June 21, 2022 

History of Laser Technology: Fiber and CO2 Systems

The 1960s were an important time in the history of laser technology, and some of the first laser marking systems were developed.

When it comes to high-speed coding solutions, it’s tough to beat the sheer power provided by a laser marking system. Across the manufacturing and packaging spectrum, laser marking systems have become increasingly popular in recent decades due to their:

  • Industrial marking speeds.
  • 24/7 coding abilities.
  • Consistently excellent coding results.
  • Wide substrate compatibility.
  • Low consumable requirements.

From industrial beverage lines to pharmaceutical development facilities, line operators prize laser marking systems for their ability to deliver great results at industrial speeds. 

However, laser marking systems weren’t always so popular. Just a few decades ago, laser systems carried price tags that most operations couldn’t afford. Moreover, their operational capabilities were considerably lower than those offered by other marking systems of the time. 

So, how did laser marking systems go from an out-of-reach technology to one of today’s most popular coding solutions? To provide a succinct answer, we spend this article looking at the history of laser technology, focusing on two of today’s most important laser systems: fiber laser systems and CO2 laser systems.

The Developmental History of Laser Marking Technologies

Our goal in writing this historical overview isn’t to provide a comprehensive look at laser technology development—instead, we will review the origins and development timeline of today’s top two laser marking technologies:

It took decades to develop both of these systems into what they are today, and each one has unique application specialties. 

For basic background info on these laser options, read below to read some of their basic specialties and development timelines.

Fiber Laser Systems: Basic Operating Principles and Development

Fiber laser systems are a solid-state laser technology, meaning they use solid materials as a laser source. In every fiber laser system is a component called a diode, which produces light and pumps it into a fiber-optic cable. The light travels through the fiber optic cable until it reaches an optical cavity. There, the light is exposed to a rare-earth dopant that increases the intensity of the light and converts it into a concentrated beam that can mark, engrave, and cut solid materials. 

Fiber laser systems are known for being highly powerful and adept at working with metals such as aluminum, steel, copper, brass, and nickel, as well as rigid plastics. 

The first fiber laser was built and operated by Elias Snitzer in 1961. Working at American Optical in Southbridge, Massachusetts, Snitzer and his colleagues spent the next few years refining fiber optics until they were able to produce the first fiber laser system in 1963. 

Although Snitzer is remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of fiber laser development, there were several other important individuals in the history of fiber laser technology. For example:

  • In 1917, Albert Einstein set the stage for all laser system development by discovering ”stimulated emission.” This discovery effectively marks the beginning of the history of laser marking.
  • In 1957, Gordon Gould established the theoretical framework for how laser systems could operate.
  • In 1960, Narinder Kapany coined the term “fiber optics.”
  • In 1964, Charles Kao and George Hockham discovered how to remove impurities from glass fibers and thus improve light retention.
  • In 2004, David N. Payne invented the single-mode silica fiber laser and amplifier, enabling stronger and more effective laser marking.

CO2 Laser Systems: Basic Operating Principles and Development

CO2 laser systems are a gas-state laser technology, meaning they use gaseous materials as a laser source. Each CO2 laser system is built with a glass tube containing a mix of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium, and hydrogen. By exposing the tube’s gaseous mix to high-voltage electricity, the system excites the gas particles and causes them to release light. 

To turn the released light into a laser beam, the CO2 laser tube is bookended by two mirrors: a fully reflective mirror and a partially reflective mirror. The released light particles bounce between the mirrors, building in intensity and forming a beam. Once the light reaches sufficient brightness, the beam can pass by the partially reflective mirror and be discharged toward the substrate. 

Due to these operating mechanics, CO2 laser beams have longer wavelengths than those made with fiber systems. As a result, CO2 laser systems are not well-suited for most metal marking applications. However, they do fare well with marking organic materials, such as wood and rubber, that fiber lasers are incompatible with.

Here’s a condensed timeline of some major CO2 laser milestones:

  • In 1963, Kumar Patel of AT&T Bell Labs developed the first CO2 system. Patel’s system offered lower operating costs and higher efficiency than other laser systems of the day, helping CO2 laser systems become the most popular industrial laser technology for the decades that followed. 
  • In 1965, Eugene Watson launched Coherent Radiation Laboratories to build CO2 laser systems for commercial use.
  • In 1967, Peter Houldcroft of The Welding Institute used a CO2 laser system to cut through a metal sheet. This marked the first commercial application of a CO2 laser system.

After these major developments in the 1960s, engineers continued to refine CO2 laser technology throughout the 1970s and 1980s, expanding application possibilities.

 For information on how today’s leading coding/marking companies have leveraged fiber and CO2 laser technology in their hardware, read our thoughts in one of our latest articles.

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C&M Digest Team

The C&M Digest Team is composed of experts from across the coding and marking world. Comprised of ink developers, hardware veterans, and engineers, our News Team delivers informed coverage that is always free from brand bias.

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