On May 16, 1960, Theodore Maiman of Hughes Labs became the first person on the planet to build light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation—or laser. (Thank goodness the acronym stuck.) On Sunday, the laser turned 50.
I’m willing to bet that on that day in 1960, Ignacio “Nacho” Palomarez had no idea how the laser would change his life. Seven years after the laser’s invention, Palomarez’ father launched Spacesonic, a sheet metal fabrication shop in San Carlos, Calif., between San Jose and San Francisco. As Palomarez told me during an interview last year, “For $5,000, my father bought a used press brake without a backgauge, a kick press with just a handful of punches, and a shear that couldn’t cut soft butter within a sixteenth of an inch.”
When the first laser, a 1-kW Amada machine, hit Spacesonic’s floor in the 1980s, life for workers changed dramatically. Consider a 0.063-inch sheet that required precise, 15-degree bends so that the four corners would come together and match up to look like a Cartier diamond. Before the laser, operators had to cut stacked groups of these blanks with a vertical band saw. “It took hours, with workers patiently cutting on the right side of the scribed line,” Palomarez said, “desperately wanting to put more pressure on it, but knowing dang well the saw blade would deviate or break. The whole time you’re just standing there, wishing something would just cut this for you. The laser did that.”
That story pretty much sums up why lasers are so ubiquitous today in metal fabrication. They could run circles around legacy technology.
In his book Laser Cutting Guide for Manufacturing, Charles L. Caristan describes a 1978 Strippit Inc. punc/laser machine. “This machine featured a traditional turret punch and new laser cutting head, which shared the same base, numerical controls, and workpiece-motion system. The optics were stationary, while the workpiece was moved in the X and Y directions.”
If someone weren’t familiar with just how much lasers changed metal fabrication, he’d be looking at how laser cutting has penetrated the metal fabrication market—and wondering why. These were enormous capital investments for small job shops, yet a smattering of early adopters in the 1980s ultimately proved just how competitive the laser made their companies. As the technology matured in the 1980s and early 1990s, if a shop owner had a laser on the floor, he’d have customers calling from across the country. The laser removed so much painstaking labor, saved so much time, and made things so much simpler because you didn’t have to worry about hard tooling. The machines had a long list of advantages, so long that many fabricators quickly got over the sticker shock. That’s saying something, particularly since many early adopters had never purchased anything so expensive.
Today the industrial laser is in the middle of another transition, perhaps less dramatic than past changes, thanks to economic turmoil and metal fabricators looking to fill (and not necessarily increase) capacity. But technology advancements continue to march onward all the same.
For sheet metal cutting, CO2 lasers continue their market dominance, but people have their eyes on alternative delivery methods that simplify maintenance and make the laser even more flexible than it already is. Most have their eye on solid-state lasers, including fiber lasers, which borrow from technology born in the telecommunications field. More than powerful enough for metal cutting, the fiber laser’s beam travels through a double-clad fiber—no mirrors required—and produces an extremely small spot size, so focused it can cut even extremely reflective metal, such as brass, with little difficulty.
Today, many fabricators couldn’t imagine their business without a laser, and this includes Vivek Gupta. He’s managing director at Texas ProFab, a Carrollton, Texas, metal fabricator launched just nine years ago.
“Asking us where we’d be without the laser is like asking carmakers where they would be without wheels,” Gupta told me during an interview last year. “Our business just isn’t feasible without it.”