Monday, February 14, 2011

It looks like a duck

Every once in a while I get stumped by a seemingly innocuous question. At a recent presentation before a group of non-laser aware engineers, during the portion describing opportunities for laser welding, I was asked if lasers used for soldering/brazing applications were included under the welding topic. And further, if they were, why wasn’t the topic called laser joining, or better yet since the topic of the presentation was Lasers in Production Operations, why wasn't the section title just joining?

If I was a stand-up comedian I would have had a snappy comeback for that last part that would bring a laugh from the audience. Rather than embarrass the questioner, however, I deviated from my prepared remarks and provided a lengthy rejoinder, which in retrospect was overblown and too weighty. My answer, dealing with a bigger issue, was why we misuse the term laser when we mean laser beam or even more correctly, why not laser energy.

I used the following example. Years ago as the marketing director of a start-up commercial enterprise within a large R & D organization, a new general manager brought in a high-level physicist to help with the development of a multi-kilowatt material processing laser. During weekly staff meetings, each director presented an update on progress and answered questions from the senior staff. The physicist had a partially irritating habit of posing his questions as challenges to a presenter’s knowledge rather than as information seeking queries. He was very critical of incorrect use of terminology and never failed to find mistakes in our reports -. Among these was the use of laser instead of laser beam.

I’ll confess to a personality clash that caused me to take offense at any challenge he raised, factual on not. And I found most unsettling his refusal to acknowledge common usage as an answer to his nit-picking questions. But I must say that even today when I inadvertently use the term laser instead of laser beam, a picture of that insincerely smiling physicist asking that question comes to mind.

This is apropos to a bigger question: Are we now at a point where we can drop the term laser welding and instead refer to welding, soldering, and brazing as laser joining applications? At ILS, we have sort of done this for years as we present applications that include soldering and brazing in our annual market review as laser welding. Admittedly, soldering and brazing are a small potion of annual laser joining revenues, and this is the rational I have used for years. But now it may be time to call it like I see it and refer to the processes under one title: laser joining. This should raise the ire of my nemesis physicist, since he would loudly complain that it is laser beam not laser joining.

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