Shaped by lasers

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After 29 years as executive director of the Laser Institute of America, Peter Baker has retired from the role. He looks back at a career filled with laser technology

I fell into the laser world by accident really. I was never one of those people who planned their lives out. When I first went to university, no one had made anything lase yet.

My early career was as a UK government scientist developing star trackers and related equipment. My next job was for a government contractor building and flying sun, moon and star trackers for sounding rockets. This resume attracted the attention of US space contractors during the Vietnam War and I was hired by a US spy camera company.

While I waited for my secret clearance, I was assigned to the funded research group and was given the task of up-converting 10µm radiation to the visible spectrum using a laser. This was 1966. I used ruby and CO2 lasers which I recall worked well. Thanks to my UK contacts, I was able to procure a very special crystal that enabled us to succeed.

Next, in 1969 I was recruited by a two-man startup. They expected me to develop and build YAG lasers to trim thick film resistors on ceramic substrates. This had a new degree of difficulty as this laser had only recently been developed, so all of the major components were suspect in those days. YAG rods bleached out, lamps failed, Q switches delaminated and so on. Keeping them going was difficult. These failures in reliability hurt the early adopters and the resulting bad reputation set the laser industry back, I believe.

Nonetheless, we persisted and sold systems in the US, Japan, Switzerland and Germany. Not only did we trim resistors, we were pioneers in closing the loop and trimming the whole circuit with the active devices in place. This was possible using lasers but most unwise with the previous technology, which depended on eroding the resistive material with a jet of sand.

We had the experience of building the company and opening up markets. We had an IPO in 1972 and were briefly wealthy on paper. Unfortunately, our lack of management experience, another recession and the reliability issues brought us down. We flew like Icarus then came crashing back to earth and lost everything. I took a break, went to Kenya where I taught physics and mathematics for a couple of years.

On my return to the US, I settled on the west coast and sold laser resistor trimmers for Quantrad, which also sold Xenon lasers for trimming thin film resistors. It soon became clear to me that laser marking was very attractive. Technically, it was much easier than trimming resistors and the market had big potential, so in we went.

Baker worked for a funded research group in 1966 using ruby and CO2 lasers

I somehow was promoted from marketing manager to president, and we launched the Quantrad Blazer line of laser marking systems. By this time lasers were much more reliable, good enough for production use, so it was a good market that now accounts for 11 per cent or so of the industrial laser market. By now people were thinking beyond stand-alone systems to include lasers within a sophisticated production line, which yielded still more value in production.

It all took so much longer than I expected for laser technology to be adopted successfully in the workplace. Systems have to be reliable. Fears have to be overcome, fears of being leapfrogged by adopters, fears of job losses by unions and so on.

In fact laser systems are now extremely reliable, with a wide range of wavelengths and pulse widths, which have dramatically increased the possible range of applications. Also the available power and wall plug efficiency has seen a huge increase since I built my first laser in 1970. My laser had a wall-plug efficiency of about 3 per cent. Current lasers approach 50 per cent, which dramatically decreases the power needed to run them. Also my lasers had an average power of 10W.

I ultimately realised that laser adoption was like an expanding bubble. The boundary is knowledge and education. Knowledge of what the laser can do and what it cannot. When we surveyed laser users there is still a critical shortage, at least in the US, of technicians with at least a basic understanding of numbers and science fundamentals.

Baker giving a presentation at Interkama in Dusseldorf, Germany in the early 1970s

I wrote several articles promoting the use of laser marking in industry. As a consequence I was invited to speak at the Laser Institute of America’s (LIA) first conference, the International Laser Material Processing Conference, chaired by David Belforte and Professor Yoshiaki Arata from Osaka University, Japan. I gave a paper on ‘laser marking and serialising’.

I joined LIA as a member and was subsequently invited to become treasurer and later president in 1987. This gave me an insight into the fine work being done in laser applications worldwide.

As I said in the beginning, none of this was planned; I seemed to go from opportunity to opportunity with a stunning loss in between. My next major move was also completely unplanned. LIA decided to make some changes that ultimately resulted in my appointment as executive director in late 1988.

As I look back on it, my career was like Brownian motion with a drift velocity that took me through a number of educational opportunities. I learned how to build lasers, then laser systems, and the importance of reliability. I learned by doing, on the job; learned marketing, sales, HR, production, finance, then finally management and leadership, so you can see how lasers shaped me.

In 1969 Baker was recruited by a two-man startup to develop and build YAG lasers to trim thick film resistors

Baker's first laser in the 1970s had an average power of 10W

On the topic of leadership, I learned what not to do from some of the lesser bosses I had early on. My master class came from my LIA experience, where I worked with a new president each year. Look at the list of presidents and you will see what I mean. Each one is a leader, some from research, some from industry, all of them taught me something, and I am the better for it and very grateful.

The top people are extremely nice people. Of course there are exceptions, but very few. In our industry, there is no lasting success from lying or bullying. True leaders deliver results because they understand people and treat them right.

I believe our industry is alive and well. It is just moving past the ankle of the growth curve so that all readers of this fine magazine can look forward to a very positive and exciting future.