Tuesday, April 7, 2009

If it looks like a duck...it must be a duck

More than 35 years ago I had the nerve to try, single handedly, to introduce laser cutting of sheet metal into North America.

More than 35 years ago I had the nerve to try, single handedly, to introduce laser cutting of sheet metal into North America. Bear with me before you say, “Here he goes again with the boring history of industrial laser technology.” Believe me there is an up-to-date message coming.

Back in the early 1970s laser cutting of sheet metal had been established in Germany and the United Kingdom through the efforts of researchers who had created the oxygen assist cutting technology, and a few far-sighted equipment suppliers; among which was a company for whom I then worked. With only 450 watts of CO2 laser power and a gas jet assist nozzle, Ferranti and Messer Greisheim were generating reams of data on the cutting of metals and non-metals.

I was charged with using this data to convince skeptical fabricating equipment buyers of the technical and cost benefits of this powerful new job shop tool. To do this, I bombarded industry with press releases, wrote technical articles, conducted workshops and spoke at technical conferences. All on the subject of laser beam cutting of sheet metals.

In those early days of industrial laser technology we were fighting a media image of laser cutting, manifested in pseudo-technical articles trumpeting “Death rays benefit mankind!” I can’t tell you how many poorly informed freelance journalists used this tagline, much to my chagrin. I wasn’t much better; in my presentations I used that famous scene from the 1964 Goldfinger movie, where James Bond is threatened with a ray of light that is positioned to cut him in half. Many of you today don’t remember when the laser was a laboratory curiosity.

Fast forward to a recent Google alert I received which was a blog query about the use of a CD burner to cut materials. Several responses were, of course, negative. But one caused me to think about those early days. This response was, “The thought police should arrest you for this ridiculous notion.” A feeling I also had, until I thought about it a bit, especially from my death ray and James Bond experiences of the 1970s.

Those of us immersed in the technology tend to forget that most people still don’t understand the laser, and all they know about it is from the movies and video games where it is usually a weapon (there’s that death ray thing again). To accuse the Blog enquirer of stupidity is unfair. And perhaps this specific response can serve as a reminder to all of us technologists; never underestimate the intelligence of your audience.

Sometimes even we editors are our own worst enemies. It isn’t the laser that is doing the cutting, welding, etc. It’s the energy in the beam emanating from the laser that produces, when absorbed by a material, the heat required to cause some physical change in that material. Even we sometimes slip up and let a sentence that begins ”The laser welds at X feet per minute” slip through our editing eyes.

The ILS goal is to explain the technology in a user friendly manner. Count the equations we use in a year and you’ll see what I mean. We write for readers who, as end users, are seeking a better, more productive and profitable way to use technology to improve their company’s performance, so we do it in as clear and instructive a way as possible. Readers tell us we achieve our goals. But even with great Website metrics we know we are not reaching everyone.

So I will value the CD burner guy as part of an object lesson that there are still people out there who don’t know what in the world we are talking about.

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