Laser Cutting: This isn’t Hollywood

by Amy Harris, IQS Editor

We’ve all seen the movies – time is running out for the hero to rescue the girl/stop the explosion/find the diamond etc. and he comes across an impenetrable structure. What does he do? More often than not, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a remarkably small piece of equipment, or if he is James Bond, simply turns the knob on the side of his watch, and produces a high-power laser beam that cuts right through the obstacle and allows him to save the day. Now if the laser cutting power is in the hands of the “bad guy”, it is more often used to threaten life, limb and landform, combined with some over-the-top special effects and a dramatic soundtrack. While laser beams and their ability to cut through materials and destroy large buildings are entertaining aspects of many an action film, it does lead us to have misconceptions about the capability of laser cutting, and what it is can be used for today.

Laser is an acronym from the original term: “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” used to describe the source of a coherent and focused beam of photons or particles. Today, laser beams are used in everyday items such as barcode scanners and CD players, and highly concentrated beams are used by manufacturers in laser machining. Our action film characters may not care all that much about precision and accuracy when wielding their laser cutters, but it is one of the most advantageous features of laser metal cutting and a major reason for its use in many industries. Laser beams can be focused on very tiny spots, making them extremely useful in drilling, micromachining and engraving. With CAD and CNC laser cutting, engineers are able to offer closer tolerances than almost any other cutting method, and so many intricate medical parts are fabricated with the help of laser cutting, as are microtechnology, military and communication devices which often require extremely precise components.

Photo courtesy of Laserage Technology Corporation.

The movies aren’t entirely wrong however, lasers do have the potential to be extremely destructive and so precautions do have to be taken. Lasers are separated and classified as to whether they are commercially available or not, and yet even the less powerful lasers have the ability to severely damage a person’s eyesight. In terms of the cutting process, a vast amount of heat is created during the process making heat damage a legitimate concern for manufacturers. Often additional steps are taken to minimize the effects of distortion and warping from the cutting process with the addition of cooling agents or gas-assisted machining. The usefulness of this ability to cut metal so precisely outweighs the drawbacks considerably though, and as laser research and development continues, it will be even more widely used.

Photo courtesy of Laserage Technology Corporation.

Despite the compact size of the powerful lasers depicted in action scenes, lasers require large amounts of energy to form and maintain the continuous beam required for laser cutting, and although it is unrealistic that a piece of machinery the size of a pen could produce a beam powerful enough to cut through a metal door, I for one am not about to let this revelation spoil my enjoyment of action films. Lasers are not going anywhere anytime soon. Laser machining is an important part of many manufacturing processes, laser beams are used daily to make our lives more efficient, and I predict that laser cutting, in all its gross exaggeration, will continue to feature in Hollywood for many years to come. Who are we to say with the way technology is developing that there won’t one day be a highly powerful laser cutting beam produced from a wristwatch?

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