A History of Laser Cutting

Laser cutting is now an extremely common process in many sectors, being used widely in manufacturing plants, for laser-based surgery and even as a means of art. But, despite this widespread use, cutting along with all laser processes, remains as somewhat of a relatively new technology. We have covered the short history of cutting with lasers below.

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Traditional cutting methods use blades

The first lasers

Many of the processes that we are familiar with are extremely similar, and one laser is capable of performing multiple processes. For example, a cutting laser can also be used for engraving marking, and drilling.

Because of this, the history of each of the laser-based processes is fairly entwined. The first actual working laser dated back to 1960, but it didn’t really have much use at that time, and was instead described as

“a solution looking for a problem”.

However, the capabilities of the laser beam were clear. Its ability to deliver an intense, narrow beam of light of only a single wavelength meant it had potential uses for dozens of industries.

The new discoveries of the laser beam at this time caused a stir in the scientific community, and indeed the general public; people were unsure of just exactly how far this technology could go. Talks of laser beam “death rays” frequented front pages of national newspapers.

The history of the different laser cutting types

While there has always been some kind of fantasy with laser beams as death rays, immortalised now thanks to the hugely popular Star Wars franchise, the science and manufacturing communities began to see the real practical uses of laser beams not long after their discovery in 1960.

The cutting process was one of the earliest processes to be discovered, which used a laser beam, with several types being invented at the same time. The gas laser cutting process, using a carbon dioxide mixture, was first invented in 1964 at Bell Labs, New Jersey, by Kumar Patel, an electrical engineer. This is also the same year as the crystal laser process for cutting was developed, which was also founded at Bell Labs in 1964, albeit by a different engineer named J. E. Geusic.

Laser cutting has greatly helped to speed up manufacturing processes

Laser cutting has greatly helped to speed up manufacturing processes

The first uses for laser cutting

Back in the 1960s, after the advantages had been firmly established, it didn’t take long for it to be adopted in dozens of industries for multiple applications. Cutting and drilling, two similar processes, were being used in 1965 in diamond mines, and the process of cutting with lasers was adopted on a much wider scale by the British in 1967.

Western Electric had been producing laser-based cutting machines at a rapid rate, and by the 1970s this process had made its way into the aerospace industry.

It was also around the late 1960s, early 1970s, that gas laser cutting was used to cut through various materials including metal, something that carbon dioxide lasers originally hadn’t been capable of.

By the 1980s, roughly 20,000 commercial laser cutting machines had been installed in various industries worldwide, totalling a value of around $7.5 billion. Professor Bill Steen wrote in his book, titled Laser Materials Processing, that since the invention of the laser, we have entered into a new industrial revolution. It is likely that we will see laser-based technology continue to develop over the coming years, and it is interesting to think where this advantageous process may be able to take us in the future.

Where are we now – cutting with lasers?

CO2 laser-based cutting is one of the most popular form of cutting today. However, the approach that we take at SPI Lasers, cutting with a fiber laser, which is a very new technology, with its history only dating back to around 2008. It is generally seen as the best form of laser cutting, and so is increasingly being adopted by companies around the world.

Nowadays, cutting with lasers has developed to become one of the most useful and stable processes used in industries around the world, including the electronics, semiconductor, automotive and medical industries. Lasers themselves are even more widespread, being used in everything from supermarket checkouts to the telephone network that runs nationwide.

Call SPI Lasers for information

This article has only scratched the surface of the short, yet detailed, history of using lasers for cutting and what it has developed into now. If you are looking for more information on this crucial process, or want to understand more about how it works and the quality and reliability that it can offer you, we would be more than happy to answer your questions. Either give us a call on +44 (0) 1489 779 696, or find our other contact options here.


Image credits: WernerB and tpsdave


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