Photonics: A key component of Industry 4.0

Feb. 14, 2022
Lasers and optics are playing a big role enabling Industry 4.0, thanks to innovations and decreasing costs.

The concept of Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has existed for years, with the promise of transforming industries such as manufacturing through increased interconnectivity, smart automation, and other technological developments.

Several technologies or technology-enabled environments are helping drive Industry 4.0 into reality. These include quantum communications, fiber optics, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), 5G communications, additive manufacturing, and other digitally driven tools. And photonics is playing a key role in each of these areas, helping enhance their performance and enable the Fourth Industrial Revolution to realize its enormous potential—as more companies continue along their digitalization journey.

The Industry 4.0 trend is present in developments including the automation of traditional manufacturing practices and supply chains; the use of “smart technology” such as machines or devices that use artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, sensors, and advanced analytics to self-monitor and report on their operating condition and the environments in which they operate; large-scale machine-to-machine communication (M2M); and IIoT.

“Industry 4.0 looks like a mixture of several technologies,” says Jean-Paul Guillet, associate professor in photonics at the University of Bordeaux (France) and currently a visiting researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. It exists “when many aspects of industry are approached in a holistic way, with interlocking and compatible technological solutions.”

Guillet adds, “An automated Tesla factory may be a symbol of the factory of the future. But a wine chateau in Bordeaux, France, which has digital management of the entire operation, and has, for example, robots that can weed autonomously and mechanically without pesticides, can also be a good example of Industry 4.0.”

Photonics technologies are and will continue to be vital components of the latest industrial trends.

“Lasers and optics are playing a very important role in Industry 4.0, both in terms of sensing equipment for robotics and automation, and as tools for the manufacturing processes themselves,” says Evan Butler-Jones, director of applications engineering at Equispheres, a manufacturer of metal powder for additive manufacturing.

Two forces are making lasers an attractive technology and a solution to displace incumbent methods, according to Jack Pennuto, director of sales and applications at industrial machine manufacturing company TRUMPF.

“As the cost of lasers decreases, it brings into range potential applications that may not have been financially viable a few years ago,” he says. “As products are designed for smaller lot sizes or shorter product lifecycles, these changes can be addressed more easily with the flexibility of a laser instead of heavy capital investment in hard tooling or specialized equipment that could quickly become obsolete.”

Here's how photonics is playing an important role in the advancement of some of the key areas of Industry 4.0.

Fiber optics

Lasers are at the heart of fiber-optic communications, “but we still have to make them energy-efficient, given growing communication demands,” says Ajay Kandada, assistant professor at Wake Forest University. “We need cheaper and low-power lasers to be developed at the telecom wavelengths.”

And fiber optics is the foundational photonic component of information technology. According to Lewis Johnson, chief scientific officer at NLM Photonics, a photonics company that develops computing and networking products, “Over the last few years, we have seen a rapid transformation from fiber being used primarily for long-distance communications and high-performance computing to fiber-to-the-whatever, to the point where it is common for home Internet connections and the backbone of data communications for hyperscale datacenters.”

It is likely fiber will achieve even greater saturation between backhauls for post-5G telecommunications and lightweight, low-power networks for aerospace applications, Johnson says. It will also be needed for the photonic integrated circuits (PICs) used for the current-generation fiber systems within devices and even chips.

“Such scaling will likely require integration between different materials platforms,” including organic materials, III-V semiconductors, ferroelectrics, silicon nitride, etc., to combine their capabilities and add to what can currently be accomplished with silicon photonics, Johnson says.

“Hybridization of photonics platforms, especially silicon, organics, and plasmonics, is the goal of our company,” he adds. “Integration of multiple photonics platforms will enable closer integration of lasers, detectors, and electro-optic modulators—the key active building blocks of photonics—with CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) electronics.”

Additive manufacturing

In additive manufacturing (AM), lasers and other optics-based technologies “are at the heart of some of the most common industrial technologies,” says Jones, an expert in the calibration and optimization of 3D printers specifically pertaining to the quantity and wattage of the lasers and the specific technology in use.

“In AM for metals, by far the most common commercial technology to date is laser-powder bed fusion (L-PBF),” Jones says. “This is a process by which thin layers of metal powder are melted by a laser, one layer at a time, until a complete part is made.”

Other than improvements in the metal feedstock itself, which is where Equispheres focuses its product development, “innovations in laser cost, beam control, and total power output are possibly the most significant force driving the maturity and adoption of AM technology,” Jones says. “In metal additive manufacturing, it has now been fairly well established that L-PBF technology can produce strong, dense parts capable of meeting the mechanical and geometric requirements for many industrial applications.”

The cost of running the process, however, makes it uneconomical in most instances compared with traditional manufacturing processes, Jones says. But recent and upcoming improvements in beam control and power—especially the ability to control multiple high-power lasers working in tandem and to dynamically adjust spot size—are fundamentally changing the economics of the process, he says.

Equispheres and Aconity3D, a systems provider for flexible application-specific AM systems for metals, recently demonstrated that part costs could be reduced by greater than 50% by using advanced laser controls and properly designed feedstock. “As advances in optics and control systems continue,” Jones says, the efficiency of the process will only continue to improve.”

AM is evolving rapidly. “In only a few years we have seen major improvements in the equipment and materials available for [L-PBF] and other optical-based processes,” Jones says. “The net result of these improvements is the cost of producing parts is coming down significantly. We are now seeing many more applications where additive manufacturing can compete economically with traditional machining or fabrication, and even some higher-end castings.”

Industrial Internet of Things

IIoT, an offshoot of IoT with applications within industrial sectors, encompasses interconnected sensors, instruments, and other devices that work together with industrial applications including manufacturing and energy management. The connectivity enables data collection, exchange, and analysis, which can lead to improvements in productivity and efficiency.

One significant capability IIoT enables is condition-based monitoring, a predictive maintenance technique to continuously monitor the condition of assets by leveraging different types of sensors and data extracted from them to monitor assets in real time.

“Condition-based monitoring is the biggest area in which we are seeing Industry 4.0 make a difference for customers,” Pennuto says. “Taking advantage of the sensors throughout our lasers and systems, customers are able to use condition-based monitoring to avoid unplanned downtime.”

This is possible because the systems are reporting parameters such as water temperature level to ensure a cooling system is operating correctly or scattered light to warn of debris in optics.

5G communications

With 5G and post-5G telecommunications, “high-bandwidth photonics are crucial for backhauls and efficient interfaces between fiber and wireless to efficiently translate millimeter-wave signals between fiber and short-distance but high-bandwidth wireless links,” Johnson says, adding this level of connectivity will also be crucial for IIoT, as will technologies such as solid-state lidar for compact and low-cost imaging and ranging—all enabled by photonics integration.

Recent developments in photonics in the terahertz domain will have an important impact on 5G. For example, in telecommunications, millimeter frequencies are essential for creating high-speed links and decongesting the electromagnetic spectrum, Guillet says. Developments at higher frequencies, reaching the terahertz range, (for example, between 100 GHz and 10 THz), are in development for 6G.

Quantum communication

Quantum communication, a field of applied quantum physics related to quantum information processing and quantum teleportation, is another potential component of Industry 4.0 that might be impacted by photonics.

Technology services and consulting firm Accenture notes in a 2021 report that the emergence of quantum networks will transform communications, cybersecurity, and the Internet.

“After spending years imagining the possibilities, researchers are now building and testing equipment that will form the backbone of a powerful quantum Internet—where quantum communications will start integrating with the world’s increasingly hyper-connected economy,” the firm says. “And it’s happening a lot quicker than most people realize. The first commercial quantum links are nearly here, with a quantum Internet connecting distant networks ready in three to five years.”

Quantum communication is based on generation, propagation, and detection of single/entangled photon states, Kandada says. “Lasers may play a role in the generation component of it, but people are really looking at solid-state devices that can produce these states on-demand, much like the LEDs. This entire field is still at the nascent stage, and the next decade will see a massive growth on this front.”

Embracing the future of industry

The ongoing development of Industry 4.0 will have a profound impact on a number of sectors, including discrete and process manufacturing, healthcare, transportation and logistics, oil and gas, and mining.

Potential benefits of technologies enabling the Fourth Industrial Revolution include increased productivity and agility, improved customer experience, enhanced cybersecurity, and reduced costs.

The Industry 4.0 market is projected to expand from $64.9 billion in 2021 to $165.5 billion by 2026, at a compound annual growth rate of 21% during the forecast period, according to a report from research firm Markets and Markets.

Key factors fueling growth of the market include rapid adoption of AI and IoT within the manufacturing sector, increasing demand for industrial robots within the pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing sector, rising government investments in 3D printing and additive manufacturing, and growing adoption of blockchain technology for manufacturing.

Photonics will play a key role in the future development of Industry 4.0, because it helps foster improvements in fiber optics, additive manufacturing, IIoT, 5G, and quantum communication. Companies poised to gain from Industry 4.0 need to stay abreast of the latest developments in photonics as they embrace the future of industry.

About the Author

Bob Violino | Business and Technology Freelance Writer

Bob Violino is a business and technology freelance writer based in Massapequa, NY. He has been writing and editing print and web content for over 20 years, with a focus on information technology and business. Areas of coverage include cloud services, mobile technology, artificial intelligence/machine learning, social media, big data/analytics, cybersecurity, and the Internet of Things. Other topics of interest include enterprise applications, blockchain, IT management and career issues, radio frequency identification, data storage, server and desktop virtualization, open source, and outsourcing. He also likes to write about virtual/augmented reality, robotics, smart cities, 3D printing, and other emerging technologies.

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