Smart Factories FEATURE NEWS

Laser Integrations in IoT: Smart Automations for High Productivity

By Special Guest
Cher Zevala, Correspondent
August 24, 2017

One of the most significant contributors to improved factory automation in recent years has been the Internet of Things. New technologies are being integrated with the IoT using processors, sensors, wireless and protocol-based communications, and advanced system architectures to create industrial automation systems that cost less while increasing productivity and efficiency in the manufacturing environment.

Operational technology and information technology are coming together in the industrial environment more than ever before. Perhaps nowhere is that more disruptive than in the realm of laser technology systems, which are being integrated with the IoT in new and exciting ways that make it easier and safer than ever before to use lasers for manufacturing.

The IoT's Role in the Automation Interface 
Productivity and efficiency in the modern manufacturing environment often relies on automation. With the IoT and an advanced automation interface, it’s now possible to integrate not only laser systems to respond to programmed inputs, but also control multiple external devices including air movers, valves, compressors, signal lights, and alarms using event-driven programmable outputs. Inputs can be initiated from a diverse array of sources, including switches, relays, or digital logic signals from PLCs or microcontrollers, meaning that the laser systems can be controlled from any number of remote sources.

Perhaps one of the most exciting innovations to come from the integration of the IoT and laser systems through an automation interface though is the ability to automatically load and unload parts and materials without the assistance of a user.  This is a significant benefit, especially when it comes to increasing material handling capabilities.

Laser Material Processing: Increasing Material Handling Capabilities
Because more factories are processing materials using lasers, there’s an increased emphasis being put on finding ways to process different types of materials, but also to do it more efficiently. In the past, many manufacturers have either incurred significant expenses by investing in multiple lasers to handle different types of materials, or created potentially dangerous environments by using lasers inappropriately to manage all materials.

Neither of these options is ideal, though, but with the development of the IoT along with modules that can allow a laser to shift between different modes to manage different materials has the potential to allow for safer and more efficient materials processing. Using these modules along with an automation interface can increase productivity, as any production processes that involve lasers can be done in batches using the proper laser system without investing in multiple pieces of specialty equipment and systems.

Comprehensive Functionality With Control Through External Devices 
Controlling laser manufacturing via external devices is another benefit of the IoT in smart automations. For example, ULS laser material processing systems like the laser engraving machine are designed to function as computer peripherals. The system comes equipped with print drivers that allow users to print design files, while also maintaining compatibility with most software, including CAD/CAM.

However, because there are inherent limitations in printing, newer automation interfaces also allow the option to directly import files to the laser control process via a network connection. This not only improves the quality of the laser engraving or cutting quality, as well as more compatibility across different platforms and more efficient use of the machines. In short, controlling lasers via external devices, whether created on a Mac or a PC, reduces the time required to set up the jobs and the likelihood of errors.

Improved Safety and Reduction in Liability
Finally, integrating the IoT into laser system operations has the potential to improve the safety of the manufacturing environment while also significantly reducing liability. While the safe operation of any laser system requires constant monitoring by a human attendant, using an IoT-enabled system reduces the likelihood of errors and allows for more consistent monitoring and adjustments to ensure safety. Among the risks that an automated system can reduce include the risk of combustion, exposure to direct laser energy (thanks in large part to the ability to select the correct laser module for the materials), exposure to exhaust, and electrical dangers.

The integration of the IoT and laser technology is in it its infancy, and undoubtedly we will see more new and exciting innovations in the years to come. For now, though, these exciting advances are taking productivity to new levels, and changing nearly everything about the modern industrial environment. 

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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