Sunday, April 18, 2010

What goes around comes around

Attendees at last weeks SALA event were given reinforcement that fresh applications are making inroads into industry and that these manufacturing tools may, in the future, offset some, of the market softness projected as laser sheet metal cutting matures.

Both of these applications, laser additive manufacturing (LAM) and paint stripping, are not new; developments can be traced back to the 1970s. What prevented them from widespread industry acceptance was basically equipment oriented, the high cost and complexity of the lasers used. With the evolution of improved solid state and carbon dioxide lasers and the introduction of fiber lasers, the cost/watt for beam delivery has decreased to justifiable levels and the ancillary equipment; for LAM better and more efficient powder delivery and for paint stripping improved beam scanning devices and more efficient effluent exhaust systems, has made these two processes more user friendly.

As a consequence LAM, driven in part by today’s lean manufacturing practices, is expanding its user base from costly part repair to actual part manufacture for limited scale production. While paint stripping, heretofore confined to graffiti removal and some military aircraft paint removal operations, has broadened its appeal and other market sectors such as stripping of off-shore drill rigs and highway bridge paint removal are now considered practical. At SALA we saw a back pack model powered by a fiber laser that is being used to strip paint from sections of aircraft.

If indeed, the manufacturing world has gone lean, and orders for specific parts will be filled by instant manufacturing, then the LAM process will soar as it is the perfect answer for art-to-part thinking which is becoming common in certain sectors of manufacturing. At next months LAM Workshop, a large audience of interested manufacturers will get a glimpse of technology changes that bodes well for these processes to be a reliable and well used manufacturing procedure.

As for paint stripping, wider use on military aircraft will be superseded by use in the commercial airline industry, a potential major user of the technology and through the use of back pack type devices experience broader industry use in those applications requiring the ultimate in portability.

Considering that I was personally involved in both technologies in the 1970s it is very satisfying to see them become industry accepted manufacturing practices 35 years later.

On another note, I want to call attention to a feature article appearing in the April 19th issue of Newsweek magazine, where one of my favorite writers, Daniel Gross makes the case for a dramatic turnaround in the U.S. manufacturing sector. In The Comeback Country he makes the case that America has “pulled itself back from the brink - and why it’s destined to stay on top.” A nice contrarian perspective that is only marred by a weak kneed Editors placement of four economist’s view of The Shape of Things to Come. A classic case of my pet peeve on the use of “but” that I describe in My View in the May/June issue of Industrial Laser Solutions.

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