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Expert Q&A: Trends in Laser Alignment

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Laura S. Marshall, Managing Editor, [email protected]

Laser alignment affords manufacturers great precision and efficiency in assessment of their equipment, allowing them to take minute measurements and correct tiny errors that otherwise could mean big problems down the line, including materials wasted or time lost.

To get a picture of current activity in laser alignment, Photonics Spectra turned to experts from two companies in the thick of things: Opto-Alignment Technology Inc. in Indian Trail, N.C., and Pinpoint Laser Systems Inc. in Peabody, Mass.

Opto-Alignment assembly cleanroom with alignment stations. Courtesy of Opto-Alignment.

Steve Bohuczky is the executive director of business development for Opto-Alignment Technology, also known as OAT. Opto-Alignment produces alignment and assembly equipment for ultraprecision and precision optical systems. It “specializes in narrow confocal laser reflection-based measurements of lens centration and lens tilt to submicron level,” Bohuczky said. One new OAT product is the Laser Alignment Station (LAS), which enables measurement and correction of even “a tiny 2-arc-second tilt.” Additional modules also allow it to measure lens thickness and air space in lens systems.

One of Opto-Alignment’s newer products is the Laser Alignment Station. Courtesy of Opto-Alignment.

Mory Creighton is the general manager at Pinpoint Laser Systems. Pinpoint provides laser measuring and machinery alignment equipment for manufacturing. The company is introducing two laser receivers based on customer feedback, the 4D Microgage and the Microgage 2D Transparent. These will allow precision measurements on machine tools and assembly equipment.

Q: What do you see as the “next big thing” in laser alignment in general? Are you seeing any new and exciting laser alignment advances coming out of R&D and/or university labs?

Fixturing, software and manufacturers taking on their own alignment.

As machinery configurations change, the fixturing for alignment systems and techniques needs to change as well. Rails and slides become longer, CNC [computer numerical control] machine tools have different work enclosures driven by safety, and working considerations and alignment fixturing has to adapt to these changing needs. Many of our customers come to us looking for adapters and new fixtures for their alignment systems as they take on new tasks that they were not considering two or three years ago but that have become important now.

Checking the angular orientation and deflection of the arm on an inspection robot. Courtesy of Pinpoint Laser Systems.

Software – what do the measuring and alignment numbers mean and how do they relate to corrective action taken on the production line? Software that allows people to quickly see the alignment condition of their production machinery is a great asset in reducing their downtime and producing better finished products.

We see a steady trend in manufacturers bringing their alignment capabilities inside their organization. Companies need to remain competitive in the global environment – thinner materials, faster throughput and more complex manufacturing processes require precise machinery operation. For years, there has been a strong reliance on outside, third-party alignment vendors, and these services have become very costly, and often there are long waiting periods in scheduling, which has a significant manufacturing impact on machinery downtime, rising production costs and scheduling.

Our observations show that production workers and plant engineers are very familiar with their own production equipment and – given a good, precise measuring and alignment tool – they do a much better job in maintaining alignment on their production equipment, reducing downtime and ultimately improving their own manufacturing profits.

The development of new laser technology, detectors and optics moves steadily along in both industrial R&D as well as government and university research settings. Pinpoint is actively involved with this process as well and regularly introducing new products such as the Microgage 4 Axis Receiver and the 2D Transparent Receiver – both unique products driven by requests from our large customer base. Methods to apply alignment data and findings to automated equipment is a growing area, particularly as CNC machinery runs faster and faster under automated control, and manufacturing tolerances become tighter.

Bohuczky: There are too many R&D projects out there with very promising results. I read about around-the-corner 3-D imaging of objects that are out of the straight line of sight, by measuring the time of multiple reflections, almost like laser echo. OAT is preparing to build mid- and long-IR LAS devices as soon as a specific need and budget are there.

Q: Which application areas would you say are currently thriving – and why?

Creighton: We see a lot of growth and business activity in the continuous process side of the manufacturing industry. For example, paper mills, converting lines, steel and metal production, electronic component manufacturing and others cannot afford unexpected downtime. Competition is tight, and profit margins are small and, consequently, manufacturing planning and maintenance need to be right on track. We are seeing a lot of customer needs in this area now, particularly for equipment that supports preventive maintenance.

Laser alignment offers a quick, efficient way for manufacturing companies to run preventive maintenance checks and make sure that equipment is properly set up. Courtesy of Pinpoint Laser Systems.

New technology manufacturing is also a driving force in our industry. Helicopters, aircraft, ships and automobiles are made out of new materials, such as advanced composites that influence the manufacturing and assembly process. In the past, large dedicated tooling was created for single product fabrication and assembly. Over the past five to 10 years, the move has been toward flexible tooling, and measuring and alignment equipment that can adapt to many different products being produced. We see strong growth potential for companies that can work in this arena.

Bohuczky: I noticed that there is a fast growing arsenal of medical laser instruments on the market, and I think more will be widely available to the noncash patient base soon. Obviously, the aging population in the Western world is a major driver. Some of the scientific applications are a little harder to pinpoint, partly because there are too many.

As far as military applications, I hope that the global powers will or already have agreed not to integrate laser-based small arms into their military arsenals. Eventually, these would become available to anyone and establish an “invisible, undetectable” threat.

Q: How would you say the market has been in the past few years for laser alignment?

Bohuczky: Laser alignment and measurement is now in every corner of technology and industry. The expansion was fast and logical, and it will continue.

Creighton: The economic climate over the past couple of years has been challenging, particularly for manufacturing industries. Reductions in production activity, cost-cutting measures and turnover in the workforce have influenced the market for all machinery alignment, including laser alignment equipment.

However, we have recently seen a significant increase in manufacturing activity in certain industrial sectors and an aggressive approach to bringing machinery back on line and performing the needed alignments to keep this equipment running smoothly and efficiently. Our business activity is increasing steadily, and we hope that this progress will continue.

Q: Where do you think the market for laser alignment is going?

Bohuczky: Measuring the presence and distance of objects relating to safety in industry and everyday life will be one of the most important new markets.

Creighton: One trend, mentioned earlier, is the movement toward companies taking care of their own machinery and equipment alignment. A lot of customers are replacing traditional methods with laser alignment products. This is often seen now as a necessity rather than a luxury. The measuring and alignment products available today have become so easy to learn and use that manufacturing companies are equipping their workforce with these tools. Their motivation is to reduce outside alignment costs and delays and to better tap into the knowledge and expertise of their own workforce.

Stronger focus on preventive maintenance is pulling the laser alignment market in new directions. Manufacturing is embracing preventive maintenance with new techniques, data and scheduling tools, and other resources in an effort to improve profitability. Here at Pinpoint, we have seen a stronger focus on manufacturers using precision equipment to take quick snapshots of their machinery alignment and condition monitoring for more organized equipment maintenance and improvements. Tight manufacturing schedules, JIT [just in time] production and growing foreign competition leave little room for unexpected production downtime events.

A slow and steady movement away from optical alignment scopes toward laser equipment that is easier to use, more precise and repeatable from user to user. As seasoned manufacturing people leave the workforce, the knowledge base for using optical alignment equipment is leaving with them. Employees, more than ever, move from job to job, and the laser alignment equipment available on the market today is easier and faster to learn, while at the same time it improves the speed and precision for routine and complex machinery alignment.

Q: What are the biggest challenges to new advances in laser alignment?

Bohuczky: One of the challenges is increasing sensor resolution to increase measurement accuracy.

Creighton: The growing variety of manufacturing needs and production systems poses a challenge for manufacturers of machinery alignment equipment. Customers want turnkey products that are right out of the case, ready to go on their specific production equipment. Alignment needs for manufacturing companies are becoming more demanding and diverse. Companies that sell “standard” alignment products and are unwilling to deviate from their particular product offerings are facing pressure from their customers for new alignment needs and opportunities. We have had strong success over the years working with individual customers, understanding their particular needs and adapting products to meet these needs and requirements.

Workforce turnover and short-term thinking. As employees change their jobs and roles within industry, manufacturing companies often feel the pressure of losing manufacturing continuity and their long-term perspective. New people are trying to learn new jobs, and while on this learning curve, it is easy to lose sight of long-term objectives and planning. We sometimes see that, when this long-term planning and viewpoint are set aside, production efficiency suffers through more downtime events and slower recovery from addressing unexpected problems. The adage “Rome was not built in a day” holds very true for manufacturing knowledge and technology.

The complexity of an efficient and profitable manufacturing operation can make it difficult to change people, processes, techniques and equipment on a rapid basis and still remain efficient and profitable. Better production tools, such as laser alignment equipment, are a great asset for the manufacturing industry, but the long-term thinking and planning need to be in place in addition to the ability to react and fix equipment rapidly.

Photonics Spectra
May 2011
4D MicrogageAmericasconverting linesdefenseelectronic component manufacturingEuropeFeaturesindustrialLASLaser AlignmentLaser Alignment StationLaura Marshallmanufacturingmedical lasersmetal productionMicrogage 2D TransparentmilitaryMory CreightonOATOpto-Alignment Technologypaper millsPinpoint Laser Systems Inc.Sensors & DetectorsSoftwaresteel productionSteve BohuczkyTest & Measurementlasers

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