The National Science Foundation, a US government agency based in Virginia, USA, has reported the development of new technology by scientists at Western Michigan University that could speed up the machining process and make cutting tools last longer.
Machining, in particular the process of cutting hard, brittle materials during manufacturing, can be difficult, often because the cutting tool, typically made of single crystal diamond can wear out.
“The biggest issue with diamond cutting is that diamonds are expensive,” states John Patten, chair of the manufacturing engineering department at the university and director of its Manufacturing Research Center. “If you can find a way to soften the material it is cutting, that is, expose the diamond to a softer material, it doesn’t wear as much, so you don’t have to replace it as often, having to shut down the machine when you do.”
Patten and his research colleague, Deepak Ravindra, with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), developed the new Micro-LAM (Laser Assisted Machining) process, which adds a focused laser to the high pressure diamond cutter. Heat from the laser softens the material, cutting it more quickly, thus conserving the life of the diamond. The new process also results in a smoother surface on the product, making it easier to shape, and eliminating the need for subsequent post-processing smoothing.
“In theory, you cannot make a diamond any harder than it already is, so our only option was to preferentially soften the workpiece material during the manufacturing/machining process,” Ravindra stated. Furthermore, “the technology actually works better at higher speeds,” he adds.
The hybrid tool contributes to less breakage and fracturing, and makes the material stronger, enhancing its integrity. This means savings for manufacturers and, presumably, also for consumers. Potentially, the device could have a major impact in the aerospace and defence industries, including in the manufacture of high powered electronics, computer chips, and lenses, windows and mirrors for optical and laser systems sates the report.
The system “addresses all of the main challenges associated with manufacturing hard and brittle materials such as ceramics and semiconductors,” Ravindra added. It is “a retro-fitable solution provided to manufacturing companies that allows them to machine parts faster, better and cheaper. We truly believe that we will be able to provide our customers with the technology to profitably manufacture superior parts without compromising on material quality.”