Research project "3DOptics"

High precision glass optics for new applications

The current trends in optical technology developments are leading to an increasing demand for high precision optical components for imaging and lighting applications. Highly complex optical micro components with an optical function for miniaturizing and/or significantly increasing imaging quality are usually used in metrology applications. They are, however, increasingly found in new, rapidly expanding market segments such as cameras for mobile telephones, optical measuring systems for cars or optical data storage media for information technology applications.

High-tech applications rely on highly accurate components that are, at the same time, reproducible, economic and complex. The only material that can meet such high optical standards is glass. The manufacture of qualitatively high quality micro optics is, however, still often too uneconomical for most real applications. This is due to the complex grinding und polishing process that are needed to produce highly precise optical component precision. Precision glass molding is a new method that even makes it possible to produce large numbers of high quality glass components.
Development work on precision glass molding has been progressing at an intense rate since the 1970s in Japan. At the same time, extensive work has been carried out on the topic of ultra precise tool making. Carbides with a low binder content and a fine microstructure have been identified as the best material for the job. After UP treatment, they are coated to achieve longer service lives. The Japanese optics industry was able to build up an entire supply chain for the manufacture of ultra precise tools. Precision glass molding, in combination with the molding technology, is already regarded as an established process in Asia.

Work has recently focused on also establishing the precision glass molding technology in Germany. The Japanese plant manufacturer, Toshiba Machine Co. Ltd., has been selling its precision glass molding machines here for several years. The aim is now to provide an effective tool making process that is able to promptly deliver the required ultra precise mold inserts.

3DOptics – Replicative manufacture of complex optical glass components

As part of the BMBF Framework Concept “Research for the Production of Tomorrow”, the joint “3DOptics” project is making its contribution to the issue of the replicative manufacture of complex optical glass components. By qualifying the whole value creation chain involved in precision glass molding, Germany will be able to position itself within the global market as a competitive production location for complex optical components. Only if crucial developments are made in the processing stages described here, and in their integration, will it be possible for high wage countries to effectively break into the market for molded glass optics. The great potential that the application of these kinds of optics represents reinforces the benefit of the “3DOptics” research project.

Project objectives and approach

The main objective of the “3DOptics” project is to establish the entire value-creation process for the manufacture of micro optics – from optics design through tool-making, including material processing and layer development, to molding, and all the individual links within the value creation process.
The project aims to support the economic manufacture of micro optics in large numbers in Germany in order to meet the future needs of growing markets such as medical technology, laser technology and communication technology, as well as established branches such as the automotive industry. The project focuses on the technology of precision glass molding. This technology can be used to consistently manufacture complex 3D geometries – e.g. strongly curved, with large numerical apertures or freeform surfaces –  to the highest levels of dimensional accuracy. The work concentrates on research and development into highly precise tool-making along the entire value chain – from CAD/CAM to substrate manufacture, processing and coating to standardization of the tool components. The aim is also to qualify a supplier structure for precision glass molding in Germany – something that has been lacking so far. The establishment of a supply chain for the manufacture of ultra precision die inserts and tools is a crucial step in the proliferation of precision glass molding in Germany. It will lead directly to processing opportunities and a distinct competitive advantage over the rest of Europe and, above all, Asia.
The basis of the work in this joint project is an integrated and comprehensive approach that is a consequence of the products in question and the resultant production concept. Comprehensive, as it covers all the relevant elements of the value creation process of “optics design – tool-making including substrate manufacture, processing and coating – optics manufacture including precision glass molding and glass development – optics qualification”. Integrated, because it includes the interrelationships between each element and a consistent “CAx data chain”.

Strengthening the German competitive position in the global optics market

The project is successful if it has significantly strengthened the German competitive position in the global optics market. The participating companies, particularly the small and medium-sized ones, have the chance to act as “key players” within the modern value creation process of the replicative manufacture of complex optics. The existent infrastructure within a high wage country like Germany and the close cooperation between research and industrial application will improve the long-term position of the participating companies through innovation and technological differentiation, and create new jobs in Germany.