Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Aachen to expand to global prominence in laser processing

Last week I had the privilege, and pleasure, to return to the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT) located in Aachen, Germany. Two specific reasons brought me to Aachen; the first was the eighth convening of the biennial International Laser Technology Congress – AKL ‘10, during which I participated in a Technology Business Day. The second purpose for the visit was to join in the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of ILT, an occasion that brought back memories of my first visit shortly after the opening of the then new institute.

AKL for years was a German-only event where activity at ILT was reviewed and presentations by sponsoring organizations were presented. Two years ago, ILT recognizing that its research and development work was international in scope, invited the world to attend AKL, thanks to its thoughtfully provided simultaneous translation services. For this an increasing number of non-Germans were grateful. However, as one of those, let me comment that the translators, while extremely efficient and capable of handling complex technical jargon, sometimes lagged in their delivery, causing some of the speaker’s points to be lost. Without advance copies of the PowerPoint presentations, we were left to buttonhole speakers for clarifications on points after the sessions.

That minor aggravation aside, the sessions were, as always, well attended, the opening session filling a large ballroom with most of the 500 attendees and 60 sponsoring companies. Concurrent sessions on Laser Material Processing, Laser Measuring Technology, and Laser Beam Sources drew heavy attendance with special emphasis on Laser Additive Manufacturing, Ultra-fast Precision Processing, and Laser Processing in Solar Technology.

Space is too short to comment on all of the interesting work presented, but the subject that seemed to create the most buzz at later social events ands sponsor exhibitions was the fast rise of Ultra-Fast Laser technology and applications. Is seems that only a few yeas ago laser devices were clunky bench-top arrangements of complex equipment. Now sleek, well designed and engineered, and less costly products are available and a range of new applications are being developed for these products. Laser technology influenced the growth of industrial laser markets more rapidly than many imagined. As a cap to the technical sessions the second Innovation Award was made to Fleming Du of Edgewave GmbH, for his development of a high beam quality Q-switched laser for microprocessing

The visit to ILTs 11,000 m2 facility, was nostalgic for me as I recalled standing on the mezzanine and looking down into a large, mostly empty hall 25 years ago and not having the foresight to imagine the current view, which is a completely crowded area jammed with laser systems conducting more than 60 processing developments overseen by more than 300 employees. ILT has come a long way, and under its current leader, Prof. Dr. Reinhart Proprawe, has expanded its scope of work internationally to the point where a massive expansion plan is underway that will increase the laboratory by several thousands of square meters. Work on the first phase of this, a multi-story car park, which will free up acreage for the building expansion, is well under way. This expansion is part of a 10-year plan that will see ILT and its associated RWTH Aachen University more than double in size with an 800,000 m2 expansion. This expansion is expected to create 10,000 new jobs as more than 250 nations and international companies will be able to conduct research and development alliances with the institutes.

On a final travel note; the trip home was complicated by the effluent by a burp from the Iceland volcano. Airports all over Western Europe were affected to one degree or another as the winds shifted the ash cloud back and forth all weekend. My flight out of Frankfurt finally left as the air traffic controllers gave the pilot permission to take a northerly route back to Boston. This took us over Amsterdam to the Faroe Islands and just south of the coast of Iceland where we passed over and had a spectacular view of the volcano spewing forth more ash. Quite a treat and for me a once in a lifetime view of an active volcano from almost on top of it.

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