A couple of weeks ago, we covered RAPID 2013 in Pittsburgh as part of a new level of outreach for Continuous Wave, which will increasingly profile key players and developments in the laser industry.

On this foray, we ran into Jim Sears, general chair of next year’s sixth-annual Laser Additive Manufacturing Workshop, as well as Cincinnati Incorporated’s Rick Neff, an exhibitor and speaker at the Lasers for Manufacturing Event.

Sears, of the GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna, N.Y., pointed to the impact of lasers on additive manufacturing by noting the presence of firms like EOS, Optomec, Stratasys and SLM Solutions.

“The laser guys here, especially the powder-bed guys, are trying to improve the quality of the machines with bigger, larger build sizes. You see Concept Laser’s going to be offering a larger size. There will be a trend to how far you can go with that.”

Two vital factors in moving AM forward are process monitoring and design, Sears stressed. (Process monitoring for laser applications will be a featured tutorial Sept. 11 at the third-annual LME in Schaumburg, Ill.)

“We really want to see more process control. That will be a key thing to watch: Who comes out with the best types of process control and reliability. We’re also looking at reject rates internally, assessing the reliability of systems over hundreds and thousands of parts.” The ability to factor out a scrap rate is a key component of those assessments: “That’s what we’re driving the vendors to do. We’ll put out specifications for devices in the future that vendors can sign up to or not sign up to.”

There’s quite a bit of work to be done in this regard, he said. “What you see on the shop floor today is probably not what is needed for manufacturing … parts at the highest levels, for the flight-certified type part.” Hurdles at lower technology levels will be easier to overcome. “The main work we’re doing is looking at how this fits in our manufacturing portfolio.

Harnessing AM technology means training up-and-coming engineers to adopt a new design outlook, Sears asserted.

“We’re working with our designers on how they can take advantage of this technology. Designers come from all (disciplines): appliances, transportation, oil and gas, nuclear. We’re working with those designers to bring them up to date about where the technology is, how they can use it — or not use it — in their designs.” Design innovation is the ultimate driver: “That’s where the big money is: It’s the result — it’s not the act.”

Redesigning multiple components into single parts “is the simple thing,” Sears said. Making those parts function better than they did in the previous assembly is the goal. “(AM) allows us to take it to the next degree. We’ve got 600 engineers throughout the company working on this. We teach them how to take advantage of (design for AM). We’re reaching out to our businesses; it’s a big company, so it takes a while to reach everybody, even within. That’s why we’re here today to talk to the vendors, suppliers (and) academics working in the area. We want to know what they’re doing (and if) that fits with our needs. Do they have students who are interested in becoming our next level of engineers?”

Like Sears, Neff was on a fact-finding mission.

“There’s a lot of plastic stuff (at RAPID 2013),” he noted. “That’s really where (AM’s) strength has been, but there are people doing a good job with making metal parts, especially in the medical industry.”

Discerning fact from the recent hype about the 25-year-old field of AM is an increasing focus for many companies like Cincinnati Incorporated.

“Everybody wants to follow this current gold rush and what’s going on in the additive world, so we’re here like a lot of people looking at how we can get involved or figure out what’s important businesswise,” Neff explained. “When we look at what really is successful, so far it is small parts out of high-value material that seems to be one of the real focuses, and that seems to be a good application of this.”

As manufacturers explore the new horizons offered by AM, they’re finding that LIA’s unique LAM and LME gatherings fill a vital niche, assembling everyone from designers and job shops to top-tier laser providers and systems integrators in a focused environment that let’s them share real-world experiences.

Stay tuned here at CW as we get back out on the road in the near future to provide an in-the-trenches view of AM and other laser processes across the photonics universe. We’re eager to share your stories and concerns with the LIA community; after all, fostering communication among our many expert members and the laser industry at large is one of the goals of this blog. Reach out at geoffgio@verizon.net. — Geoff Giordano