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ALT Laser cladding
ALT's LDF 4000 Laser System Cladding a metal powder onto a substrate.
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The development of laser technology plays a crucial role in the advancing manufacturing sector and is a vital component in the metal additive manufacturing process.
One company at the cutting edge of laser technology is Advanced Laser Technology Ltd. (ALT), with Managing Director Roger Hardacre at the helm. TCT Magazine went to visit ALT on a bright June day to find out more about the business and its role in the fast-moving advanced manufacturing industry.
ALT's team of four operate out of premises conveniently near to Manchester Piccadilly railway station, in a facility previously used for storing wine. Hardacre revealed that he has transformed the premises - which did not even have heating when they first moved in last year - and hopes ALT-HQ will be a thriving laser technology hub before long.
"There are four of us here and we expect to be six by the end of 2013, and then 10 by the end of 2014," he revealed, adding that ALT's excellent location at Piccadilly Trading Estate will give them the best access to the technology expertise at Manchester University, which they will be able to tap into when required.
'Investing in R&D'
ALT integrates laser technology with robotic systems, cladding systems, powder recipes and safety systems and offers a service that includes establishing a complete laser at overseas sites along with training its prospective operators.
The company's unnamed overseas investor is keen for ALT to develop unique technologies in Europe and around the world and the business has already commenced its research and development activities in earnest.
"As a company, we are looking to invest more in research and development and we want to get a real understanding of the technology and how to integrate it," Hardacre stated.
ALT's current projects have resulted in a close relationship with Laser Lines and the company is looking to get more closely involved in the growing metals additive manufacturing sector.
"If one of our customers asks us to provide an additive manufacturing system, we have the technology experts to deliver and install such a system. And we will probably start imaging in the future. As we close in on specialist coatings and features and get more enhanced applications with overseas sales, we will be developing our technology," Hardacre explained.
"We are focusing on assembling and developing the best in European laser technology and supporting it in complete systems."
'Increasing what we can do'
At present, ALT is working on systems for a re-manufacturer of coal mining equipment, with the first systems set up by the company being used for cladding and coating precision machines and some additive-based repair work. Hardacre noted that the team's early task is to teach their overseas clients in how to exploit the versatility of the laser systems.
"We have increased what we can do in terms of cladding and controlling deposition and we can now work with a range of powders, so rather than just a nice line - we have helped them sculpt in structures to repair damaged parts," Hardacre said.
The machine at the centre of ALT's operations is a "quite powerful" robot-mounted Diode Laser capable of producing a 17 mm beam of homogenous quality - which is a crucial facility to have, as the quality of the beam does not deteriorate around the edges. This laser is ideal for cladding and working on samples for customers, Hardacre explained, adding that a spot beam is also used for small diameter deposition work.
Hardacre showed us around ALT, taking is to see the robot-mounted laser by Laser Lines on a facility floor and into an office overlooking this space which will become a laboratory, however some work will have to be contracted to Manchester University in order to access their leading metallurgical analysis. In the lab, Hardacre revealed that ALT aims to develop unique powder recipes for clients and its ongoing relationship with the university will help with this.
ALT is doing very well in establishing itself at the forefront of laser technology, having been invited to join industrial research consortia, winning two Smart Awards and bidding for further Technology Strategy Board projects. Nevertheless, Hardacre stated there is a lack of awareness as to what lasers can do - a matter he discussed with zeal.
"We know that by looking at major research that lasers are the fastest-growing machine tool in the world and at the height of the manufacturing recession lasers were still getting double-digit growth while everything else was slipping.
"It's my belief that we will see lasers emerge as a preferred machine tool."
'The best is yet to come'
Hardacre referred to the Annual Report published by Optics Consulting, which revealed that in February 2013, the annual market for laser systems used in materials processing exceeded $10 billion (£6.5 billion, €7.6 billion) for the first time.
The report said that influential laser industry analyst Arnold Mayer's figures show that the market expanded by 28 per cent in 2011, reaching $10.1 billion, which is significantly higher than the $9.4 billion recorded in 2008, representing much stronger growth than anticipated - particularly while the international marketplace was battling with the global economic downturn.
Hardacre believes the best is yet to come for lasers and explained that now, every manufacturing company has a CNC machining tool and in future, there will be laser machine next to this CNC machine tool which will not just cut and weld, but provide solutions for the wider manufacturing process.
"We hope to be part of the emergence of that and experts of the technology in the international markets," he stated.
In addition to the coal mining equipment industry, ALT acknowledges the automotive industry as one of its biggest clients - but the firm anticipates future clients will emerge from any sector that utilises performance engineering.
And ALT appears to be exactly the sort of business the Government wants to support as the British economy recovers, with ALT taking advantage of publicly-funded programmes including IP audits and master classes.
"We're interested in Government research and development funding and are very supportive of it. We set out to research coating and now our research is more about new techniques. We also want to build on our patents and to design models and equipment in Asia and the EU, as well as continue with research and development in the UK," Hardacre said.
Advanced Laser Technology has ambition and is already establishing itself as a forerunner in laser applications and it seems likely that we will be hearing a lot more about this dynamic Manchester business as additive manufacturing technology is adopted by more and more organisations and sectors.