Technology trends seem to be moving faster, which is a trend all to itself as the 21st century progresses. In manufacturing, new technologies are driven by faster, cheaper computing power that enables data sharing, more robotic automation, and smart factories. But other areas are moving rapidly as well, such as lasers used for material processing like cutting and welding.
I last did in-depth reporting on lasers in 2015, and had the opportunity to do so again for a feature story in the November issue (see the article “Lasers on the Cutting Edge”).
In 2015, there was definitely competition between two main laser sources, CO2 gas lasers and solid-state lasers, especially fiber lasers. Fiber lasers were definitely taking market share, but there still was a place for CO2 lasers. I dutifully reported on the pros and cons of each, including some new nozzle technology that could be fitted to CO2 lasers for better welding of some critical automotive parts. I was expecting much the same for this article, with certainly more use of solid-state fiber and disk lasers and less of CO2.
Not so. In my interviews, I found no one who thought CO2 lasers had much of a future in areas like metalcutting and welding.
This news may not be surprising to those who track lasers month-to-month, but it shows how quickly a trend can accelerate and surprise those not keeping up (like me). Oh sure, there are still applications where the only good choice is a CO2, like thick metals, plastics or making computer chips. CO2 laser systems last a good long time, so those that are installed and paid for won’t be replaced anytime soon. But it seems that new laser cutters, with a few exceptions, will be solid-state lasers. The reasons are obvious; they are cheaper to operate, easier to integrate and often cheaper to buy over their CO2 gas cousins.
But that was true in 2015. What made the difference in two years?
One industry observer thought it had to do with user acceptance. After all, CO2 lasers had been the mainstay for decades. Shop-floor engineers were familiar with them. Manufacturers, taking huge risks on high-dollar equipment investments are naturally skeptical. Skepticism puts a natural brake on technology trends moving too fast. Skepticism can be healthy until the evidence is overwhelming. Then, whole industries make the jump in a relatively short time. It seems the key to getting a leg up is in carefully calibrating one’s skepticism, adopting a new technology not too soon, but not too late.
Are there other trends that bear watching? I think so, especially in technologies that merge existing ones into new applications. It is common today to see machines that punch and bend combined with lasers to create new parts most cost-effectively. Sometimes, technologies are even more tightly integrated, like what a company in Switzerland named Synova SA did. They had the clever idea of combining a pulsed laser beam inside a waterjet to improve cutting speed and quality.
Synova’s “wet laser” technology actually directs the laser beam inside the waterjet, using the water itself to guide and concentrate the cutting beam. The air-water interface of the jet reflects the beam back into the jet, keeping it collimated and focused on a tiny spot.
The jet also efficiently removes debris, according to the company. The waterjet collimated beam creates a very long working distance not subject to the usual constraints of creating a large enough depth of field optically. The company touts it for hard materials and ceramics, ranging from diamonds to stainless steels.
For my money, if you want to stay ahead of surprises today, look for these kinds of technology mixes—and be willing to skeptically accept them at the right time.