Laser machining (or laser beam machining) denotes machining operations utilizing laser light in the form of a laser beam. Here, the term machining (with its modern meaning) denotes only those techniques of material processing which are subtractive, i.e., which involve the controlled removal of some material. Specifically, the following methods belong to laser machining, which are partly explained in more specific encyclopedia articles:
- Laser cutting is the cutting e.g. of metal pieces, or even of ceramics and glasses, with lasers.
- Laser drilling is the generation of holes with laser beams; a related method is laser trepanning, essentially the cutting of holes.
- Laser milling involves the removal of material in a layer-by-layer fashion. It can be applied to large surfaces, e.g. of machine parts, but also for the generation of fine 3D structures (3D micromilling).
- Laser scribing is the generation of some kind of elongated fault (e.g. a groove, or a structure containing microscopic cracks), which is often used to prepare a process of clean breaking. It is frequently applied in the semiconductor industry for processing wafers. It can also be applied to other materials such as glasses and ceramics.
When very small parts are machined, or at least very fine structures are generated on larger parts, the term laser micromachining is common. This can actually involve operations like cutting, drilling, milling and others.
Some kind of laser ablation is basically always involved in laser machining.
Historically, machining was not restricted to subtractive processes, but could also mean more generally the working on machine parts. However, the term was later refined to mean only subtractive methods. Non-subtractive methods, e.g. laser additive manufacturing and joining methods like laser welding and soldering, are therefore not considered to belong to the area of laser machining. Laser cleaning is also essentially a subtractive method, but not clearly included in machining.
Common Advantages of Laser Machining
Common advantages of laser machining methods are the following:
- There are many laser beam machining processes which achieve results which would be impossible with other, more traditional machining techniques.
- One does not require direct contact with machining tools. Therefore, one avoids wear-off of such tools.
- The processing accuracy can be very high.
- The processing can be very fast.
- Further, laser machining is well suited for automation, i.e., for integration with modern technologies like CAD and robotics.
However, laser-based manufacturing techniques also have various specific limitations, which are explained in the more general article on laser material processing.
Applications of Laser Machining
Laser beam machining methods have been developed for a very wide range of materials, including various metals, ceramics, glasses, polymers (plastics), foams, textiles, leather, paper and wood. Many of those have become important in various areas of modern manufacturing technology, e.g. in the automobile industry, for ship building, aerospace, medical instruments and electronics. Therefore, laser machining should no longer be considered as a kind of non-conventional manufacturing.
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