A revolution in manufacturing
The effects of laser beams have always captured our imagination – just think of the Bond film Goldfinger, where a laser beam melts a slab of gold and makes the hero fear for his life. Jens König was also impressed by the power of lasers while he was studying physics.
He recognized that the laser’s heat was, in fact, the problem. If a conventional laser beam strikes a material such as metal, the metal heats up, melts, and partly evaporates. However, it is very difficult to control the behavior of molten materials. Frequently, this can result in unevenness, or in burrs when the molten material hardens again. Precision is reduced accordingly. The part then has to be reworked, which costs time and money. Bosch and König decided to tame the laser. They went hunting for people to join them.
They found their partners through a joint project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. One of them is Stefan Nolte, Professor of Experimental and Laser Physics at the University of Jena. He laid the scientific groundwork for the ultrashort laser pulses. The key would be reducing the duration of the laser’s pulse to the point where the surface would not heat up. König and Nolte tried to figure out exactly how short that time needed to be.
They soon succeeded in using a laser to drill very precisely, but doing so still took several minutes. The equipment also proved to be extremely sensitive. It had to be readjusted after vibrations and after every change in temperature. It seemed this technology was not practical for use outside the university laboratory. But the partners didn’t give up.
Bosch seemed like the right place to make his vision a reality. “The company provides the opportunity and also the time for bringing such innovations to life.” He tenaciously persuaded supervisors and colleagues, looked for practical applications, and set about developing the technology.
He also needed a third partner, an expert on laser systems who would help him make the laser more robust. He found this partner in the person of Dirk Sutter, the head of research and development of ultrashort pulse lasers at Trumpf, the global market leader for industrial laser systems. His job in this joint project was to find an answer to the question that was baffling König – is it possible to construct a laser that is simultaneously extremely sensitive yet robust enough to work reliably in a manufacturing facility? Dirk Sutter’s response: “Nothing is impossible.”
He was right. In the machinery developed by Bosch using Trumpf lasers, an extremely fine and fast-pulsing laser beam is projected onto metal hundreds of thousands of times a second. At the same time, it is controlled so precisely by optics and mirrors that its energy is able to create minute holes or almost any other structure desired. This opens up completely new possibilities for processing nearly any material. The laser can be used anywhere to drill, cut, structure, or mill practically any shape required.
We have succeeded in bringing this technology out of the university laboratories.
The laser tamers
This made Bosch the first company in the world to master the art of harnessing lasers for specific tasks – and to use them in industrial manufacturing. Bosch has so far used this technology to manufacture almost 30 million products. Other sectors have now also taken advantage of the pioneering work of the laser tamers. In medicine, for example, innovative stents can be carved out of special plastics in such a way that they keep constricted blood vessels open longer and at the same time allow medication to be delivered to precisely the right location.
It’s great to be involved in developing something like this at such a young age.
The world on a pinhead
Ultrashort pulse lasers can etch the world onto a pinhead. The fine ring around the globe is about half as thick as a human hair.