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History Of Laser Cutting & Who Invented It

History Of Laser Cutting & Who Invented It

Laser-cutting technology, once a marvel of scientific achievement, has become an integral tool across various industries—from manufacturing to design.

Since its inception, the laser cutter has revolutionised how materials are processed, allowing for precision cuts and intricate details that were previously impossible.

This transformative technology has enhanced production capabilities and opened up new realms of creative possibility.

Here we’ll explore the fascinating history of laser cutters, dive into the different types available today, and consider the innovations shaping their future.

Brief History Of Laser Cutters

The story of laser cutters cannot be told without acknowledging the theoretical groundwork laid by Albert Einstein in the early 20th century.

Although Einstein himself did not build a laser, his seminal contributions to quantum mechanics were critical for the development of laser technology.

In 1917, Einstein published a paper on the quantum theory of radiation, expanding on the work of Max Planck, positing the process of stimulated emission, where an atom or molecule in an excited state, when perturbed by a photon with a specific energy, can be stimulated to emit additional photons of the same energy, phase, and direction.

This principle was revolutionary, forming the basis for both the maser (learn more about masers) and the laser.

Einstein’s theory described how light interacts with atomic structure to amplify electromagnetic radiation, a fundamental mechanism utilized in all lasers. This theoretical foundation remained a curiosity until the mid-20th century when scientists began exploring practical applications of quantum mechanics.

An image of Theodore H. Maiman using the worlds first ruby laser

An image of Theodore H. Maiman with the first ruby laser

The first functioning laser, a direct descendant of Einstein’s theoretical predictions, was built in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman.

This ruby laser used a synthetic ruby crystal and emitted a red focused laser beam through a laser cutting nozzle, which was intense enough to cut through various materials, showcasing the potential for what would become modern laser cutting tools.

As technology advanced through the decades, laser cutters saw significant enhancements.

Worlds First CO2 Laser Cutting Machine

An image showing Kumar Patel from Bell Labs alongside the worlds first functioning CO2 laser cutter

Kumar Patel standing next to the first CO2 laser cutter produced by Bell Labs

In 1963, a significant advancement in laser technology occurred when Kumar Patel, working at Bell Labs, developed the first Carbon Dioxide (CO2) laser.

This new type of laser represented a major breakthrough due to its cost-effectiveness and enhanced efficiency compared to the previously dominant ruby laser.

Learn more about how CO2 laser cutters work here.

The carbon dioxide laser quickly became the preferred choice for industrial applications, largely because of its ability to consistently deliver powerful and precise cuts.

The first production-oriented laser was introduced in 1965 by Western Electric, specifically designed to cut holes in diamond dies. This early application of laser technology showcased its potential for precise and efficient industrial use.

By 1967, the technology had advanced to a point where CO2 lasers could achieve outputs exceeding 1,000 watts, making them incredibly powerful tools for cutting and engraving a wide range of materials.

An example of a Boeing 747 from the 1970's

In 1969, The Boeing Company marked a significant milestone in the history of manufacturing technology by becoming the first worldwide company to use gas laser cutting in a commercial capacity. After extensive research, they concluded the laser cutter was a very economical cutting tool with unrivalled precision.

This innovative move involved the application of CO2 laser technology, which had only been developed and patented by Bell Labs a few years earlier.

Boeing utilized this advanced technology to cut and engrave materials with unprecedented precision and efficiency. Thus, the laser cutting process we know today was born,

The adoption of gas laser cutting by such a prominent aerospace manufacturer not only validated the capabilities of laser technology in demanding manufacturing industry environments but also set a new standard for precision manufacturing.

Following Boeing’s large-scale adoption, the 1980s and 1990s marked a period of rapid growth as laser cutters entered big industries, and also became more accessible to in smaller workshops and among hobbyists.

Types Of Laser Cutters Used Today

There are three primary types of laser cutters, each suited to different materials and applications:

CO2 Laser Cutters

An example of a laser cutters mirrors in action

Common Uses: CO2 laser cutters remain extremely popular to this day, are highly versatile and predominantly used for cutting non-metal materials such as wood, leather, acrylic, plastic, and fabric.

They are also well-suited for engraving and etching applications, making them popular in industries like signage, fashion, and interior design.

Due to their ability to produce a smooth finish on the edges of cut materials, they are also extensively used in the packaging industry.

Advantages: Excellent for detailed work on softer materials, relatively lower cost compared to other types, and capable of large-scale production runs.

Limitations: Less effective on metals and thicker materials, which can be a drawback for more industrial applications.

Fiber Laser Cutters

An example of a modern fiber laser cutter

Common Uses: Fiber laser cutters are primarily used for cutting metals, including steel, aluminum, copper, and brass. Their high precision and speed make them ideal for automotive, aerospace, and electronics manufacturing, where consistent cutting of complex, metal parts such as mild steel is required.

Fiber lasers are also increasingly used in applications where metals such as stainless steel, aluminium and brass must be engraved.

Learn more about what fiber lasers are here.

Advantages: High efficiency and speed, lower operational costs due to energy savings and minimal maintenance, excellent for processing reflective metals.

Limitations: Generally more expensive than CO2 lasers and not as effective for cutting thick materials or non-metal materials.

Crystal Laser Cutters

Common Uses: Crystal lasers can handle both metal and non-metal materials, though they are often used for applications requiring extremely high precision, such as in the medical device and electronics industries. Their ability to focus a very small and intense laser beam is beneficial for creating intricate designs and components.

Advantages: Versatile in terms of material compatibility, very precise cutting capabilities, and good for thick material cutting.

Limitations: Higher cost of ownership due to the shorter lifespan of the laser source and higher maintenance requirements compared to CO2 and fiber lasers.

The main deciding factor between these types depends on the specific requirements of the project, including the material type, thickness, and the precision needed in the cutting process.

If you’re in the market for a laser cutter and don’t know which type is best suited for your needs, check out this article on How To Choose a Laser Cutter, or give our friendly team a call on +44 (0)1422 310800

Today’s Innovations & Modern Advances

An image showing a modern fibre laser cutting thick steel

In recent years, laser cutting technology has continued to evolve with significant technological advancements.

Automation and improved precision have been central themes. Modern laser cutters are equipped with sophisticated software, allowing for more detailed control and flexibility in design.

Integration with computer-aided design (CAD) software has made the transition from design to production much smoother and faster.

Another major innovation is the development of more eco-friendly laser cutters. These newer models use less energy and reduce waste materials, aligning with global sustainability goals.

Some of the major industries that utilise laser cutters today include:

  • Manufacturing: Cutting and shaping metal components for machinery and vehicles.
  • Aerospace: Precision cutting of lightweight materials for aircraft components.
  • Electronics: Cutting complex circuit boards and intricate electronic components.
  • Fashion and Textiles: Cutting fabrics and creating intricate patterns for clothing and accessories.
  • Jewellery Making: Engraving detailed designs and cutting fine metals.
  • Automotive: Fabricating detailed parts and customizing materials for automotive use.
  • Signage: Creating signs from a variety of materials, including metal, wood, and acrylic.
  • Furniture Making: Cutting wood or acrylic for the design and assembly of furniture pieces.
  • Art and Sculpture: Crafting detailed artworks from various materials through precise cuts.
  • Construction: Cutting materials for building components or detailed architectural elements.
  • Medical Devices: Fabricating components for medical instruments with high precision.
  • Packaging: Cutting and scoring packaging materials for industrial and consumer products.

These applications demonstrate the versatility and essential role of laser cutting technology across a broad spectrum of industries.

Looking ahead, the industry is moving towards even more automation with the incorporation of AI and machine learning algorithms, which promise to optimize cutting processes, increase quality control and reduce human error.

Summing Up

The history and development of laser cutters reflect a dynamic evolution of technology driven by the need for precision and efficiency in material processing.

Understanding the different types of laser cutters and their respective advantages allows manufacturers, designers, and hobbyists to select the best tool for their specific needs.

As technology continues to advance, we can expect laser cutters to become even more precise, efficient, and integrated into various fabrication processes.

This ongoing innovation not only enhances industrial productivity but also expands the creative horizons for artists and designers around the world.

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