Laser cutting has come a long way since SubConLaser began operating in the 1980s. Back then, the technology was revolutionary, allowing increasingly complex products to be manufactured with greater accuracy, speed and quality.
Laser cutting may have been widely used for decades, but to many it’s still a futuristic new technology. We can probably thank sci-fi movies and Star Wars for that. But the industry is continually moving forward and today’s machines are even more efficient, accurate and are used for a widening range of applications.
A quick history of laser cutting
Certainly, laser cutting transformed the metal cutting world in a big way in the 1980s. Before that, the new technology had been used in a handful of niche applications, including the aerospace industry.
The 1960s was a decade of huge technological advance. The mechanism of genetic coding was discovered, satellite communication became possible, colour TVs and computers became increasingly popular and of course, man set foot on the moon.
Set against this backdrop was a growing unease at how all these new technologies were going to be used, in part driven by the Cold War, and lasers quickly became part of popular culture and were increasingly viewed as possessing the potential to be used for malevolent purposes.
The use of laser beams was aired to millions of cinema goers with a famous scene in the 1964 film Goldfinger. In one tense encounter, James Bond is tied to a cutting table beneath a laser beam. 007 escapes after striking a deal with the eponymous villain of the film. In the 1959 novel, the British spy was threatened by a circular saw as lasers had not even been invented by then. Film makers would change the saw to a laser to make the movie feel more up to date.
The first practical use of laser beams came not long after they were discovered in the ‘60s. The first working laser was built by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories in California, and the ability to cut materials using a laser was one of the new technology’s first noted applications.
The ability to vaporise metal with a high-powered focused beam which could cut precisely, had huge potential. Gas laser cutting and crystal laser cutting processes were developed around the same time in the middle of the decade.
Once the potential of the new technology for industrial purposes was established, it became used in more and more applications. Come the 1970s, the likes of Western Electric were producing laser cutting machines in large numbers.
The laser revolution
By the 1980s, it was estimated there were 20,000 laser cutting machines in use worldwide. Subcon was formed in the Midlands in the same decade by husband and wife Bill and Christine Brown. Since then the company has become one of the largest laser cutting operations in the UK. Indeed, the popularity of laser profiling depends much on the work of such innovative companies back in the early days.
30 years ago, many customers were still unsure about laser cutting and often assumed the new technology was simply too advanced for the job they needed doing. Of course, once they had been convinced by the application, there was no turning back.
Industry observers in the 80s predicted that laser technology would herald a new industrial revolution, and perhaps they were right. Nowadays lasers are used in a huge number of applications from manufacturing to medicine, from the military, to scientific fields, to commercial enterprises.
Laser cutting continued to be refined through into the new millennium and the scale of the industry continued to grow. The costs associated with the process fell dramatically with advances in machinery and many new entrants came into the market.
If progress was halted somewhat by the recession that began in 2007, the seismic economic turmoil that followed forced the industry to refocus and refine its operations. With business tougher than it had been for generations, and margins tightly squeezed, it fell to pioneering firms like SubCon to keep pushing #GBmfg ahead.
Laser cutting today
Notable progress in recent years has been the ability of the industry to cut costs, refocus its lean operations and reduce production and delivery times.
Laser cutting processes are now incredibly stable. Carbon dioxide laser cutting remains as popular as ever and its ability to cut such a wide range of materials – including plastics and other non-metallic substances – means the technique is incredibly versatile.
However, advances in fibre optic lasers are really enabling the industry to revive its competitive edge. A fibre laser, which is a solid-state laser amplified in glass fibre, is hugely powerful – up to 100 times higher than a CO2 laser.
Extremely quick in cutting thinner material, fibre lasers have made great strides in recent years in the application of cutting thicker pieces. SubCon’s machines can cut certain materials up to 40mm thick and such machines are efficient, using 40% less electricity.
The world is currently in the midst of a huge upward trajectory in technological development and the laser cutting industry continues to power ahead as quickly as it has done since the 1960s.
Developments in software and automation will drive the next wave of advances and the use of laser cutting continues to grow beyond manufacturing into art and design, clothing and fashion.