One small step

Feb. 1, 2009
ILS promotes the benefits of laser welding

Elihu Thomson, a young researcher at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, accidentally fused two wires together while experimenting with the discharge of battery current from Leyden jars through the secondary of a spark coil. In 1886, after several years of experimentation on heating by the passage of low-current, high-amperage electricity to cause fusion, he filed a patent on the basic idea of electric resistance welding.

He formed the Thomson Electric Welder Company (a company I was many years later to co-own) to take advantage of this fusion technology as a replacement for other methods of joining, such as the blacksmith's hammering of almost molten material to form a joint. I wrote (Welder's World May/June 1967) a history of this company and said, “Unfortunately the resistance welding technique did not gain immediate acceptance by metal fabricators, who were reluctant to invest sums of money in equipment which was untried and presumably unproven.”

I went on to say, “…it was more than a machine which Thomson was trying to sell, it was a radically new concept.” The first of his machines, leased to the Joseph Roebling Company, were used to butt weld cables for the Brooklyn Bridge, and this likely provided the technology endorsement so badly need to move the process into the mainstream.

The above should establish my bona fides to comment on the current state of acceptance of another welding technology, the industrial laser. I have been involved in all phases of welding, except for stick electrode, for several decades, starting when I brashly wanted to change the Thomson Electric name to Fusion Dynamics to reflect the modern company's evolution to a full technology supplier of welding equipment such as electron beam.

While researching the article for Welder's World I accessed records and communications stacked in the company's vault that documented the reasons why they had decided to lease welders rather than sell them outright; because users were not convinced that resistance welding was their optimal solution. By leasing and charging only for every successful spot weld they could spread the technology to a less than enthusiastic market.

Subsequent patent litigation, some say promulgated by the Ford Motor Company, a large user of resistance spot welding for World War I military vehicles, broke Thomson's near monopoly in the market. However, by this time the technology had become firmly established.

I raise the issue of industry acceptance of the laser in response to claims (appearing on the Web in market analysts' reports) of an anticipated dramatic rise (some say 20%) in the application share of laser welding.

Considering what Elihu Thomson experienced (incidentally he went on to merge another of his companies, Thomson-Huston, with Edison General Electric to form General Electric) with lack of user acceptance and similar experiences with the introduction of myriad other welding techniques, I have concluded that laser welding is not a technology- or market-driven process. In my view it is very much an alternative choice whose acceptance is derived from its understanding by welding and design engineers.

Former Vice-President Al Gore has shown that a one-on-one approach can raise the public's awareness, so maybe ILS and others interested in growing laser welding can do the same.

David A. Belforte
[email protected]

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