THE BEGINNINGS OF LASER TECHNOLOGY
Today, lasers are everywhere, from medical procedures, to supermarket checkouts and heavy industrial processes, but in 1960, the first working laser was described as “a solution looking for a problem.” With creative thinking, the ability to produce an intense, narrow beam of light from a single orientation was found to be very useful.
Several types of lasers were invented in a short period of time. Optical fibre lasers were first demonstrated in 1961 by Elias Snitzer. The gas laser cutting process, using a carbon dioxide mix, was first invented in 1964 at Bell Labs, by Kumar Patel. The crystal laser process for cutting was developed, also founded at Bell Labs in 1964, by a different engineer named J. E. Geusic.
DISCOVERING GAS LASER CUTTING
The history of laser cutting starts in 1965, when Western Electric introduced the first production laser, using a laser to drill holes in diamond dies.
The first experiments in gas assisted laser cutting happened in 1965. They were the idea of Peter Houldcroft, Deputy Scientific Director at TWI (The Welding Institute) in Cambridge, UK. These tests used a 300W CO2 gas laser at the Services Electronic Research Laboratory in Harlow. The laser was intended for military applications but potential industrial applications were also being considered. Cuts were made using oxygen assist gas in high carbon tool steel and stainless steel up to 2.5mm thick at speeds up to 1m/min.
By the late 1960s, gas laser cutting was being used to cut through metal, something that CO2 lasers originally hadn’t been capable of.
USES FOR FIBRE LASERS
Fibre lasers required almost two decades of development before any of the first commercial devices appeared on the market in the late 1980s. They are now used for many applications including cutting, welding, additive manufacturing (3D printing) and as sensors. The beam intensity, duration and heat output of a fibre laser can be controlled minutely, so they lend themselves to precision functions.