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  • A Tale of Two Laser Applications

Photonics.com
Jul 2015
Hank Hogan, Contributing Editor, hank.hogan@photonics.com

Jul. 7, 2015 — Ben Franklin didn't coin the saying that a penny saved is a penny earned. That's just as well because for some industrial laser systems, a penny saved can be worth millions. However, too many pennies saved might endanger future development. Ironically, that could cost millions.

As an example of the first scenario, consider the auto industry. Last year, sales boomed and, according to IHS Automotive (part of IHS Inc.), the prediction for this year is continued growth. U.S. sales are forecasted to be 16.9 million; China’s sales are expected to be 25.2 million; and worldwide sales are slated to be nearly 89 million.

That's a lot of cars, pickup trucks, and other light-duty vehicles. That’s also a lot of laser cutting, welding, drilling and other materials processing. In this case, saving a little bit on each item or processing step translates into a lot of money — a relationship that’s been drilled into those doing the buying.

"The purchasing people are accustomed to the equation that a nickel equals millions of dollars saved," said Thomas Lieb, president of LAI International of Elk Grove, Calif.

Lieb, a laser safety expert and consultant, has in the past advised clients about which lasers to purchase. (Hint: It’s all about the material — at least for the start of the selection process. Laser system cost is in there as well, but it's more important to make sure of the basic materials processing capability.)

Given the focus on saving, lasers may seem like a slam dunk. They can save processing time and expense by, for instance, reducing the amount of postprocessing. Instead of leaving behind a lumpy bead that has to be ground down, for example, a laser can weld parts and produce a surface smooth enough, in some cases, to immediately paint. Another way lasers can save money is in the ability to drill with little heat damage, which means parts aren't warped.

Many times lasers are an obvious choice. Indeed, they may be the only way to manufacture an item in a cost-effective manner.

The mindset of shaving off pennies doesn’t stop with manufacturing cars. It also extends to the equipment. After all, there are a lot of cars being produced and a lot of laser systems that are doing it. So, if each of those lasers is a bit cheaper, that means a lot of pennies saved.

Contrast this to medical applications. Here, the main concern is not cost. Rather, the focus is on saving lives and improving health, leading to circumstances where cost is a concern but so is innovation, as well. That high level of innovation has to take place despite being spread out over what can be many fewer laser systems.

Fortunately, the different emphasis leads to a different calculation. "You can price with sufficient margins to fund future research and development," Lieb said.

So, that’s a tale of two laser applications. As for a penny, I’ll give you a virtual one for your thoughts.


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