Optomec Design Co.Albuquerque

Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS)

Imagine how many inventions -- a better child car safety seat for example -- are delayed in reaching the commercial marketplace by inefficient, outdated technologies for processing materials into component parts. Even the state-of-the-art additive or rapid prototyping (RP) processes, which use lasers to join powdered materials together, require the building of numerous prototype molds in plastic before a final, functional structure can be produced. A new technology applied to the $100 billion tooling industry could shorten that time-to-market lag considerably. Early in 1998, Optomec Design Co. closed its first commercial sale of equipment that supports the Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS) process, which it promises will increase productivity for manufacturers and could even save lives by getting products such as that new car seat to market sooner. Like other RP technologies, LENS focuses a high-powered laser beam onto a substrate, injects a powder (in this case metallic), and under computer control builds three-dimensional metal parts layer by layer until the full part is complete. But unlike conventional processes, LENS produces fully dense metal parts with excellent material properties. Moreover, while conventional RP methods produce prototypes of plastic and paper parts that can be used only for fit checks and other design purposes, LENS produces functional, near-net-shape metal parts directly from computer-generated designs. The technology will afford manufacturers a significant reduction in time and costs associated with the preparation of plastic-injection molds. More importantly, explains Optomec board of directors member Thomas Swann, LENS also can produce internal embedded sensors and conformal cooling channels, which increase the efficiency and control of heat removal from the molds. Consequently, a graded material structure can be produced with, say, copper at one end and steel at the other. The end result is that cycle time decreases while the mold life increases. LENS is the first major innovation to hit the tooling industry in over a decade. Initially developed at Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) by research scientist David Keicher, now Optomec's director of R&D, the technology is an extension of current RP technology, which was invented more than 12 years ago. Through its participation in a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between SNL and 10 industry partners, Optomec received the license to commercialize LENS. Swann says the other corporate partners are interested in the technology for their own use; only Optomec has indicated plans to commercialize the technology for the plastic-injection-mold tooling application. Optomec is a 14-year-old company that traditionally produced laser systems and components, but today, Keicher says, "LENS is our entire thrust." He and Doyle Miller, now Optomec's president and new CEO, followed the technology from SNL to its new commercial home. Together with Swann, they've grown the company from 2 to 17 people since early 1997 and secured three customers in 1998: Delphi Automotive, Ohio State University Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Laser Fare Inc., a 20-year-old materials-processing company (and also a member of the LENS CRADA) based in Smithfield, R. I., that supplies component parts for jet engines, auto transmissions, and medical devices. According to Terry Feeley, Laser Fare's president of advanced technology, manufacturers are able to reduce 50% to 90% of the steps involved in conventional RP manufacturing. Furthermore, he says, "We can produce components that are tailored to the application our customers request." He cautions that there are some issues with accuracy that LENS' researchers still need to overcome. But since research continues at SNL through the CRADA, Optomec will benefit from new developments that emerge from the lab. For now, Optomec is positioning its LENS equipment for universities, national labs, and automotive companies. But, Miller says, LENS is an enabling platform technology that can be extended from the tooling industry to apply to many other fields, including the medical and aerospace industries. By automating manufacturing in a variety of industries, Optomec's executives are optimistic that they can help bring manufacturing back onshore.

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