includes smart lasers.