What do the ancient Japanese art of origami and laser cutting have in common? For the U.S. Army, it could mean the saving of Soldiers” lives on the battlefield.
Researchers Dr. Nathan Lazarus and Gabriel Smith at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have demonstrated for the first time the creation of complex 3-D parts directly from a blank sheet of metal using only a laser cutter.
Laser cutters are typically designed to cut 2-D parts from a single 2-D sheet of material using a focused light source that heats metal so that the material leaves the surface.
Instead of using this classic technique, Lazarus and Smith set the laser to a lower power level, causing controlled heating instead of cutting.
The heating causes relative expansion, which in turns allows the metal to be bent in a process called laser forming. With laser forming, the direction in which the metal bends (i.e. up or down) can be controlled with power and beam speed, which is a powerful aspect that cannot be achieved with the traditional approach.
This process is all hands-free, low-cost efficient and compatible with fabricating thousands of parts at a time.
Initial demonstrations of laser forming origami have included a wide range of possible parts from cubes and coils to arcs and cylinders. Materials that can be laser formed include metal, glass and crystalline semiconductors.
“Our current version that involves thin metal and lower power could easily create a new antenna for a radio, a new inductor for a power system, new heat sinks for cooling and much more,” Lazarus said. “With a higher power laser, which we”ve been in talks to try, it would be possible for example to build a replacement armor plate for a tank, sloped and curved appropriately, or a helmet.”
According to Lazarus, this is a general manufacturing technique that could be easily adapted to many metal parts or components.