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.