Laser/Plasma Laser/Plasma

How lasers work

The science nonfiction behind this most indispensable technology

by Abbe Miller, editor-in-chief

 

 

Lasers are impossible to avoid, and it’s not just because nobody can run the 300 million meters per second it would take to outrun a light beam. Lasers are everywhere. They blow up planets in Star Wars movies, they provide valuable exercise and entertainment for cats, and they scan groceries at the supermarket.

 

Many people know that the word “laser” is an acronym, and some even know what it stands for: light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Very few people know the meaning behind that acronym, though, and that’s a shame, because as ubiquitous as they are, lasers and the physics behind them are truly amazing.

 

The inner workings of a DVD player reveal the red-light laser inside, which can read the data necessary to watch a movie from the comfort of home.

 

  

Useful abundance

Each word behind laser packs a punch, even the first and, apparently, most mundane: light. Light is, of course, electromagnetic radiation we humans can see. It’s no different from microwaves, X-rays and gamma rays; it is simply defined by a specific range of wavelengths between 380 and 760 nm.

 

But why can we see it? Because the sun generates abundant electromagnetic radiation in this range and, by and large, Earth’s atmosphere does not absorb it, so it’s everywhere around us. The human eye evolved in response to this useful abundance.

 

On the other hand, our eyes certainly aren’t equipped to cope with light from any but the tiniest of lasers because the light from a laser is amplified – and not just in the sense that there’s a lot of it. Laser beams are highly coherent.

 

Coherent light doesn’t scatter and interfere with itself like the light from, say, a flashlight, because coherent light is in phase, meaning that there is a fixed relationship between the peaks and valleys of the waves (photons) that make it up. As a result, laser light remains tightly packed, even over long distances.

 

NASA’s Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment measures the distance between the Earth and the moon by pointing a laser on Earth at a mirror placed on the moon by Apollo astronauts. Various telescopes have this capability, including the one found at the Côte d'Azur Observatory in Grasse, France.   

 

 

Stimulated emission

These qualities bring us to the fundamental principle that makes lasers possible: stimulated emission of radiation. Stimulated emission occurs when an atom in an excited state is caused to decay to a lower state due to interaction with an incoming photon, the energy of which equals the energy that was required to excite the atom in the first place.

 

Stimulated emission yields a new photon of the same phase and direction of the original photon, which is not absorbed. Where first there was one photon, now there are two (coherent) photons. Repeating this process results in an ever-increasing number of photons in phase and traveling in the same direction.

 

Atoms are naturally inclined to stability, so an atom in an energetic state tends to decay to a less energetic – and more stable – ground state. In so doing, the atom emits a photon in a process called spontaneous emission. Furthermore, the energy of the photon emitted corresponds exactly to the difference in energy between the two states, which determines the wavelength (and therefore the color, if it is within the visible spectrum) of the light emitted.

 

Therefore, if the emitted photon is absorbed by a nearby atom of the same type, that atom is excited to the aforementioned energetic state, absorbing the photon. Where first there was one photon, now there are none.

 

Building a laser calls for creating conditions in which stimulated emission predominates. Most atoms at room temperature are in their ground state. When photons are introduced, ground-state atoms absorb photons and attain an energetic state.

 

A set of atoms in which most are in an energetic state rather than the ground state is said to have achieved population inversion. Now, when photons are introduced, few absorptions occur, and stimulated emission predominates.

 

Stimulated emission occurs when an atom in an excited state is caused to decay to a lower state due to interaction with an incoming photon, the energy of which equals the energy that was required to excite the atom in the first place.

 

 

This three-level diagram depicts population inversion – where most atoms are in an energetic state rather than a ground state.

 

 

The first laser

In May 1960, Theodore H. Maiman, using synthetic ruby crystal, built the first laser. Maiman’s pioneering work took place in Malibu, Calif., in the Atomic Physics Department of Hughes Research Laboratories, formerly Hughes Aircraft Co. Maiman achieved population inversion in his laser by exciting the atoms in his crystal to an unstable energy level from which the atoms quickly decayed via spontaneous emission (or other means) to a lower, “metastable” energy level.

 

Energized yet stable (spontaneous emission was relatively unlikely in the metastable level), the atoms were primed for stimulated emission and the cascade of in-phase photons it entails: a laser. To build up the energy of the beam, Maiman placed his crystal in a small tube with a fully reflecting mirror on one end and a partially reflecting mirror on the other.

 

The photons in Maiman’s tube bounced back and forth between the mirrors, causing more and more stimulated emissions. Those that escaped through the partial mirror formed the laser beam.

 

In the half century that has followed, scientists and engineers have relied on population inversion and stimulated emission to construct lasers using crystals, as Maiman did, as well as gases, liquids, semiconductors and even beams of high-energy electrons.

 

Despite Maiman’s initial breakthrough being met with fanfare, lasers were initially regarded as “a solution in search of a problem.” The search, however, has been extremely fruitful – the world we live in would hardly be recognizable without lasers.

 

Everyday lasers

Just two years after Maiman’s breakthrough, two teams, one at General Electric and the other at IBM, announced separately that each had created the first semiconductor laser – also known as a laser diode. The achievements at GE and IBM were essentially the forerunners to the lasers that operate every day in nearly every home and business in America and around the world. And they were very compact.

 

Early versions could fit on the head of a pin, and today they can be microscopically small. Laser diodes are also durable and inexpensive, today forming the basis for CD, DVD and Blu-ray technology.

 

Red-light lasers read CDs and DVDs and, with just a little extra power, write on them. Blue lasers, with their higher energy and shorter wavelengths, can read finer, more tightly packed information, making it possible to store even more data on a disc the same size as a CD or DVD – hence the popularity of Blu-ray technology.

 

The precision of laser beams makes them perfect for sensing, measuring and creating fine detail. Scanners at the supermarket detect patterns of reflected laser light from barcodes and quickly translate the codes into product information. Laser diodes also form the backbone of worldwide telecommunications networks, sending infrared beams through fiber optic cables with incredible precision and efficiency.

 

Laser printers – yet another example of lasers in everyday life – project laser light onto photoconductors that attract ink onto the laser’s path and then the paper, creating a sharp image. Surveyors also use laser pointers to measure angles. Distances, too, can be accurately measured with the help of lasers.

 

Distance is measured by reflecting a laser pulse off of a mirror and measuring the time it takes to return. NASA’s Apollo astronauts placed a mirror on the moon for just that purpose, enabling NASA to measure the moon’s distance from Earth with an accuracy of mere inches over an astounding 239,000 miles.

 

High-power lasers are potent symbols of science fiction come to real life. The Strategic Defense Initiative announced by Ronald Reagan in 1983 featured (hypothetical) high-power orbital lasers meant to defend America by destroying Soviet nuclear warheads and was quickly dubbed “Star Wars” by a justifiably skeptical public. Nuclear physicists and engineers see high-power lasers as a promising avenue for creating the extremely high pressures and temperatures needed to generate power via ever-elusive nuclear fusion.

 

Meanwhile, the manufacturing industry has reliably employed practical high-power lasers for decades. Not only are they leveraged to create precise cuts, they are also adept at producing clean, efficient welds.

 

Regardless of what they’re used for, all lasers rely on the same simple yet mysterious properties. So the next time we’re in line at the supermarket, instead of second-guessing the price of the groceries on the scanner, we can instead wonder for a moment at the streams of coherent photons that make it work.

 

Titans of the Industry – Hypertherm’s Dick Couch

Dick Couch revolutionized plasma cutting while also building one of the most well-respected companies in the industry
by Abbe Miller, editor-in-chief

 



The team at Shop Floor Lasers typically focuses on laser cutting, but as many of our readers know, plasma cutting is a formidable rival for many types and thicknesses of material. Plasma, however, would have never been the viable option it is today if it weren’t for Dick Couch, founder of Hypertherm Inc., a global leader in advanced metal-cutting methods.

The advancements Couch made some 50 years ago changed the way manufacturers and fabricators would tackle thick cutting jobs moving forward. His advancements also put him in the elite group of Titans of the Industry.

 

Building off of the company's long-running experience in the cutting industry, Hypertherm offers plasma as well as laser to cut thin and thick metals.  


Collegiate achievements

The wheels started turning for Couch in 1965 as a student at Dartmouth College where he received his engineering degree from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. It was at Dartmouth that Couch met a professor who became his mentor – an M.I.T.-educated mechanical engineer named Robert “Bob” Dean Jr. Throughout his life, Dean has founded or co-founded 11 companies, including Creare Inc., which Couch would join after graduating from Dartmouth.

Dean’s energy and passion for engineering had an effect on many students like Couch throughout the years. Dean joined Dartmouth’s engineering school in 1961 as an associate professor. To commemorate his long-successful career at the school, he was given the title of professor emeritus.



“Bob Dean and my stepfather, Howard Head, were my biggest influences in regard to my interest in engineering,” Couch said recently. As would be proven in the years to come, these influences resulted in great things for the young college student. 


At Dartmouth, Dean helped develop an advanced version of Introduction to Engineering called Internship in Engineering, which is where he met Couch. The focus of that course was to resolve a defect in a small industrial printer developed by the Markum Corp. The solution for the defect was to cost no more than $100. Couch made a good impression on Dean on their first encounter as he solved the problem at a cost of $20 – something none of his classmates could come close to achieving.

“Markum was so impressed that they hired sophomore Couch as a consultant,” Dean fondly recalled.



 

 

Dick Couch, the founder of Hypertherm Inc., revolutionized plasma cutting to make it the successful fabricating method known today.

 

A company is born

The impetus behind the plasma cutting technology that Dean and Couch would invent actually got its start at Creare in 1965. Dean was in charge of a project for the Air Force that involved improving the anodes of the plasma jet thrusters for deep space travel.



“It needed a very tight, very precise plasma arc test apparatus,” Dean said, “which Creare designed and built.”



The success of that project convinced Dean that Creare should get involved in the plasma arc industry. Dean had an idea about how to fix the problem related to anode/nozzle premature melting after visiting a manufacturer based in New Jersey. At that time, plasma cutting was really only effective on stainless steel measuring ½ in. thick or less. There was also dross buildup associated with those cuts as well as double arcing.



Therefore, Dean and Couch worked together to develop a business plan for a new company. They pitched their plan to a couple of companies on the East Coast hoping they could secure the research and development funding they needed, but their proposal failed to generate interest. A lack of interest, however, did not stop the two from their pursuit. They set out on their own in 1968 after pulling together $60,000 in startup capital from family, friends and associates and operated under the wing of Creare.

Within the first six months of establishing Hypertherm, they developed water-injection plasma cutting, the first step toward eventually making the company an industry leader. In doing so, they improved cuts and prolonged the life of the cutting apparatus. 

“It worked very well because it could not melt and it pinched and accelerated the plasma jet to a very high velocity,” Dean said. “Our Water-Arc solved all of the plasma arc cutter’s defects and launched Hypertherm’s worldwide business, spun off from Creare.”



Unfortunately, they were cruising through their research and development money and had missed production deadlines, making Creare’s board of directors hesitant to keep Hypertherm under Creare’s wing. Finally, board members voted to rid Creare of Hypertherm.

 Dean said he watched as Hypertherm “fell clunk into the sea. I looked over the rail and there was Dick in a little rowboat yelling ‘I will buy it for 30 cents on the dollar!’, i.e. $10,000. So Creare sold it, and Dick started Hypertherm.”



Hypertherm’s new life started in a two-car garage with Couch and five associates. Slowly, however, the hard work began to pay off, Couch noted in 2013 while addressing attendees at a conference about creating a positive work environment.

“After a particularly good month we’d celebrate with a case of beer and a volleyball game on Friday afternoon,” Couch said, adding that once they increased production at Hypertherm with a second shift, beer was taken out of the celebration, but the volleyball and camaraderie lived on.

 

Couch started Hypertherm in a two-car garage with just five associates. Today, there are 1,300-plus working around the globe.


The early days of plasma cutting


Many innovations, including advances in welding and torch cutting technology, came out of World War II. The defense industry needed to feed the war machine at a faster rate – especially at the onset of the war. Engineers answered the call when they came up with a new welding process that could join light metal together more effectively. The process used an electric arc to melt the metal, and it increased the rate at which they could churn out airplanes. This laid the groundwork for where plasma cutting is today.



When the conventional plasma arc cutting technique was developed in 1957, the process involved a plasma jet, which was generated by dry arc constriction. Workers could now sever metal as thick as 10 in. However, cuts were beveled at the top, and double arcing damaged the nozzle and the electrode, requiring them to be replaced frequently.



Five years later in 1963, the dual-flow plasma arc became a patented device. This evolution involved adding a secondary gas shield around the plasma nozzle, and when used with a ceramic gas cup, the likelihood of double arcing was significantly decreased. Air plasma cutting was introduced the same year and increased cutting speeds by 25 percent over plasma cutting that used nitrogen.



In 1965, water shield plasma cutting was introduced to the metalworking industry. Rather than using the gas shield, water was substituted, which offered a cooling effect. However, there was little improvement in dross accumulation and the cuts were still beveled. Furthermore, arc constriction wasn’t improved. 

The stage, therefore, was set for Hypertherm, Couch and his associates to step in with their innovative addition to the technology.

 

Hypertherm’s common stock was transferred into an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), making the company 100 percent employee owned.



Developing the differentiators

Despite the faster cutting speeds workers were seeing with the mid-1960s technology, Couch notes that “plasma arc cut quality was very poor, which limited the use of plasma cutting of mild steel.” With that and other shortcomings in mind, Couch was determined to improve the technology from top to bottom.   



Hypertherm’s new water-injection technique introduced another first to the industry. Instead of relying on several different types of gas for cutting, the Hypertherm system used only one: nitrogen. This single gas requirement made plasma cutting more economical and easier to use since customers no longer had to purchase and stock several types of gas. Customers also saw a marked improvement in nozzle life because steam from the water helped to cool and protect the nozzle, significantly slowing down its wear rate.



Couch’s invention used water that was radially injected around a nitrogen plasma arc. While air plasma cutting was more effective than nitrogen plasma cutting, Couch’s inclusion of water with nitrogen proved to be an effective solution. The narrow channel squeezed the arc into a tighter, more powerful cutting stream. The result was a faster cut with far less dross, longer consumable life and less angularity. Carbon steel thinner than 0.625 in. could actually be cut with no dross.

“In the startup days of Hypertherm, I spent long hours in the lab and at the drafting table,” Couch said, reminding readers that back then, computer-aided drafting did not yet exist. “I was also working with the early users of Hypertherm plasma cutting.”



Couch quickly patented his new radially injected water technique and unveiled Hypertherm’s introductory plasma cutter, the PAC400. For the first time, plasma was a real option for people needing to quickly and cost-effectively cut through metal. The popularity of the PAC400 grew, as did Hypertherm’s reputation as the world leader in plasma cutting.



Focus, inspiration and determination led Couch and Hypertherm associates to innovate further. They had one goal in mind: to continue to make plasma cutting more accurate, more cost effective, safer and easier for people to use.



This goal led Couch and his associates to engineer the water table and water muffler plasma cutting processes. This involved using a water table to control the hot metal particles associated with plasma cutting while also relying on the water shield to reduce smoke, ultraviolet glare and noise – ultimately producing a safer product for the marketplace. 

Whether it was reducing the noise and smoke caused by plasma cutting, developing underwater- and oxygen-based systems or finding ways to build even faster and more accurate systems, Hypertherm was at the forefront and has been so ever since.  

Though Couch is obviously a good businessman, he’s an engineer at heart and has stayed true to his engineering roots. Today, Hypertherm employs a small army of engineers focused not only on plasma technology, but on other cutting technologies, such as laser and waterjet. In fact, Hypertherm was the first company in the industry to develop a fiber laser system optimized for cutting. Throughout the years, Hypertherm has earned 111 patents with Couch as the inventor or co-inventor of around half of those patents.

 

Couch at the grand opening of the Heater Road facility in Lebanon, N.H., in 2013 with New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan.



A shared legacy

With dozens of patents under his belt, Couch has cemented his legacy within the industry. He’s also created a culture of quality at his company that should be a model for all to follow. For instance, he has never referred to the workers at Hypertherm as “employees.” They’ve always been “associates.”



“We don’t like the word management or employee,” Couch said of he and his wife Barbara, who joined the company in 1987 to establish the human resources department. “To us it implies two separate classes of people with different rules. That doesn’t strike us as a way to make the company feel like one team.”



The company has also adhered to a no-layoff policy, even during times of recession. Instead of letting associates go during the most recent economic downfall, Hypertherm kept them on for different jobs. For instance, some associates were able to transition to grounds keeping jobs, which were outsourced previously. Others had experience with dry wall and HVAC, which meant expansion efforts could go ahead as planned using associates rather than third parties.



“These (people) aren’t machine tools,” Couch said. “They are family and they rely on you for a place to work.”



 

A Hypertherm plasma cutting and gouging process was using on the Ruby Pipeline, a 675 mile, 42-in.-wide pipeline under construction in the western United States.

 

Couch took it a step further in 2001 when the company announced the transfer of its common stock into an employee stock ownership plan, which put 32 percent of the company in the hands of the associates. Couch said they talk to associates about ownership and accountability when they are enrolled after their first year of employment in an effort to instill a sense of accountability.



“We’re not going to get everybody feeling they’re the owner of their own business,” Couch admitted. “But if we can get 50 to 70 percent of our associates feeling accountable in what we’re doing, we’re so much further ahead than a company trying to forge their workforce based on money or, more typically, based upon fear.”



In January of 2014, Dick and Barbara transferred their majority interest to the stock ownership plan. They had offers that were more lucrative, but it’s not what they felt was important for the company. Dick remains involved as chairman of Hypertherm and Barbara retains her role as president of the company’s HOPE philanthropic foundation. There are currently 1,300-plus people working for Hypertherm around the globe.

Hypertherm Inc.

Two In One

Manufacturers reap big benefits when a laser and a plasma cutting system come together on one machine

by Jennifer Smith, Sales and Marketing Analyst

 

 

 

Manufacturers have been demanding a faster, more accurate way to process various materials from thin-gauge to heavy plate. In the past, the choice was simple – a laser cutting system for thin materials and a plasma system for heavy plate. But not anymore. The engineers at Messer Cutting Systems accepted the challenge and developed one cutting machine with both plasma and fiber laser technologies combined.

 

When manufacturers first learned about Messer’s plasma/fiber laser combination cutting machine, the MetalMaster Xcel, they quickly saw the benefits of its state-of-the-art technology and robust design. With multi-tool capacity, the Xcel features industry-leading traverse speeds of 3,000 ipm, resulting in less pierce-to-pierce time.

 

"We anticipate an excellent market welcome with the new MetalMaster Xcel plasma/fiber laser combination machine," says Joerg Toberna, Director of Marketing. "This new machine is going to rock the cutting industry as we know it. We could not be more excited and eager to share it with the world."

 

Seeing combination cutting as the wave of the future, Messer knew the demand would be big, but they also knew it would come from a variety of manufacturers. Delivering a versatile machine would be essential. The Xcel is basically two cutting machines in one and can be equipped with either: one plasma and one fiber laser head, two plasmas (one of which can be a bevel head), or one fiber laser and one plasma bevel head. Understanding the unique needs that each manufacturer has, Messer used the need for customization as its driving force when developing the new machine.

 

 

Tailored for performance

To fit specific industry cutting needs, the Xcel offers multiple options for maximum performance. An optional shuttle table, for example, incorporates servo drives on transfer and elevator stations for combined transfer and elevation, reducing dead time while providing a base for additional material handling equipment, such as Messer’s Smart Cranes and Tower Systems.

 

Versatility relates to productivity when users pair automated material handling with fast traverse speeds. In these scenarios, cutting time increases as non-production time, like plate loading and unloading, are reduced.

 

The pure essence of combination cutting fortifies a manufacturer’s bottom line when it comes to piece parts with internal critical cuts. These critical features can be cut with a fiber laser while the external features are cut with a plasma torch – all with one piece of equipment, making it no longer necessary to move the piece from one machine to another. When cutting thin materials, the fiber laser provides the best quality, cycle time and cost per piece. When cutting thick materials, plasma provides the best cycle time and cost per piece.

 

 

Better part accuracy

With the Xcel, internal holes smaller than a 1:1 ratio are now achievable, including sharper corners on squares and cleaner straighter holes. Previously, this was impossible with only the plasma process. Now manufacturers gain better part accuracy than “True Hole Technology” on 0.625-in. (15.9-mm) mild steel and below. Parts can be cut using only one process or both fiber and plasma can be leveraged to maximize production. The unitized machine design provides an extremely accurate machine platform with ease of installation.

 

Because fiber lasers utilize a fiber optic cable for beam delivery, the need for mirrors is eliminated, making cleaning, alignment and replacement a thing of the past. Furthermore, the fiber laser process is three times more efficient compared to common C02 lasers. Another bonus for manufacturers is that the fiber laser doesn’t need a resonator, thus no laser gas is required making cost of operation considerably less.

 

To accommodate all types of varying plate conditions, high-performance 1,180-ipm lifters are available. The patented Slagger self-cleaning table also yields manufacturers maximum performance by reducing table cleaning time. Cleaning time can literally be reduced from hours to minutes, providing more time for cutting instead of cleaning. Also helpful to machine operators is its controls. The professional menu-driven, feature-rich, Global Control Plus CNC easily makes every operator an expert. 

 

Combo considerations

When considering a combination machine, additions to it will play into the purchase decision-making process. Additions like enclosures, shuttle tables and material handling equipment top the wish lists for business owners. Their popularity stems from the ability to help ensure a faster, more economical cutting process:

 

Enclosures

Adding a Class 1 enclosure to a combination machine will ensure safety and protection from spatter, glare, machine and noise. Optional acoustic isolation reduces plasma sound levels outside of the enclosure. With the MetalMaster Xcel, for example, the sound level is reduced to 85 decibels.

 

Shuttle Tables

Shuttle tables increase productivity by allowing the non-cutting time of removing cut parts and material to be done in a separate area while the machine arc on-time continues. They also incorporate servo drives on transfer and elevator stations for combined transfer and elevation, simultaneously reducing dead time and serving as a base for additional material handling equipment.

 

For the Xcel specifically, two shuttle table options are available. One table handles 0.75-in. material thickness and below with another handling 2-in. material thickness and below.

 

Material Handling

With productivity on the forefront of business owners’ minds, additional material handling equipment can speed up the production process. The less product the operators must personally handle, the lower the non-arc-on-time, increasing production – and the bottom line.

 

Messer Cutting Systems' Website

 

Messer Cutting Systems' Facebook

Titans of the industry – Trumpf’s Dr. Berthold Leibinger

Without the trailblazers of the past, the industry wouldn’t be where it is today

by Abbe Miller, editor-in-chief

 

As each day passes, the leading minds in engineering are making significant advances in fabricating technology. And the use of lasers might be one of the most exciting aspects of the fabricating world today because of the capabilities lasers afford manufacturers.

 

The speed in which advancements are occurring also plays into the thrill that the laser brings to the table. It’s nearly inconceivable, however, for someone outside of the research community to fully understand the current strides that are being made in laser fabricating.

 

For the layman who truly wants to understand the contemporary laser-cutting landscape, the best place to start is the beginning. By looking back at the early achievements in laser innovation, so much can be understood in regard to what’s happening today. By doing so, one can also get a better feel for where the technology might be headed.

 

And that’s exactly why the team at Shop Floor Lasers is so excited about our new series, “The Titans of the Industry.” Throughout 2015, we’ll be highlighting the men and women that have shaped the laser industry. And as far as we’re concerned, it makes perfect sense to start with Dr. Berthold Leibinger, who some might say introduced the laser to his home country of Germany.

 Dr. Berthold Leibinger

 

 

A prestigious prize

For those who recognize Dr. Leibinger’s name, it might be due to the highly regarded eponymous award named for his legacy. Titled the Berthold Leibinger Innovationspreis, the award “honors scientists and developers who make advancements in the field of laser technology,” explained the editors at the Berthold Leibinger Foundation. “Since 2000, the Berthold Leibinger Stiftung [Foundation] has given the award every two years for excellent research and development work on the application or generation of laser light.”

 

The editors go on to explain that the award is “one of the highest remunerated international innovation prizes for laser technology. Three prizes are handed out with a total of €60,000, none of it earmarked for a specific purpose.”

 

In fact, one of Dr. Leibinger’s venerable award winners from 2012 will be highlighted in an upcoming issue. TeraDiode, a manufacturer of direct diodes and headed up by MIT graduates, earned its place in the short list of recipients thanks to its work on a concept for direct-diode lasers with high brightness called “wavelength beam combining.” Other winners have included the BMW Group as well as Robert Bosch GmbH.

 

An innovator is born

Looking back at Leibinger’s career, it’s easy to understand why one of the most prestigious awards in lasers was given his namesake. Even in his early years, Leibinger had his pulse on the burgeoning laser industry.

 

Born in 1930 in southern Germany, Leibinger – the man who would eventually propel Trumpf into the forefront of innovation – was destined to be a leader for the industry. For starters, his hometown of Stuttgart was just an hour’s drive from Albert Einstein’s birthplace. The region has long since been known as a high-tech hub for Europe.

 

In 1917, Einstein had published his proof of light amplification, which would later be applied to physicist Theodore Harold Maiman’s work when developing the first functioning laser in 1960.

 

A decade prior to Maiman’s achievement, however, Leibinger had just graduated with abitur – a designation given to students upon the passing of their final exams in secondary school. In Germany and a handful of other European countries, an abitur is often followed by an apprenticeship and so was the case for Leibinger. Not surprisingly, his took place at Trumpf.

 

During those days – the early 1950s – Trumpf had just surpassed the $1 million milestone in sales and was making a name for itself as the leader in stationary nibbling machines. Prior to laser cutting and other modern cutting devices, nibbling machines were the go-to method for cutting contours in metal.

 

 

 

From there and back again

After studying mechanical engineering at the Stuttgart Technical University, Leibinger returned to Trumpf and landed a permanent job as a development engineer. As Leibinger was getting his career off the ground, researchers in the United States were working to produce a tool that could use heat to cut curves in thin sheet metal.

 

With so much development happening in the United States, Leibinger was fortunate to once again find himself just a short trip from the center of laser innovation. From 1958 to 1961 he was living in Ohio and serving as the development engineer at Cincinnati Milling Machines, known as one of the largest builders of milling equipment.

 

Western Electric, which would later take credit for producing the first laser cutting equipment, established its Engineering Research Center near Princeton, N.J., in 1958. There, more than 400 researchers and engineers were developing various manufacturing technologies, including the application of lasers for industrial processes.

 

After working in the United States for three years, however, Leibinger returned to Germany in 1961 to manage Trumpf’s assembly department. By 1966, he became a partner in the company and its chief technical officer. By 1968, he had developed the first contour nibbling machine tool featuring a numerical control. Across the pond, research continued.

 

According to an article published in the German magazine Laser Technik Journal, “One of Trumpf’s representatives in America predicted that the laser would replace nibbling entirely.” After pondering this new report, Leibinger “then devoted intense interest to laser technology and the options it offered.”

 

At that time, Trumpf was known as the “Nibbler King,” referring to the stationary nibbling equipment that had cemented the company’s recognition as a global player in the metal fabricating world. Despite the rumors, lasers had not yet fully come into maturity. Maiman himself had mentioned that the laser was “a solution in search of a problem.”

 

Trumpf, with its nibbler, however, saw its sales exceed $10 million USD by the late 1960s. At that same time, the company was gearing up to establish Trumpf Inc., its first subsidiary in the United States.

 

In the United States, in the midst of the uncertainty voiced by Maiman and others, electrical engineer and physicist C. Kumar N. Patel had developed the CO2 laser, which was considered a major step toward using the laser in industrial manufacturing. Leibinger considered Patel’s achievement as yet another reason to pursue the technology as a new tool for Trumpf.

 

 

Forging on

Today, Trumpf Inc. is the company’s second-largest location as well as one of the largest manufacturers of fabricating machinery in the United States. Shortly after it was established, Leibinger along with Hugo Schwarz assumed ownership of the parent company Trumpf in 1972.

 

With Leibinger at the helm and innovation on his mind, Trumpf would grow like never before. Leibinger’s contour nibbling machine tool with numerical control enabled “fully automatic work at the machine, right down to tool changes, for the very first time,” explained the editors at Trumpf.

 

“All the information required to process sheet metal [could be] stored on perforated computer tape. The Trumatic 20 caused a sensation at the 11th European Machine Tool Exhibition in Paris.”

 

In Schramberg, Germany, the Carl Haas company was working on its own sensation. It was working toward a way to better produce springs for clocks. So yet again, cutting-edge research in the laser field was happening right in Leibinger’s backyard. Because of the precision required, lasers looked to be a good option to incorporate into the welding process as they would not directly touch the pieces being worked on.

 

In conjunction with Paul Seiler, one of the fathers of the modern-day laser, Carl Haas specially developed a solid-state laser to achieve the precision the clock springs required. This laser would prove unmatched for Carl Haas as well as for the manufacturing needs at Philips, which was seeing a major ramp-up in interest for its color television sets.

 

As the fabricating world made note of Haas’s new laser, so did Leibinger. After working with a company based in California to help Trumpf produce the firstever combined punch and laser machine with a 500-W CO2 laser, Leibinger was hungry for more. He needed a higher-powered laser that could reliably cut thicker materials.

 

In 1982, the researchers at the German Test and Research Institute for Aviation and Space Flight joined the efforts at Trumpf to develop a 900-W laser. With Trumpf’s release and along with the strides of others, lasers had finally arrived to the fabricating world.

 

Soon thereafter, Trumpf unveiled its own 1- and 1.5-kW laser, propelling the company into the position of a leader in laser-cutting. As Trumpf continued to solidify its role as a leader, Carl Haas was making inroads, as well. The company had created its own laser division, Haas Laser, and had released its study for an industrial 2-kW solid-state laser.

 

The study showed the industry the laser’s true viability as a tool for industrial production in large volumes. Leibinger was pleased with where Trumpf had come in the realm of CO2 lasers, but he also saw the importance of solid-state lasers. According to the article published in Laser Technik Journal, “Leibinger wanted and had to close this gap. And thus the next step appeared to be only logical.

 

“In 1992, Trumpf became a partner in Haas Laser and four years later folded the pioneer in solidstate lasers into the Trumpf parent company,” the article continued. “Paul Seiler, who headed up Haas Laser, continued to hold an executive post until his retirement in 2003.”

 

Lasting legacy

By 1993, thanks to all of the advancements that Trumpf had achieved over the years, Leibinger was able to guide the company toward a laser output of 12 kW. Trumpf, however, would not stop there. In the years to come, the company would further increase its lasers’ output to 20 kW.

 

Also in the years to come, Trumpf surpassed the $2 billion mark in worldwide sales and grew from a company of about 100 employees in 1939 to a company of more than 11,000 employees today. It is not hard to fathom that Leibinger’s drive and continued focus on lasers was what helped make Trumpf’s impressive growth a reality. In his autobiography, he refers to the laser as “the most important product of the Trumpf Group.”

 

In 2005, Leibinger’s daughter, Nicola Leibinger-Kammüller became chairwoman of the managing board while her brother, Peter, was appointed vice chairman of the Trumpf Group. Together, they ensure Leibinger’s strong commitment to advancing laser technology continues at Trumpf. Leibinger himself took a seat on the supervisory board, which he chaired until his retirement with Trumpf in 2012.

 

Since 2013, he has spent his time as the chairman of the board of trustees for the Berthold Leibinger Foundation. He is also the chairman of the board of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart – an organization that fosters international concerts and workshops focused on the music of Johanne Sebastian Bach. He’s also the chairman of the Friends of the Schiller National Museum and the German Literature Archives.

 

As a dedicated life-long learner, Leibinger received his doctorate degree in 2014 from the Faculty of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the Vienna University of Technology. Essentially, his commitment to innovation in the industry has never stopped. Since his initial apprenticeship with Trumpf 65 years ago, he has truly been and will forever be a titan of the industry.

 

Trumpf

Get This Magazine

Join over 60,000 professionals and executives to receive our magazine in your email inbox for FREE. Every issue will give you great editorial to help your business stay productive and profitable.

Subscribe Now