In the age of the Internet and smartphone, the printing industry has to consider new products. Printing on packaging, glass, metal, and ceramics as well as individualized print products. In all cases, photonics plays a role. Inks are fixed on surfaces with ultraviolet or infrared heaters, with efficient LED technology gaining ground. Laser and camera systems control the quality. And as small print runs and personalized prints mean more frequent order changes, automated process chains are the order of the day. Here, too, photonics is on the increase.
The German VDMA Printing and Paper Technology Association and scientists from Augsburg University in Germany recently demonstrated a digital process chain that individualizes print products. Order data is applied to the respective cardboard via QR code. Scanners in the machines read this. With no other input, the orders are then printed and cut to size on laser cutting machines. The result is printed folding templates in various languages for cardboard cubes where the laser has cut “Print 4.0” letter by letter on the four sides.
The printing process chain is a typical case of Industry 4.0. Digitally designed and simulated products, complete with production data, pass through automated production processes. Laser scanners that capture rooms and objects precisely in 3D are already being used to simulate factories, production lines and products. In the production process, codes applied by laser to metal and other materials transport the control information to the respective machining centers and robots. The codes not only allow clear allocation of production parameters to individual products. They also make the process transparent. The production status can be tracked and documented. The codes also contain shipping information.
For automation to be worthwhile for very small series and individual products, you need flexible production technologies and reliable systems for in-line quality control. Both literally cry out for light as a tool. Lasers drill, cut, weld, print, and structure many different materials—with no tool changes or wear. Short setup times and fast order changes are the key to productivity. Lasers also offer the necessary precisions to produce microsystems. And they are ideal for sensitive materials, as heat input can be controlled precisely. In combination with scanners and sensors, control loops are possible that adjust themselves in real time. Technologies, such as remote laser welding, in which the exact position and quality of the weld seams are monitored “on the fly” with real-time sensors, are harbingers of highly flexible, quality-assured automation à la Industry 4.0.
With 3D printing you also have the option of fully automated, digitally controlled serial production from one unit. Lasers build up highly complex components layer by layer from metallic or plastic powder. On this basis, the first producers implemented fully networked process chains in which tangible products were produced from 3D data in a digital production process. The new production world would be absolutely inconceivable without lasers.
But the 4th industrial revolution is also a concern for plant construction companies. Imaging and optical sensors play a key role in concepts for fully automated, IT-controlled plant operation. After all, if you are considering autonomous chemical, steel, paper, or food factories, you absolutely need complete, real-time monitoring in the process. Optical measuring probes monitor processes directly in extruders and reactors, whether it is to ensure consistent quality or molten plastic or pasta dough. They are also used to control homogeneous distribution of active ingredients in drugs, pigments in paints, or fibers in pulp. Industry 4.0 will be a home game for photonics, since optical systems are used in production and in quality assurance because they do their job more enduringly and accurately than conventional production technology—and in many cases, also better than humans.