From idea to award-winning laser cleaning machine in 7 months... it's possible in Leuven!

01/07/2020

In a period of time where climate change and eco-efficiency has never been more important, laser cleaning is the technology of the future. Lasers can ‘shoot’ dirt, paint or even toxic layers from surfaces without producing secondary waste, which makes it a very environmentally friendly technique. Netalux started as a service company in laser cleaning, but together with Leuven MindGate member Comate, they went on to develop their own innovative laser cleaning machine, named Needle®. The device, developed in only 7 months, went on to be awarded the Red Dot Award for Industrial Design. The arrival of this innovative piece of equipment is already significantly changing the industry.

Laser cleaning uses intelligent technology in its processes of use. In an extremely short time, a significant charge of energy (in the form of light) is added to the surface that needs to be cleaned. These laser beams are absorbed by the pollution and reflected on the substrate. A layer of gas is then created between the two layers, which pushes the contamination off the substrate. The laser effectively then ‘shoots’ the dirt from the surface. Laser cleaning does not involve secondary waste, which makes it a very environmentally friendly technique.

In 2016, co-founder Pieter Cretskens wanted to use laser cleaning technology in the nuclear sector, but couldn’t find any specific service companies that could assist him. Together with co-founder Emmanuel Flaam, he took matter into his own hands. In 2017, they founded Netalux. The entrepreneurial duo then began to introduce a broad range of companies to the endless possibilities and advantages laser cleaning had to offer. The rest, as they say, is powerful history.

Chernobyl

The possibilities for laser cleaning are endless. Besides the well-known use of laser cleaning to remove paint and rust, the technology is also a safe and preferable choice for the removal of toxic layers. In 2018, Emmanuel and Pieter spent a week in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl, where a nuclear disaster occurred in 1986. They are asked to test their laser cleaning technology on the radioactive metal scrap heap. The venture was a resounding success. Netalux is now proudly negotiating a major project to clean 300 tons of metal scrap in the city.

The need for innovation

Netalux has been scaling rapidly in recent years. The company decided to develop their own products in addition to the services they were offering their clients.

The range of available laser cleaning machines that Netalux had been using were ergonomically poor and lacking in usability. For example, to clean the bottom of a large boiler, previous users were needing to lie on their back for many hours while holding devices above their chest. This was both physically exhausting and slow in process. Another frustration was in the case of lens replacement, where typically industrial machines required manual replacement handling. With laser cleaning, the lens itself determines the distance needed between the machine and the surface that needs to be cleaned since the light rays converge in one specific point at a certain distance.

It became clear that the answer to all of these user issues was to develop a new technical solution built for users, by users. Thijs Peeters, R&D Manager at Netalux, stated: “There was nothing on the market that met our expectations, so we decided to build it ourselves”.

Peeters had already built a PoC for the new device and developed many innovative ideas to support the venture. To help turn these ideas into reality, they partnered with the experienced engineers and designers from Comate. In unison, the two companies succeeded in converting a complex problem into a mechatronic system.

Lights, mirrors, lasers - action!

During the exciting - and rapid - development process, Comate’s engineers were able to develop a rotatable laser head that can be adjusted up to 115°. By strategically placing mirrors in the laser head, the light rays are reflected, and the laser head can be rotated. This has made vertical cleaning work a lot easier whilst also preventing users from standing in uncomfortable positions.

The second handle is adjustable by 360° which allows the user to hold the laser head comfortably. Any weight is distributed efficiently, offering ergonomic advantages during longer laser sessions especially. To improve the ease of use even more, a unique system has been developed to allow the lens to be changed with the press of a button. Because the lens no longer has to be changed manually, the system remains protected against dust and dirt. The user has more control over the position of the laser head which saves a lot of time and wasted energy expenditure.

Due to the variety of surfaces that are cleaned with the machine, the team decided to add a small motor in the laser head to allow the mirrors to vibrate extremely quickly. The laser point can take on certain shapes (e.g. circle, straight line, and similar) which makes it far easier to clean larger surfaces. The machine has been carefully designed to offer both efficiency as well as physical safety for those using the machinery - a fresh approach to industry standards.

Red Dot Award Industrial Design

The hard work and professional ingenuity that went into creating these laser cleaning products has already been paying off. Shortly after its debut launch, the machine won 2020’s Red Dot Award for Industrial Design. The Red Dot logo is internationally recognized as a symbol of quality design and the annual competition is an ideal way for industry organizations to distinguish their product designs. Notably, the international jury stated the following: “Each detail of this laser cleaning device is carefully conceived and ergonomically designed in order to achieve the greatest possible user-friendliness.”

Big brother for the Needle

Netalux continues to offer a complete package to customers thanks to the expansion of their activities. Clients can contact Netalux for both a short assignment of laser cleaning as well as the purchase of laser cleaning equipment and training for its use. Due to the increasing search for sustainable cleaning techniques, the demand for these unique machines continues to grow.

The Netalux Needle® is the first in a planned series of unique laser cleaning products. While this compact and versatile machine is predominately intended for smaller jobs such as weld cleaning or spot repair, its future big brother will be suitable for heavier work. This larger version is currently under fresh development with plans for a summer launch.