It was Oktoberfest in Munich, in the Fall of 1970, when representatives of British and German companies, over several liters of fine Bavarian beer, speculated on what the future business for laser sheet metal cutters might be. Keep in mind that this was the first year in the business history of industrial lasers; a time when selling four units a year doubled a company’s sales.
At that time, commercially available CO2 laser power was around 450 watts. But because of the high beam quality of these slow axial flow devices, useable power in a focused spot for cutting was about 105 W/cm2 -sufficient to cut thin gauge steel, with the assist of the then recently developed gas jet nozzle. Cutting rates were only 35 in/min but the very narrow kerf, small heat affected zone, and relatively smooth cut edges of the parts were already attracting some interest from sheet metal fabricating shops.
A British gas supplier, BOC, and a German cutting system builder, Messer Griesheim, took the bull by the horns and introduced rudimentary laser cutters with a Ferranti laser mounted on the cantilevered arm of gas cutting motion systems. And they sold a few! At least enough to plant the seed that maybe laser cutting of sheet metal was a prospective market of size. However, annual sales limped along for the next few years, as the most attractive market, job shops, couldn’t be convinced that an investment of several hundred thousand dollars was wise.
It wasn’t until 1978 that laser metal cutting broke into the North American market with the sale of a combination laser/turret punching system to a Canadian fabrication company. By this time laser power was around 1 kW, still from slow axial flow lasers.
By the mid-1980s the market final ratcheted up to hundreds of unit’s thanks in part to a rapid acceleration in Japan by that country’s job shop industry. In 1985 Japanese sales alone reached 500 units as laser power increased to 1.7 kW.
In Germany, with the introduction of fast axial flow CO2 lasers, the market responded, prompted in part by the German government’s strong endorsement and financial incentives to push laser technology.
Japan’s sales climbed to 1500 units in 1990 driven by a fast developing market for quality cuts in stainless steel. And the availability of gantry style cutters in succeeding years, with shuttle tables for quick load/unload, led to the use of rack storage systems to accommodate sheet selection. Automated systems were becoming more productivity oriented as suppliers responded to the market by making laser cutting a necessity not a curiosity.
During this period laser power ramped up as more powerful and reliable CO2 lasers, both RF and DC excited, with superior beam quality developed. Power rose each year until 4 kW became the standard in 2004. Coupled with this was the availability of more powerful systems, many with linear motor drives and process control though the accelerated growth of mini-computers, and eventually personal computers with powerful, easy-to-use software made system operation a simple process.
This is the 35th year of the market for industrial laser systems. The industry pioneers, contemplating market growth in 1970, would be pleased to know that today the annual market for laser metal cutters is in excess of $1.6 billion. And that since that beery bull session in Munich more than $22 billion (in today’s dollars) worth of laser sheet metal cutters have been installed worldwide. Making metal cutting the most important revenue generator in industrial laser material processing.
David A. Belforte