Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Its a small world after all

Longer ago than I care to remember, I took my son to Disneyland where we enjoyed all the rides except for Small World. The only reason for our disenchantment with this Disney ride was the incessant playing of the song, "Its a Small World". All the time spent in line to enter the ride, probably 30 minutes, we were bombarded with this tune and then subjected to it continuously throughout the ride.

For the rest of the day that song reverberated in my brain and I found myself humming it repeatedly. I was humming it so much that I vowed never to listen to it again, a hapless goal if you have ever visited Disney’s parks.

However, I have been itching to find a reason to use the song title in my writing. And now I have the opportunity so I will get it out of my system, once and for all.

It is a small world, this manufacturing sector served by precision processing operations. This world is made for sharply focused laser beams which, depending on wavelength choice, can produce remarkable results such as those that benefit from “cold processing”.

As we finish the first decade of the new millennium, allow me to resurrect statements and thoughts I made as we entered the new decade. I quote from the January 2000 ILS Annual Economic Review, “All in all, ILS editors think 2000 should see the long-predicted move to microprocessing as the key to industry sales growth.”

I will confess that it took a little longer than I had imagined back in 2000, but we are now there and it’s a small world after all. It would be nice if we had a hymnal to celebrate the occasion and I may have found it in a new book published by Springer (www.springer.com/series/856) entitled Laser Precision Microfabrication. This book, edited by Koji Sugioka, Michel Meunier, and Alberto PiquĂ©, is an expansion of their original concept, which was to present selected papers from the International Symposium on Laser Precision Microfabrication (LPM), which has been held at international venues since the first one in Saitama, Japan, and the latest in Stuttgart, Germany in conjunction with LASYS 2010.

As an editor trying to cover concurrent session at conferences, the choice of which to attend is difficult, made untenable if your interests are broad. So I thank the book editors for compiling a very valuable display of the current and near-term processes for laser microprocessing. The book is a very useful selection of papers and contributions that covers laser ablation, micro and nano-structuring, patterning, microforming, and the more familiar processes: cutting, drilling, welding, and marking.

The selection of authors is excellent, and they treat each subject in 13 chapters as if the readers are novices to that particular technology. And for those who are deeply interested, the authors have included lengthy and comprehensive references at the end of each chapter. What this does is make this book a valuable reference resource on my bookshelf ,and I will likely make heavy use of the Index as I seek an explanation for some application that I am writing about.

So here’s the close: it’s rapidly getting to be a small world in laser material processing. As the macro applications begin to mature, it will be these rapidly developing micro processes that will act to increase markets. Driven by more reliable and responsive lasers integrated into “laser only" processing systems, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that when attending the next concurrent session conference, more time should be spent in the microfabrication session. However, the book will still serve as a “basics” for those who are not laser “junkies," but are process engineers looking for a solution to a difficult microfabrication operation.

I recommend the book for process engineers and applaud the editors for the selection of contributors who have written on both an introductory and advanced level for readers.

The book Laser Precision Microfabrication, Springer Series in Material Science 135, is available from Springer, www.springeronline.com; in the U.S., you can call 1-(800)-Springer.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stick with the message

Every once in awhile, as the Editor-in-Chief of Industrial Laser Solutions, I am reminded of the mission of this magazine.

A reader, Barry Buchanan, contacted me about his reading of an article in the September/October issue that dealt with laser marker selection. He writes, ”While reading the article, I found myself wishing that I possessed the information written here 10 years ago when I was first contracted to develop a marking program for a large hand tool manufacturer marking round plated products, and that sales people had this same information and fully understood it. I eventually installed 22 (laser) marking systems in their company. I contacted several people involved with laser sales and none were able to explain the differences. Most seemed to think that a Nd:YAG, a ND:YVO4 and a fiber system, because they are all 1064 wavelength, are all the same when actually, as Peter Grollmann (the author) pointed out so well, they are quite different and each has its own place in the field of marking. It took me some time to grasp these differences especially in the fiber verses YVO4 systems. A company I was working with to develop a marking program wanted to peruse the fiber as a replacement system, so I was doing a lot of sampling, but not until I finally had the opportunity to have a system in house for a month and work with it, did I fully understand the differences. This is the best written article I’ve seen comparing the good and not so good points of solid state laser marking systems. It is very well written and provides a wealth of information to anyone trying to start a marking program.”

Twenty-five years ago, when I co- founded ILS, I promulgated a mission statement that is as pertinent today as it was back in the days when laser processing was struggling to find a place in the manufacturing plants. In three sentences this statement is as important today as it was then:

“Manufacturing professionals require timely technical information about and evidence of the benefits of laser materials processing and the products that affect these processes. Keeping pace with all these benefits requires access to information from professionals who are knowledgeable about advanced laser materials processing. Industrial Laser Solutions provides first-hand experience about the technology and benefits to advanced laser material processing, educating readers in ways to improve profitability.”

As I read Barry’s letter it occurred to me that it was a perfect example of what we try to achieve with ILS in every issue. I should have this mission statement blown-up and posted over my computer terminal as I select editorial themes for next year. Thank you for reminding me, Barry.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The glorious colors of fall

We are fast approaching the height of the fall foliage season here in Southern New England. The peak foliage line is just poking into the local area and some pockets of brilliant color are just passing prime.

Purists among the locals will be arguing about the intensity and beauty of the colors for at least two more weeks as the peak period passes prime. Some will credit the long dry summer as the reason colors were less intense, while others will recall the heavy rains of spring as the reason the reds are redder and the golds deeper this year.

I’ve been laying the groundwork for my annual economic review, a process that entails a lot of reading of articles I have accumulated over the preceding months. As I look at these I am struck by the sameness of judging the beauty of this year’s foliage. A case for a sluggish recovery makes sense, but the reports from some of the key public companies run counter. This gives the impression that appearances of sluggishness in the economy are false clues to a mixed bag of active markets that just happen to be in the sectors that favor laser technology.

I was driving along a favorite state highway that is noted for its mix of gold and red foliage, and is usually one of those delightful perspectives especially when the afternoon sun casts oblique light, which draws the most out of the colors. Much to my chagrin, the trees were bare of leaves in the normally glorious section of roadway.

A thought crossed my mind that this could almost be an analogy for the laser system market; colors were mostly sharp, representing the majority of the market that covers lasers used in the energy, semiconductor, medical devices and aerospace industries. But key sites, such as the laser cutting market, were barren, reflecting continued resistance on the part of buyers in this sector. And continuing the thought, this usually bright section of highway was desolate and dull, depressing those who view it, just as the metal cutting market is dragging down market results.

The leaves, for the most part, will be gone from this area by the end of the month, not to be replaced until next spring. Here the analogy falls apart, as the market will likely get a boost from two big trade shows, featuring laser metal cutting, in the coming weeks that will either set the tone for recovery in the coming year or, worst case, continue to reflect a muddled economy.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How quickly time flies

Last week at ICALEO in Anaheim, the 50th anniversary of the first working laser was celebrated officially by the Laser Institute of America at a special closing plenary session, Celebrating 50 Years of Laser. During the week at ICALEO participants took advantage of the presence of numbers of technology pioneers to informally exchange reminiscences of the early days. I almost wish that I was carrying a recorder to save for posterity some of the anecdotes that were being shared.

I had the great pleasure of sitting with Nobel Laureate Charles Townes in the lounge atop one of the hotel towers and together watching a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean, while sharing a glass or two of wine.

Charlie, as he likes to introduce himself, remains a thoroughly down-to earth individual who carries his fame easily. At a rather advanced age — he turned 95 in July — he remains both inquisitive and entertaining. While he freely regales with anecdotes, he also has a deep curiosity for what you do. He was especially interested in the beginnings of the industrial laser business, which in those early days was far removed from the lofty academic world he lived and worked in. Although we travelled in different circles over the years, we shared many acquaintances who are among those who were the backbone of a developing business sector.

Charlie was interested in my comments on the shifting fortunes of the industrial laser world with Asia, led by China, as the main market driver. Sensing his interest in the commercial aspects of laser technology I asked if, in those early days, there was much talk about taking the product to market. He allowed that it may have been part of conversations, especially in his interactions with Bell Labs, but that he was a physicist with physicist’s curiosity about technology not markets.

The day after this pleasant interlude, I saw Charlie hustling through the Orange County Airport, towing his suitcase, passing through hordes of people lined up at a Starbucks and an adjacent departure gate, and not a soul realized a Noble prize winner had passed by. Dressed in a suit and tie he looked like just another businessman rushing to catch a plane. And that’s the way he wanted it.