Machining History

The Introduction and Adoption of Laser Cutting

The art of laser cutting has been around for several years. The Egyptians used lathe cutting and milling practices. While not as far back as the Egyptians, the history of laser cutting technology planted its roots during the 1940s. Physicist Charles Townes invented the Microwaves Amplification by Stimulated Emissions of Radiation (MASER) machine. The MASER machine was the steppingstone to laser cutting technology. It was an amazing machine that actually evolved into the Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation (LASER) machine. In 1960, engineer Theodore Maiman brought Townes’s idea to fruition with the world’s first laser.

At first, engineers didn’t know what to do with it. However, in 1967 Peter Houldcroft of the Welding Institute in Cambridge created a cutting nozzle with an oxygen gas pump. This gave the laser a function. Then, a group of engineers at Boeing wrote a paper on how a laser cutter could cut through even harder materials. One year later, the first laser cutting machine tool was created in Scotland. And the rest is history. Today, the laser is a mainstay in both the industrial and scientific world. Laser cutting technology is now used in many fields, including aerospace, automotive and medical.

How Laser Cutting Technology Works

Laser cutting implements the use of a laser beam to remove material by either melting it or vaporizing it. With Computer Numerical Control (CNC), an assist gas or optics are used to direct and focus the laser beam. It’s a fast and efficient process and can be used on a wide range of materials.

The process entails electrically exciting a material. The laser beam is reflected and amplified with a mirror. Once enough energy is created, it can be focused on the piece. The three common types of lasers used today are carbon dioxide (CO2), YAG and fiber. CO2 lasers are used for engraving, and the higher-powered ones are used for industrial applications, such as welding. YAG lasers are used for etching and metal marking. Fiber lasers can be used to cut a broad range of materials. The hallmarks of CNC laser cutting include:

  • Quick processing and production times
  • More parts per sheet
  • Minimal warping
  • Ability to cut thick and dense materials
  • Greater accuracy
  • High quality surface finish

There are many different methods used in laser cutting technology. In vaporization, the beam heats the surface and the generated vapor erodes the material. Fusion laser technology uses high-pressure gas to blow out the molten material. With thermal stress cracking, the beam is focused to cause thermal expansion and localized heating. Stealth dicing utilizes a YAG laser for cutting. Reactive laser cutting technology uses the laser beam as an ignition source and can be used to cut very thick steel.

“Over the past decade, lasers have become both bigger and smaller in size, as well as more powerful and less expensive. The technology has expanded in number of wavelengths and in the range of materials used. Lasers have worked their way into everyday life and otherworldly applications. By the end of 2018, the laser market stands at more than $12.9 billion, according to a December 2018 study by MarketsandMarkets.” This is why CNC Machine Sales are up.