“European projects are not limited by the borders of the countries. This gives you the possibility to find the best partners for your ideas or needs.”
Dr Roberto Ocaña
Please, tell us about your professional background and your present job.
I am a researcher of the institute IK4-Tekniker specialized in solid state physics and lasers. For the last 13 years, I have been working on developing systems for laser material processing. In particular, in my current institute, Tekniker, I have been working for the last 3 years on micro-drilling of Ti panels for application in HLFC structures both by studying the single pulse laser drilling process and by developing monitoring techniques. Before working in the field of laser material processing, my career was focused on fundamental research, in particular, applying ultrafast laser sources for studying properties of solids such as Cu, graphite or high-temperature superconductors.
Working on fundamental research is great, but I also wanted to contribute to other fields that are closer to the final application. That is why I decided to enter in the fields of laser applications and laser material processing. Working in a topic as the development of large laser micro-drilled panels is the perfect example of this since you are developing a laser process and monitoring techniques that are going to be later applied for fabricating HLFC structures for the next coming generation of aircrafts.
When did you decide to dedicate to scientific research?
I like physics, so I studied physics at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. In general, physics studies in Spain are mostly focused on theoretical aspects. The practical work in the lab is negligible compared to the usual learning program in class. However in the last year at the university in the framework of the studies, a professor gave us the opportunity to develop a small project in the lab. He just gave us some topics and we should develop the complete experimental setups, make measurements and extract conclusions. I was very successful with my project and learned in that year more about physics than any other year studying theoretical aspects. So I discovered that my career should be focused on experimental research rather than theoretical physics. Later I knew a group in Germany with an open position that was working with the same technique as I in Madrid. So I decided to go there in order to do a PhD. Actually, I did not decide to devote myself to scientific research but one step drove me to another step.
In your opinion, which are the most exciting challenges to come in your field?
Well, there is a lot to do and exciting challenges to address. In particular, we have seen in the last 10 years how the fibre lasers have gained importance vs other more usual laser types like CO2 lasers, lamp and diode-pumped solid-state lasers. For example 10 or 15 years ago, a usual laser source for marking was a big system with head and electrical case plus chiller delivering approx. 100 W with poor beam quality (M2>=2). Today a fibre laser with 20 W, air-cooled, with a beam quality of M2=1.1 in a 19” rack is able to perform most of the tasks regarding marking. Prices have proportionally decreased. In the same way, we could expect better access to new laser technologies, such as femtosecond lasers, as well as more general acceptance by the industry. The key is the demonstration of these new technologies in industrial applications. Indeed, once the viability of the industrial process is demonstrated, the demand itself for laser systems in that application drives innovation towards more efficient systems. An example of this is the MULTIPOINT project: it is about developing a femtosecond laser with high powers (1.2 kW) with the necessary characteristics to make viable the ratio treated area versus time and thus, be able to access new processes and/or results. The particular application considered it is about micro-drilling Ti panels with tens of millions of micro-holes for use on the wings of the aeroplanes in order to reduce fuel consumption with the technology HLFC. Bringing ultra-precision manufacturing to the industry by using ultra-short laser pulses will undoubtedly be one of the most exciting challenges in our field in the next years.
Multipoint is a research project funded by the European Union. Have you ever participated in more projects funded by the EU? How do you evaluate them?
Yes, I have participated in several European projects always with positive results. The particularity of this type of projects is that they are not limited by the borders of the countries, such as projects financed by national or regional administrations. This gives you the possibility to find the best partners for your ideas or needs within all the member countries of the European Union and those associated with the work programmes. For example, in our case, for our ideas, we needed a partner who could develop a high power femtosecond laser. We found one in France. In addition, the main ideas of the project fitted well in a call of the European Union, so the rest of the work was simple.
On the other hand, Europe is still a leader in photonic technologies in the world, but this position is in danger due to the irruption of competitors in emerging countries. Unfortunately, in the last few years we have seen how very quickly Europe has lost the leadership in many sectors, so a program of support for research and innovation solid and lasting over time is necessary not only for not losing that position but also for strengthening it.