Stephanie A. Weiss, Executive Editor
In the mid-1980s, the laser emerged from the laboratory as a commercial tool for industrial applications in cutting, drilling, welding, marking, etc. Wary machinists found plenty of reasons to dislike the finicky, expensive tools.
In 15 years, much has changed in the technical world of lasers, and the economic world of manufacturing. Lasers, optics, positioning tables and computer equipment have improved as international competition has driven companies to shorter product design and delivery cycles that encourage the use of flexible machining technologies.
We recently surveyed industrial laser users about their experiences with learning about and using machining lasers to cut parts from flat metal sheet and plate. Cutting is among the oldest and most well-entrenched of industrial laser applications, so we thought metal fabrication shops could provide a broad perspective on lasers' real-world advantages and disadvantages. We avoided talking to companies with the word "laser" in their names, thinking that we might be able to find more unbiased reports from job shops that balance lasers with other machining technologies.
In fact, we heard no unbiased reports, even from laser users who have alternate technologies at their disposal: The unanimous opinion is that the laser has progressed from being a scary new technology to an essential sheet-metal fabrication tool.