While 3D printing has made it possible to prototype everything from minute implantable medical devices to full-scale auto engines, creating a prototype model with equipment and processes not used in production manufacturing means that manufacturability may not be possible with existing equipment, delaying time to market. In other words, rapid prototyping doesn't always lead to rapid product development.
The Laser option
Laser machining platforms have been used in prototyping for years because setups are fast and high levels of accuracy can be achieved. Furthermore, there is no physical tool or tool wear to impact accuracy and repeatability.
Laser prototyping for micro-parts, however, is more challenging because thermal damage (by way of melting, burring or creation of recast layer) occurring in the Heat-Affected Zone (HAZ) will clearly affect the quality and accuracy of microscopic parts.
However, with ultrafast lasers - i.e. lasers with pulse widths in the femtosecond range - thermal damage can be avoided enabling ‘flawless’ micro-part prototypes to be made.
Until recently, femtosecond lasers have shared the limitations of 3D printers for prototyping. Femtosecond lasers were fine for creating models in laboratory environments, but were not robust enough for full-scale manufacturing, and so the question of the manufacturability of prototypes remained.
This has changed in recent years with the advent of commercial-grade femtosecond lasers and manufacturing platforms that offer the stability, part handling, and beam control to deliver repeatable, precision material removal on micro-parts in a 24/7 manufacturing environment.
This means that the very same tool, equipment, and process used to create a prototype can also be used to manufacture production parts at scale.
The emergence of industrial femtosecond laser micro-machining platforms has enabled new parts and new products to be designed and manufactured at an accelerated rate. Once a prototype is finalised, the time required to take the prototype to volume manufacturing is greatly reduced.
Examples of next-generation designs that have moved from prototypes to finished manufactured parts using femtosecond lasers include—among many others—OLED panels, fuel injector nozzles, and medical devices such as coronary stents.
The ML-5 Industrial femtosecond micro-machining platform
GF Machining Solutions’ ML-5 is a market- leading ultrafast laser micro-machining platform, combining exceptional part handling, motion control and real-time positional feedback to deliver perfect micro holes and other features in seconds.
The ML-5 features a 5-axis laser scan head, a precision ground natural granite base, iron-less linear motors, Heidenhain glass scales, and automatic palletised work-holding to deliver the kind of precision and performance required for machining at the micro level.
The ML-5’s femtosecond laser makes it possible to machine a wide range of materials producing little or no tool wear and without creating the heat affected zone - thereby ensuring part quality, high surface finishes and sharper edge reproduction.
This laser can create unique shapes that are beyond the scope of conventional machines i.e. negative taper holes, holes that change shape (circular entrance and elliptical exit), star patterns etc.