“Lasers are the best way to combat stagnation”

© Craig Ferguson

Taiwan’s economic miracle is also a laser miracle. Dr. Fanghei Tsau, General Director of the Laser & Additive Manufacturing Technology Center at the ITRI, and his team is at the forefront.

When the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) was founded in 1973, Taiwan’s per capita GDP was just a few hundred U.S. dollars. That figure now stands at 23,827 U.S. dollars. Has ITRI played a role in this growth?

Yes, absolutely. ITRI is a nonprofit organization for research and development. It was designed to help Taiwanese industrial companies become and remain competitive and sustainable. Over the years, the institute has incubated more than 240 companies – including global semiconductor leaders such as TSMC and UMC. Some 140 CEOs in the Taiwanese high-tech industry once worked at our institute. Our economic miracle in recent decades consisted of Taiwan shifting from a labor-intensive economy to a value-added one driven by innovations. And our research institute has played a key role in this transformation.

About the ITRI

The Industrial Technology Research Institute in Hsinchu, Taiwan is a publicly financed research and development institute that employs around 6,000 people. It develops and commercializes technology applications in close cooperation with companies. ITRI is a multi-disciplinary research organization across several fields of interest, including laser technology and additive manufacturing.

How important is laser technology to the Taiwanese economy?

Very important. Laser technology has been the driving force for companies in Taiwan to avoid low-wage competition and prevent stagnation in all our key sectors of industry – from mechanical engineering and metal processing to automotive and aviation. Lasers will play a key role with respect to innovations in intelligent manufacturing for the next 30 years. That’s also what Apple is thinking, according to its patent applications. Apple is, by the way, an important company to Taiwan.

Why do you believe that lasers will play a key role in production?

There are clearly several trends in manufacturing: multi-task machines, higher production speeds, more large-scale production but with greater customization, automation and diversification of materials. And then there are mega trends, such as Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things and intelligent production lines run by software. These trends pose several challenges; laser technology and additive manufacturing, being digital and precision processing by nature, have played and will certainly play very important roles in every case.

Lasers will play a key role with respect to innovations in intelligent manufacturing – that’s also what Apple is thinking.

What role does additive manufacturing play in Taiwan?

It’s becoming more important every day. The government is providing the Taiwanese aviation industry with major funding. There are some 200 companies in our aviation industry, generating annual sales of approximately 3.3 billion U.S. dollars. Additive manufacturing holds great appeal, as it helps these companies address challenges such as small-scale production, custom manufacturing, weight reduction and design of complex components. ITRI, an early adopter of metal additive manufacturing technologies in Taiwan, stands ready to work with the aviation industry supply chain from material processing to components manufacturing. In this way, we add value not only to the Taiwanese economy, but also to the society.

Could you please give us an example of a joint endeavor with a company?

Dr. Fanghei Tsau, General Director of the Laser & Additive Manufacturing Technology Center of ITRI (Photo: Craig Ferguson)

There are plenty of examples. We helped Tailift, a forklift manufacturer, develop a laser-texturing machine. We mostly focus on pilot production and opportunities for integrating laser processing into manufacturing. As for additive manufacturing, we do a lot of work in laser metal deposition and 3D printing. Just as an example: we recently helped two companies, Aurora and Tongtai, implement 3D-printing. We have expertise in alloy design and powder production, design analysis, laser processing, post-processing and software.

This enables us to continue our development work in medical devices and molds in automotive applications. And when it comes to LMD, we recently began offering our customers a tremendous upgrade: a test platform featuring a 6000-watt disk laser source. It’s the only one of its kind in Taiwan! We linked the platform to robotic arms and a 5-axis CNC machine. This allows us to conduct customer-required works with regard to rapid manufacturing of casting molds, repairs of surface defects and functional surface coatings.

What do you have planned for the next few years?

All signs point to continued robust growth in the global market for laser applications and additive manufacturing. Taiwan anticipates appealing new jobs in these fields – and ITRI will help out here. In fact, we regard ourselves as pioneers in additive manufacturing. We hope that this technology becomes widespread and thrives in Taiwan. In addition, we want to hire more in-house staff. I am committed to making the center a launching pad for up-and-coming entrepreneurs and a great place for young and ambitious people to work.

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