Lasers were invented in 1960 when Theodore Maiman at the Hughes Research Laboratory put into practice physics theories about the excitable nature of individual atoms. He realized that one could effectively confine light to a high-energy beam, with potentially transformative effects.
Since this discovery, the laser found its way into dozens of applications but few people today realize just what a remarkable impact this invention has had on all our lives. It’s fair to say that the laser has been transformative, dramatically altering the face of business, and changing the way that the modern economy operates. Quite remarkable for something so apparently simple.
Scientists originally developed lasers with the intention of them having military applications. Researchers at labs, like DARPA, recognized the need for light-based tools which could do things like sense range, lock on to oncoming enemy missiles, and find targets with high accuracy. Technology hadn’t allowed that until that point because there was no way to focus light in straight lines that made use of this property.
Lasers helped spawn entirely new defense applications, allowing defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to offer a host of new products that would bring military technology into the modern era. Laser led to the development of today’s ubiquitous cruise missiles, drones, and anti-air defense systems. Without lasers, we might still be stuck in the era of mass civilian casualties and “collateral damage.” But now it is possible for companies to develop weapons projects that can (at least in theory) surgically strike military targets without harming civilians.
Ever since Einstein, company researchers have known that light is the fastest and most efficient way to transport information. But getting light to travel along a wire was a challenge. Glass fibers leaked light, reducing the efficiency of fiber optics and bumping up power requirements. It was not ideal.
Lasers changed all that. Laser technology provided a kind of light that would easily travel through the medium supplied by fiber optic cables so that data could be communicated at the speed of light in the densest, most efficient way known to technologists at the time.
Fiber optics changed business forever. It provided companies and households with lightning-fast internet connections, made dial-up redundant, and brought infrastructure up to the standard required by a data-dependent economy.
Lasers revolutionized the medical tool industry. Whereas before companies had to rely on bulky machine tools to machine their delicate components, they could now count on lasers. Drilling with a laser is far more accurate than with a traditional drill bit, allowing businesses to supply medical devices to laboratories and hospitals that were fine-tuned to their specific needs. At last, companies could provide apparatus with feature sizes on the micron-scale, making it possible, for instance, to create needles with tiny apertures for injecting material into individual cells. Today’s cauterizers and scalpels rely on lasers.
Some medical devices use lasers directly in their operation. New cancer treatments rely on lasers to accurately target individual cells without damaging adjoining healthy tissue.
Although driverless cars still elude us, today’s vehicles already offer driving assistance technologies. Major manufacturers offer all kinds of driving assistant technologies, including lane-assist, parking-assist, braking-assist and so on. Many of these technologies rely on a form of laser technology called LIDAR. LIDAR works a bit like radar, except rather than pinging out soundwaves and measuring the time it takes for the signal to return, it pings out light instead. The longer the light takes to return to the sensor, the more distant the object.
LIDAR gives vehicles information about how far they are from objects in the rest of the environment. Companies, including Google and GM, want to use this technology to continue to build the autonomy of vehicles, potentially until the point where they no longer require a human driver. Prices for laser-based ranging equipment were once high, but with advances in manufacturing, that’s no longer the case. Costs fell a hundred-fold over the last decade and a half, making such technologies viable for a much broader swath of vehicles. Soon we could see laser technology in all new cars, providing a plethora of new automated services.
Manufacturing Of Electronics Components
Motherboards – the master boards in most electronics products – have complicated circuits. Creating these circuits would be difficult without laser etching technologies. Mainboards would necessarily be far less complicated, increasing the size of devices and making things like smartphones far more expensive to manufacture.
Lasers brought down the cost of printing circuits onto boards, allowing designers to create fabulously complicated layouts that conformed to product ergonomics, rather than manufacturing limitations.
Barcodes helped to reduce retail costs and improve customer experience. In the past, cashiers had to manually enter the price of each product sold into a calculator using price tags. It was a laborious process that became untenable with the advent of supermarkets. People bought lots of products all in a single shopping visit and didn’t want to spend hours at the checkout. Businesses didn’t want to spend a lot of wages to process all this either, and so they needed a solution.
Barcode scanners arrived in the 1970s and relied on low-powered lasers to feed information to a computer which could recognize the input from a barcode. Retailers could scan products and use a simple computer to calculate the total price. Checkout queues diminished, and consumers could be in and out quicker than ever before.
QR codes rely on similar technology.
Cell phones use low-powered microwaves to transmit information between the device and the network of cell towers. But few people realize just how much companies like Verizon and AT&T rely on lasers to provide a reliable, useful service.
It turns out that lasers help to improve the properties of cell phone waves. Without them, call quality would suffer.
Modern manufacturing relies on taking sheets of metal and then processing them into the desired form. The car industry and many others rely on cutting technologies that can cost-effectively transform metal. Until the invention of the laser, industry relied on using cutting implements that made direct contact with the metal itself. Friction-based methods increased the costs to trade because of the enormous wear-and-tear on the cutting tools. It was just so expensive to replace them after every batch or so of metal.
Laser cutting changed all this. Instead of being in contact with the material, laser cutters directly fired high-energy beams of particles into the metal, heating and cutting it indirectly. Companies could use lasers for years, without having to replace them, allowing them to lower prices and, importantly, cut more accurately. Laser cutting is more precise even than plasma cutting methods, allowing sub-micron tolerances in a range of manufactured goods. Being able to consistently and accurately cut metal without the associated costs brought down the price of products and increased the level of detail and customization that was possible.
How do companies make sure that their products have attained the desired quality? With a great deal of difficulty usually. But some industries have benefited from lasers to automate quality control checking. For instance, bottle manufacturers use lasers to check the quality of their wares. They shine lasers through bottles and then read the feedback to determine whether they have the desired material properties.
The Entertainment Industry
The entertainment industry is an enormous and growing industry. But it wouldn’t be the spectacle that it is today without lasers. Most live performances, especially at festivals, make use of lasers. Lasers are great for creating interesting displays in a way that traditional lighting cannot.
Major companies all over the world use lasers too to promote their brands and create a buzz. Microsoft, for instance, has used lasers at trade shows to showcase its brand. Others have used lasers to illuminate signs at trade shows or to light up the sky on a cloudy evening.
The Computer And Music Industry
Lasers were instrumental in helping to create the modern music industry. In fact, lasers were an enabling technology for CDs because of the speed at which they could operate. CDs work a little bit like conventional vinyl. A CD has a series of pits and space etched into it. The holes signify a “1” while the spaces a “0” transforming a material object into the carrier of a digital code. Using focused light, a laser could scan these pits and spaces at incredible speed, allowing CDs to do all sorts of data-intensive things, like play music or video.
So in conclusion, it is clear that lasers made a big difference to the world of business. They transformed an enormous range of industries, from medicine to music, and made our lives better as a consequence. It is probably fair to say that the impact of lasers on wealth and health is second only to that of the computer over the last fifty year, cementing it as a truly fundamental technology to the modern economy. Does your business use lasers?