Cutting with a beam of sound

May 13, 2014
By: Tim Heston

Today cutting with a laser—a beam of light—has become a mainstay in metal fabrication. But could shops one day cut not with light, but with sound?

The FABRICATOR’s Leadership Summit, held in March in Austin, Texas, gave a hint of things to come. During a technology panel, Jim Rogowski, managing director of machine and power tool sales at TRUMPF Inc., showed a video of a scanning laser system cutting thin gauge, with a cycle time measured in milliseconds. Blink once and you’d miss it.

Lasers have proven to be the most versatile manufacturing tool in human history. We’ve got CO2 lasers, YAG, fiber, disc, others that emit waves at various points of the electromagnetic spectrum. Picosecond and femtosecond pulsed lasers are redefining manufacturing at the microscopic level.

Behind all their complexities at their core lasers emit energy in the form of waves in the electromagnetic spectrum. The energy melts the workpiece to form a kerf, weld, heat treat or even peen a surface.

But who says those waves need to be in the electromagnetic spectrum? What about sound waves? Those fluent in nondestructive examination know how useful such waves can be inspecting welds and other critical attributes of a manufactured component. Ultrasonic inspection has become a mainstay for critical joining applications. But could sound waves one day do more than inspect?

Consider research at the University of Michigan, where scientists have concentrated sound waves into a kind of “beam” that acts as an invisible knife. Using sound waves at a frequency 10,000 times higher than a human can hear, the sound beam that exerts pressure toward the target.

Researchers don’t have manufacturing in mind. For now they hope to expand the capabilities of noninvasive surgeries. But it does stir the imagination. Could fabricators one day create an ultra-precise part profile, not with heat from a laser, but with a precise amount of pressure from a “beam” of sound?

Three decades ago, who knew lasers would be cutting as fast as they are today? And who knew that so many fabricators, even the smallest of shops, would have one? When it comes to technology advancements, I’ve learned to not rule anything out.

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Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314