Edinburgh researchers secure funds to develop shape-shifting industrial lasers

Researchers based in Edinburgh have secured six-figure funding to develop 3D laser beams that can change shape to match industry needs.

The innovation could transform the manufacturing and healthcare technology industries, making it easier and cheaper to produce precision medical equipment and mobile devices, for example.

Researchers at the National Robotarium, which is hosted by Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have now secured £586,000 in funding to take forward the technology.

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The funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, will support the research and development of the lasers for industry application, accelerating the commercialisation of the technology.

Researchers at the National Robotarium in Edinburgh have secured £586,000 to develop 3D laser beams that can change shape to match industry needs.
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Lasers form a critical part of modern manufacturing, with the global laser processing market projected to grow from some £2.8 billion in 2020 to more than £4bn by 2025. They are used widely by industry to produce precise incisions and mould materials into specific shapes.

The new technique could be harnessed to improve how holes for sensors and cameras on smartphone screens are drilled and to increase the density of information on semiconductor chips.

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The National Robotarium is supported by £21 million from the UK government and £1.4m from the Scottish Government as part of the £1.3bn Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal – a 15-year investment programme funded by both governments and regional partners.

Richard Carter, assistant professor of applied optics and photonics at Heriot-Watt University and the project’s lead, said: “Manufacturing is of key strategic importance to the UK, with a particular focus on high-tech and high-value manufacturing.

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“This research will address the priority area of digital manufacturing, enabling a bespoke, rapid response capability for the first time. The new methods we are developing represent a paradigm shift in the capabilities of laser-based manufacturing, making it possible to move between 3D beam shapes with zero down-time, low cost and minimal technical know-how.

“Through collaboration with our industry partners, we’ll be able to develop the lasers in line with what industry needs, providing solutions to manufacturing challenges across a wide range of sectors.”

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Bringing together academics and global companies, the National Robotarium will provide a catalyst for entrepreneurship and is expected to deliver sustainable economic benefit to Edinburgh, the UK and beyond.

The new building under construction at Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus is expected to open next spring.

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UK government minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said: “This is cutting-edge technology in every sense of the phrase. These 3D lasers are set to unlock previously unheard of levels of precision and so transform our manufacturing and medical technology industries, boosting the UK’s global reputation for innovation and attracting jobs and further investment.

“This exciting research is being supported both by a £586,000 UK Research and Innovation grant, and our £21m investment in the National Robotarium through the Edinburgh City Region Deal.”

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Scottish economy secretary Kate Forbes said: “This is a crucial time for business, trade and investment in Scotland. City Region and Growth Deals have a key role to play in our economic recovery from the pandemic as we work towards a fairer and more inclusive Scotland.”

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