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Digital photonic production: science and industry shape the future of production engineering

The “Digital Photonic Production” research campus in Aachen offers local industry and science a skilled and responsive instrument with which to shape the future of production technology.

Support comes from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research BMBF, which has provided financial backing of up to 30 million euros through its “Research Campus – Public-Private Partnerships for Innovation” funding initiative.

Load- and resource optimized wheel bearing manufactured using selective laser melting.
Fraunhofer ILT/Volker Lannert.

Rapid manufacturing of turbine components.
Fraunhofer ILT/Volker Lannert.

The Chair of Laser Technology LLT at RWTH Aachen University emerged from the national competition as one of ten winners, having coordinated a proposals consortium made up of industry partners and further RWTH institutes.

A new national center for digital photonic production is now being set up in Aachen, in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT, one of the most outstanding facilities for laser technology in Europe, and the initiatives and networks already existing in this field. The intensive cooperation between research and industry also means the chances are good for the founding of spin-off companies.

The aim of the BMBF’s nationwide German funding initiative “Research Campus – Public-Private Partnerships for Innovation” is to offer long-term support, at an early stage, to encourage universities, research institutes and businesses to work together in ten economically and socially relevant technology fields. Federal Research Minister Annette Schavan announced the ten winners of the initiative on September 25, 2012, among them the Digital Photonic Production research campus coordinated by Prof. Poprawe through the Chair of Laser Technology LLT. Over the course of the next 15 years, the research cluster will have up to an additional 2 million euros at its disposal each year, on top of its own contributions, with which to systematically drive this pioneering issue forward.

“From bits to photons to atoms”

This phrase sums up the technological potential of digital photonic production. On the basis of numerical data, light can be harnessed as a tool for manufacturing customized components of almost any complexity cost-effectively in small batches. Photon-based production methods for rapid manufacturing have been a research and development topic in Aachen for many years now. One of the research team’s major achievements was the development of the first process for the fabrication of metallic dental prostheses using selective laser melting, which subsequently led to the creation of new business models in dental technology. Professor Poprawe and his team received the NRW Innovation Award 2011 for developing the SLM additive manufacturing process, now widely deployed in many sectors of industry.

Automotive and aerospace companies are currently testing the potential of such production methods to optimize component functionality and the consumption of resources. The next step involves linking the laser-based production processes to the upstream design and construction plans and the downstream processes and logistic issues. The aims of the industrial partners include channeling tailor-made components in small quantities into construction plants designed for mass production, involving customers in the design of individual components, and systematically reducing existing spare parts stores.

Digital photonic production is not limited to additive manufacturing processes. Further production strategies being systematically pursued within the scope of the BMBF funding initiative include the generation of nanometer-thin structures via abrasion using ultra-short-pulse lasers, laser polishing of metals, glass and plastic, and the generation of three-dimensional microfluidic systems using selective laser etching.

The 15-year funding period for the research cluster is also intended to be used to establish the fundamental requirements that will make digital photonic production marketable in many sectors of manufacturing industry. The actual challenge is linking planning, construction, design, material selection, production and logistics in such a way that flexible series production using additive, abrasive and functionalizing laser processes is economically viable, irrespective of batch size. Digital photonic production opens up new business models and services for the manufacturing industry, such as co-creation and mass customization. Important future fields of application include mobility, energy, health, and information and communication technology.

National center of expertise based on four pillars

In addition to the activities of the BMBF research cluster, cooperation between research and industry in Aachen is also being furthered by a unique initiative of RWTH Aachen. A new site covering approx. 250,000 square meters has been prepared to allow companies to set up business in direct proximity to the university campus, giving them the possibility to work in collaboration with the university’s 19 specialist research departments.

One of these subject areas is digital photonic production. Initiatives that already exist in this area include the Integrative Production Technology for High-Wage Countries cluster of excellence (comprising 25 research establishments with an available budget of 40 million euros spread over 5 years) and the Fraunhofer innovation cluster Integrative Production Technology for Energy-Efficient Turbomachinery, TurPro (in which the 16 industrial partners include global players such as MAN Diesel & Turbo, Siemens PG, Rolls-Royce Germany, and MTU Aero Engines, and total research funding amounts to 10.25 million euros). As a member of these research consortia, the scientists in Aachen have, for example, developed innovative production technology that significantly reduces the manufacturing costs of blisks, or blade-integrated disks. Laser material deposition enables these essential components of aircraft engines and gas turbines to be manufactured much more efficiently, with material savings of up to 60 percent and a reduction of approx. 30 percent in the overall production time. The cluster of excellence has also developed automobile components for lightweight construction that are up to 40 percent lighter than conventional components when produced using SLM, including topologically optimized wheel bearings.

“Photonic process chains” symposium

At EuroMold 2012 in Frankfurt, the BMBF will be hosting a symposium entitled “Photonic process chains – the revolution in production?” on November 28-29 in collaboration with Fraunhofer ILT, VDMA, and DEMAT. Tool and mold manufacturers, automotive industry suppliers and manufacturers, medical technology companies and representatives from the turbomachinery and aircraft industries will deliver presentations on the possibilities and challenges of intelligently linked photonic production processes. At the heart of the presentations and discussions lies the necessity to comprehend the manufacture of a product not just in terms of the individual steps involved, but rather to view the entirety of the various processes involved within the context of the complete process chain.

Further Contact
Dipl.-Phys. Christian Hinke
Head of the Integrated Production Group at the Chair for Laser Technology LLT at RWTH Aachen University
Phone +49 241 8906-352
Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT
Steinbachstraße 15
52074 Aachen, Germany
Phone +49 241 8906-0
Fax+49 241 8906-121

Axel Bauer | Fraunhofer Institut
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