Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ten milestones in the history of industrial lasers

Dave's Challenge ended without a clear winner as no one was able to guess the ten top industrial laser applications of the first 50 years of the laser. Some came close, and several suggested very legitimate possibilities. However, I set the rules for my choices as follows: the application was innovative and a breakthrough in terms of it's utilization, it filled an industry need as exemplified by its eventual global acceptance, it advanced laser and system technology creating spin-off technology that continues the growth of industrial laser materials processing, it had longevity as determined by its continued use today, and finally the markets that used the application are measurable in terms of units sold and/or revenues produced.

I was surprised that some respondents did not read these rules very carefully, submitting lasers as choices, not the application. Those who came closest to picking all ten have a long career in industrial laser materials processing technology, and the wrong guesses they made were great choices, which did not qualify because they did not meet all the criteria. Among these were: welding aluminum spacers for thermal windows (probably the most suggested non-winner), drilling ink jet printer nozzles, manufacturing photovoltaic solar cells (actually too new to meet all the criteria), welding of disk drive flexure assemblies, and welding automotive automatic transmission components.

What were my choices?
- Hermetic sealing of miniaturized electronic relay cans
- Ceramic substrate scribing
- Sheet metal cutting
- Drilling holes in jet engine turbine blades
- Tailored blank welding for body-in-white
- Rapid prototyping/manufacturing
- Microvia drilling
- Laser marking
- Micro-circuit adjustment and trimming
- Stent cutting

Why these choices? Well you'll have to read the January/February issue of Industrial Laser Solutions (out this week) to understand my rationale. Before you dash off rebuttal e-mails (belforte@pennwell.com) read the selection criteria carefully.

I was a little surprised that I did not receive any submissions after the recent distribution of the Laser Community , a laser magazine from Trumpf, which contains a timeline of laser milestones, including my choices (pages 14-15).

Who was the winner of the American Express gift card? I wasn’t surprised that the best submissions came from people who have many years of experience in developing industrial laser applications. In some respects, I suppose, the contest was loaded in their favor as many of them are my contemporaries. The winner who came closest was Tom Kugler of Laser Mechanisms (tkugler@lasermech.com). He also had some of the best applications not selected, which would make my list if the total had been expanded to more than ten. Congratulations, Tom.

Was this exercise worth it? Several people have told me that searching their memory banks for candidates was a beneficial exercise and that reminiscing about their choices brought many fond and, in some cases, bitter memories. It also spawned the idea for the worst or funniest industrial laser applications, which will be presented at ICALEO next September in Anaheim.

One final amusing note, as many may be aware Massachusetts just held a special election to fill the unexpired seat of Senator Ted Kennedy. Two of the three candidates raised millions of dollars in the last days of the campaign, most of it seemingly spent on television ads and telephone calls to the State’s largest voting block, the Independents.

Over the past three weeks my wife and I have been bombarded with unsolicited telephone calls on behalf of the leading candidates, mostly grouped around the lunch and dinner hours, with many during the televised NFL playoff games hours. As the days to the election narrowed down these calls increased in frequency, and the callers became more prestigious as the hours counted down.

It gave me great delight to refuse telephone calls from the President and Vice-President of the United States, along with a former President and several congressmen and senators, not to mention a host of unknowns on behalf of both candidates and the candidates themselves. All told, before the polls closed, I estimate that we refused more than fifty calls, most unanswered and all deleted.

So candidates, your money was wasted on my wife and me. But it was great to hang up on the President, just because it was a once-in-a lifetime thing. Yes, I know most were recorded “robot’ calls but I can still say, “I didn’t take his call.”

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