Laser application successes rely on timing of the market
Back in the day when "we never saw an application we didn't like for lasers," cutting of textiles and fabrics looked like a sure winner. Sharp edges, precision shape cutting, no cutting blade wear in natural or synthetic fabrics, and no-fray edges seemed like a potentially large laser market to our eyes. Talking with prospective users—the industrial cutting equipment suppliers—we shrugged off their negative cost/benefit analysis as coming from short-sighted traditionalists. We were wrong and the illusive "killer app" faded, with the market essentially relegated to specialty laser cutting. Today, in an era where high-volume production has been surpassed by low-inventory orders of small batches to more readily respond to market conditions, such as the demand for large-format printed textiles (which has many companies intensifying their search for more efficient cutting methods), finds the laser fabric cutting market looking interesting again. Our cover story on banner cutting is an example of this.
Also this month, we revisit excimer laser circuit drilling, a reliable long-time application and a process being driven by relentless consumer demand for microelectronics products that are more compact, energy-efficient, and deliver greater functionality, which is now being used in shrinking microelectronic packaging.
In 2003, we looked at a combined milling and 3D laser machining system offered as a substitute for EDM processes. It didn't happen, as manufacturers decided that tying up one high-revenue process while the other sat without generating profits was not cost-effective. This long-cherished market, hybrid laser/cutting tool machining, gets a fresh look in an article that shows how technology advances are breaking down some of the barriers to hybrid additive/subtractive manufacturing as productivity-focused industries adapt to laser metal additive manufacturing.
And then there is the direct-diode laser, a product that some knowledgeable applications experts think could be the "perfect" laser for the industrial environment with its compact, energy-efficient operation, lacking only high beam quality to meet that "perfect" sobriquet. In this month's article, we learn that more than 1000 of these lasers have been delivered by one supplier for applications in joining plastics, soldering, and brazing.
Finally, pulsed nanosecond fiber lasers are well known as the laser of choice for the majority of industrial marking, engraving, and more recently for micro-cutting applications. However, the capability of this laser for materials joining is less well-known, particularly for thin section materials. This month, we learn that these lasers are proving to be an excellent alternative to conventional millisecond pulsed YAG and modulated CW laser sources.
What is the connection between these diverse industrial laser applications? I paraphrase on a rather hoary commercial tagline for a variety of table wines: "no application before its time." This supports my opening sentence that a laser enthusiast's fondness for an application sometimes has to await proper timing in the market before its success can be measured. Each of the articles selected from this issue exemplifies that adage to one degree or another. Lack of acceptance by industry in several of these applications was for non-laser related reasons that over time were overcome, leading to broader acceptance and usage.
David A. Belforte