I am certainly no expert on the subject of lasers, but I have recently been involved in a couple of projects that involve their application and I am quickly coming up the learning curve. Using light energy to produce heat is probably not as miraculous-sounding as doing precision surgery to destroy cancer cells, stereo lithography of precision parts, laser sharpening and engraving or long range target acquisition and tracking in the defense arena. Even more pervasive, low power lasers are used to scan bar code data in all sorts of material handling and sortation systems, checkout stands at retail stores, almost any application of character recognition.
Very versatile stuff. Very mechatronic. No, really!
Every one of the applications of lasers requires steering, focusing or scanning mirrors all of which require very high precision electric motors. See? I wasn’t kidding. And in the manufacturing arena it’s even more mechatronic. The laser beam delivery system may require rotary or Cartesian motion in order to perform a certain task. 2D laser engraving applications would be an example. High speed cutting machines frequently require lasers in order to achieve the speed and accuracy requirements of many industrial applications.
In laser printers the laser is scanning the paper surface and firing at incredible precision in order to get the marking to the exact right place on the paper at incredible speeds. CD’s and DVD’s use laser scanning techniques to read and write data on the disks and convert that data into real time audio or audio/video that produces extraordinary reproduction of the original art. We have gigantic industries built on the basic technology of focusing a laser on a spinning plastic disc.
In the industrial arena the applications are heavier duty, hence the term industrial. Instead of tiny, low powered lasers turning data bits on and off, metal cutting requirements frequently require multiple kilowatt lasers to cut through various thicknesses and alloys. The basic mechatronics are the same, just a lot more expensive. High speed sheet metal cutting machines can easily run $250,000 to as much as $1 million depending on the thickness capacity and speed. Material handling systems to load and unload the cutting machines add to system costs, but if the product requires high throughput, the machinery cost can be amortized over the production requirement. Sheet metal applications for making car parts are typical of the high volume applications that ‘drive’ demand for the heavier industrial equipment.
I will continue to work with lasers for the near future and hope to learn more. In the end, everything is mechatronic and mechatronics is everything.