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Change the World of Manufacturing Utilizing Optical Technology: Digital Manufacturing

Change the World of Manufacturing Utilizing Optical Technology: Digital Manufacturing

Metal parts have long been used in products such as machines, airplanes, automobiles, rockets, and aircrafts. Made by both machines and skilled craftsmen through long and complex processes, they provide practicality and are necessary to enrich our lives and support technological innovations. But what if these parts with meticulous detail could be completed simply by inputting data? And what if the following process to combine these parts could be done by robots? At Nikon, we are working day in and day out for the research and development of how we can realize this world of “digital manufacturing.”

Leading with the two pillars of the Imaging Products Business, which is mainly powered by cameras, and the Precision Equipment Business, which is led by lithography systems for semiconductors/FPDs, we aim to establish a third pillar with Material Processing/Robot Vision technology. One of the notable products among this field is the optical processing machine (laser processing machine). This was born from the imagination and challenge of an individual who hoped to discover additional applications for Nikon’s cutting-edge semiconductor lithography system technologies, referred to as “the most precise machine in history.”

Today will feature the inventor of this optical processing machine—currently Corporate Vice President and General Manager of the Next Generation Project Division at Nikon, Yuichi Shibazaki. He will share the behind-the-scenes regarding the birth of the optical processing machine, as well as his vision for Materials Processing/Robot Vision, how the world of manufacturing will change through digital manufacturing, and Nikon’s vision for the future.

Establishing Nikon’s “cutting-edge technology” as its third pillar—The birth of “optical processing machines”

—In the Mid Term Management Plan disclosed in April 2022, Materials Processing/Robot Vision was raised as a growth driver to support Nikon’s future. What technologies led to the invention of the optical processing machine(laser processing machine), soon to be the heart of this business?

It all started around 2015. At the time, I led the R&D department for semiconductor lithography systems, the core of Nikon’s technology. The semiconductor lithography system utilizes highly cutting-edge technology and is known to be the most precise machine in history, but its only application was more or less in the area of lithography systems.

Simultaneously, Nikon was exposed to changing external environments after establishing cameras and lithography systems for semiconductors/FPDs as the two main pillars of business. The camera market was shrinking, and the market for lithography systems is typically unstable. Just as it had been pointed out over the years, Nikon was in need of a third pillar of business.

That’s when we began looking into planting the seed for a new business, one with growth potential that utilized the technology of semiconductor lithography. We see a lot of similarities between lithography systems and 3D printers. Both machines use lasers to process the objects such as silicon wafers or metal parts. Also, they are comprised of laser modules, optics, and positioning stages. Based on this knowledge, we developed the optical processing machine, which more or less equates to metal 3D printers, and established a new business of Materials Processing.

—Where does the business of Materials Processing/Robot Vision currently lie with respect to Vision 2030, in which you describe “a society where humans and machines co-create”?

We anticipate that this technology will spread throughout society by 2030 and come to be of scale to a substantial degree. With that in mind, we are probably only halfway there. Our current business includes only the sales of two types of optical processing, and we are far from our sales targets. However, we have also made steady progress. A notable example is last year’s M&A with Morf3D, a U.S. company that conducts 3D printing of products such as parts for satellites. We also have plans for another M&A this fall with SLM Solutions Group, a German company that manufactures and sells metal 3D printers.

While 3D printers may give the impression of “a magic box that can create anything,” it’s not as easy as it may seem. Without the correct power control and maneuvering, lasers may come out to be unstable. Morf3D possesses knowledge in this area, so we expect to utilize their experience in future development.

SLM Solutions Group is a major provider in the metal 3D printer fi eld, and they hold an extremely large market share. This M&A will help Nikon evolve from a beginner in the industry to a major player, so we are hopeful that we can develop our business in an advantageous position. We are looking forward to utilizing M&A to create synergy between Nikon and other companies to grow our business towards 2030.



Aiming for the realization of a “true metal 3D printer”

—What kind of feedback have you received from your customers regarding your optical processing machine?

One common request is to revise the machine to allow for aluminum processing. Currently, the machine can process stainless steel and titanium, but aluminum is easily combustible and high-risk, so we have not yet incorporated it. Another request we see is regarding processing speed. While our products’ strengths are found in their precision, the downside is that it requires relatively longer time. I hope that we can eventually realize a “true metal 3D printer” that can complete all tasks from material processing to finishing in one machine.

—What are some objects that the optical processing machine is suited to create?

To put it simply, anything that is detailed, complex, and intricate that won’t be mass produced. A good example of this are satellites. Due to their high production costs, failure of the mission would mean tremendous losses, and it helps to lower risk by creating parts as one unit rather than adopting an assembling method. Satellites hold value in their low weight and volume, which make them all the more suitable for 3D printers.

Nikon’s riblet processing and its contribution to improving fuel consumption of airplanes

—Please tell us about riblet processing and how it reduces frictional drag. What areas is this technique used for?

It's commonly known that sharks swim faster than what their muscle power is capable of, thanks to the small grooves on the surface of their skin. The grooves help to reduce frictional resistance between the skin’s surface and the water. This phenomenon has been long known, and in the past, there was a case in which a yacht team won America’s Cup by attaching films with riblets to their yacht.

However, attaching riblet films to boats and airplanes have formerly been unrealistic as it requires cost and human labor, so it was not industrialized for a long time. Especially in the case of propellers, riblet films would cause the air to flow in different directions, and the speed would differ as well, making processing even more challenging.

Shark skin has microscopic patterns that assist in its speed and efficiency
Microscopic grooves of only a few microns reduce frictional resistance to water

So why are we now focusing on riblets? The answer to that is our development of laser processing technology. There will be fewer obstacles to realize riblet film processing with the help of laser technology, which can quickly and freely create shapes in three-dimensions. ALL NIPPON AIRWAYS CO., LTD. (hereinafter “ANA”) has adopted our riblet film technology for their ANA Green Jet, which is estimated to improve fuel consumption by 2%.

*Regarding Nikon’s “efforts to improve energy efficiency in society with microfabrication technology utilizing light,” we have also conducted flight tests on aircrafts by Japan Airlines Co., Ltd. For details, please refer to the press release “JAL, JAXA, O-Well, and Nikon Conduct Flight Test with Aircraft for which the World's First Riblet Shape was Applied over External Paint” released on March 3, 2023.

—You mentioned that the technology is capable of reducing CO2emissions. Is it gathering attention from the airline industry?

When used on the wings of aircrafts, riblet films are said to conserve fuel by roughly 3-4%. This is in an industry where a tremendous amount of work is done with jet engines and gas turbine engines to save even 1% of fuel. If just adding grooved riblets can improve fuel efficiency, I think it will be considered a major innovation.

Riblet films

Changing infrastructure: the foundation of manufacturing

—What do you think the future will look like for the materials processing market?

I think digital manufacturing will see dramatic changes. I picture a world where humans simply input data for machines to automatically process. There will be no need for pre-processing work, let alone manual work. It may even automate the assembling process. With declining birthrates not only in Japan but across the globe, digitalization will become an extremely powerful tool. And with the advancement of digitalization, things that were formerly out of reach will become possible. We may see a future in which smart machines build new parts, which will then be assembled by other smart machines at an extraordinary rate.

I also believe the world of 3D printing will see more applications. It’s beginning to become plausible for premium automobiles valued at over 100 million yen to be made by 3D printers.

—How might the world of manufacturing change with Nikon’s technology?

With the advancement of laser processing, even the tiniest parts can be precisely carved in three-dimensions. For example, it may even become possible to create a jet engine equivalent to the size of a pinky nail with laser processing. In other words, it will become possible to scale down the size of all machinery, realizing a world of micromachines.

The advancement of mother machines and manufacturing machines, also known as “machines that create other machines,” can help realize such tiny-scaled machinery. One could say 3D printing is the process of “adding,” whereas laser processing is the process of “subtracting.” Through carving objects with lasers, it will become possible for precision processing similar to the capabilities of a craftsman with fine-point carving tools. It is required to firmly fix the objects so that they don’t move or change shape during machine processing, but the act of laser carving itself is as simple as just pointing a laser at objects. It will make creating ideal shapes easier than ever before.

Another strength of Nikon is our integration abilities. It is true that we possess many elemental technologies especially in the field of optics, however, other companies are certainly knowledgeable in this area as well. Our strength is the total knowledge we possess across a variety of fields, and that we utilize them together, not individually, to offer different services. It’s like culinary arts in that we have prepared different ingredients to create a beautiful meal. Cooking isn’t simply about gathering ingredients, but how to prepare those ingredients, how they are plated, and the total presentation, which then creates a special experience. Nikon is skilled in its ability to propose total products, so we believe we provide customers with proposals that offer additional value.

—Lastly, could you share with us your short-term and long-term vision for the future?

I look forward to collaborating with SLM Solutions Group to realize their plans and to create synergy with Nikon to grow our Materials Processing Business. First, we will work to grow the business to a certain scale. We will continue working hard and challenging ourselves to achieve our goal of reaching 700 billion yen in sales in 2025, as stated in the Mid Term Management Plan, and become “a key technology solutions company in a global society where humans and machines co-create seamlessly.”

Our goal is to change the infrastructure or foundation of manufacturing, to change the world. It might seem like adream today, but we are hopeful for the realization of a new world.

*Title and work duties are those at the time of the interview.