New Technology may Revive Old Ideas
At the recent ICALEO (September 27 to 30 in Anaheim), I sat in on an afternoon session called "Other Laser Processes." At many technical conferences this subject is usually relegated to the afternoon of the last day, where it is positioned as a closing session for the hard core attendees who haven't already left to catch an early plane home. The conference program committee slotted this session immediately after the annual Award luncheon, which this year featured two Nobel Laureates: Dr. Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy, who was honored with the LIA's Schawlow Award, and Professor Charles Townes, laser pioneer, who was presented with the LIA's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Both of the awardees presented stimulating and thought provoking acceptance speeches, which left the several hundred attendees somewhat satiated and in many cases unprepared for a late afternoon round of technical talks.
At conferences I usually try to look in at the Poster and the "Other" sessions, looking for hints on technology innovations that may become important in the coming years. In the Poster sessions, which are heavily academic, I look for co-authors who represent an industrial company. Over the years I have found a number that have made their way onto the pages of this magazine.
A paper at this year's "Other" session got my attention for two reasons. First, it was a review of 15 years of work on laser machining by Professor Yung Shin at Purdue University, a subject that resonated with me as I had worked on an Air Force-funded program on laser assist machining many years ago. Secondly, this "Year of the Laser" has precipitated a plethora of retrospectives on laser processing with presentations by technology pioneers recalling their successes and failures as this fascinating technology progressed over 50 years, and this paper seemed to be one of them
The laser assist machining project was a smart idea: use a laser beam to soften material ahead of a conventional cutting tool such that the stress experienced by the tool cutting a tough alloy was reduced and the tool life extended dramatically. In some alloys, tool life was in minutes, and tool replacement costs were prohibitive. We proved the laser could do the job, but the cost of adapting a high power CO2 laser beam to a milling machine made the process unfeasible. Professor Shin has succeeded with the technology, however, and over the years he has had successes with several applications of interest to industrial companies. His work is with direct machining, not tool life extension, and the cost of laser power and the complexity of laser adaptation to a cutting machine has been reduced such that this application may have a new life.
Returning to the second reason I was interested in this paper: at many of the retrospectives I participated in, speakers elaborated on great applications that never made it, for one reason or another, most often cost. I heard process pioneers mention applications that perhaps should now be revisited in light of new laser technology that might make them more cost justifiable.
I thought of a friend who, many years ago, was commissioned to revisit old applications that were passed on to see if new technology and thinking might resurrect them for current unitization. I remember telling him what a unique opportunity this was to have a "second chance" on some great ideas.
What was a great project died an early death as the first application he reviewed was so exciting to his sponsor that he was directed to work on it to the exclusion of everything else. Perhaps the revisiting of old ideas is best left to the universities where thesis advisors can encourage graduate students looking for a subject.
David A. Belforte
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