Cillian McPolin, Photonics Technologist at Digital Catapult, explains how particular emerging technologies are set to take the manufacturing world by storm in 2023, but are perhaps relatively unknown to many businesses in the sector.
Next year is set to be critical for two technologies that you may not have heard of – photonics and nanotechnology.
What is photonics?
Photonics is the science and technology of light and underpins much of our modern technology. Light-based technologies are ubiquitous: from smartphone screens to car headlamps, medical instruments to the internet, modern society fundamentally relies on our ability to control light.
Photonics allows us to generate, transmit, manipulate and detect light, enabling many key innovations. For the UK’s manufacturing industries, there’s a wide range of photonic technologies that are applicable – from sensors to intelligent lasers – and both directly create products and monitor production.
In manufacturing, light is commonly used to cut and pattern materials, but it can also provide crucial information on the state of equipment and products.
Lasers are a workhorse of manufacturing, enabling precise control of cutting, milling and drilling. In addition, light can be used for additive manufacturing and to produce extremely small features. The semiconductor industry, for instance, is reliant on photolithography (a technique that uses light to create minute features) to pattern chips.
Photonic technology can also be used to directly monitor manufacturing processes, providing critical data on the state of products and the equipment via, for example, sensing, imaging and spectroscopy; this includes information on geometry, materials and layout, as well as specific quantities such as temperature and pressure.
Data transmission using light provides many important benefits for manufacturers; for instance, optical fibres and LiFi offer advantages in terms of speed and security, respectively. Secure, real-time transmission allows for faster and more agile production processes, including automation – manufacturing according to demand rather than projections, predictive maintenance and reduced downtime. This more agile, data-driven production process plays an important role in the creation of digital twins, a means of directly optimising production.
Photonic components also enable Lidar, provide vision for robots and cobots and are key to augmented or virtual reality training and remote access. The rapid detection of faulty equipment or production issues via a network of sensors is also key to allowing manufacturers to remain competitive. Optical fibre sensors, in particular, provide a convenient means of locating problems, such as detecting leaks along pipelines. These sensors are advantageous for manufacturers due to their robust nature and their lack of susceptibility to interference.
Combined with other technologies, such as the IoT, AI and 5G connectivity, photonic technology is enabling intelligent, data-driven manufacturing, which is also known as ‘smart manufacturing’. Critically, smart manufacturing allows data to be collected, transmitted and acted upon quickly, thus enabling agile, optimised production. This is crucial in a world where we are often dealing with unprecedented and global shocks to supply chains.
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology involves developing materials and structures with nanoscale dimensions to realise novel properties that stem from increased surface areas and quantum effects. Broadly, nanotechnology can be thought of as nanomanufacturing, nanoimaging and sensing, underpinning nanomaterials and enabled products. Respective examples include photolithography, electron microscopy, carbon nanotubes and computer chips.
Nanotechnology is a crucial enabler of a wide range of applications, from electronics and energy to medicine and manufacturing.
Nanomaterials are commonly incorporated into products to enhance their performance and provide singular properties. There are many categories, such as carbon- and metal-based nanomaterials, which may possess remarkable electrical, mechanical, thermal, magnetic, chemical and optical properties.
Quantum dots, for instance, are employed in displays, with their colour a result of quantum confinement. The significantly larger surface areas afforded by nanoparticles compared to bulk materials can be directly exploited for a multitude of applications such as in catalytic converters, where they reduce the quantity of metal required.
In terms of carbon-based nanomaterials, nanotubes can be readily incorporated into materials to improve their strength while minimising weight. They are commonly used in sporting goods, such as bike frames and tennis rackets, as well as for automotive composites.
Nanotubes are exceptionally promising for many applications, owing to their remarkable properties that include high electrical and thermal conductivity; electronics is a foremost example, where they could enable flexibility for wearable devices. Similarly, graphene, which is composed of a single layer of carbon atoms, is also potentially disruptive due to it being exceptionally strong with high thermal and electrical conductivity – it’s already being used in products from textiles to tyres, with numerous future uses to be explored.
Further illustrations of the incredible utility of nanomaterials include nanodiamonds incorporated into lubricants to enhance their performance; silver nanoparticles used for keeping food fresh via their antimicrobial properties; nanocoatings for self-cleaning, thermal barriers, scratch-resistance and antistatic packaging; titanium dioxide nanoparticles for sunscreen; and nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery.
Nanomaterials also have a key role in quantum technologies, such as in the case of fluorescent nanodiamonds and quantum dots that can act as single photon sources for computing and communication.
What’s next for the tech?
Whilst there is already a considerable range of processes that benefit from advances in photonics and nanotechnology, 2023 looks set to be the year that these technologies will find their way into many more businesses, right across the UK.
The Smart Nano NI programme, which involves a consortium of leading companies from across Northern Ireland (including Digital Catapult), has considerable expertise in photonics and nanotechnology and is building on the unique strengths of the region’s manufacturing sector to create an ecosystem for world class photonics production and nanomanufacturing.
Expanding uses for photonics and emerging use cases for nanotechnology are helping revolutionise multiple sectors, from medicine to energy. Photonics is becoming more central to manufacturing, and the ability to produce nanoscale structures in high volumes will become increasingly important as nanotechnology further matures. As a result, both these technologies will play long-term, critical roles in developing new products with improved performance and greater functionality.
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