People often assciate laser with star-wars science fiction. But theidea of lasers–devices that produce an intensely hot, narrow beam oflight–dates back as far as 212 B.
C. when Archimedes used a Burningglass to set fire to Roman ships during the siege of Syracuse.Today’s lasers are a far cry from Archimedes’ magnifyingglass, of course.
(The way they work is explained in the accompanyingbox.) Their use, both independently and as parts of other equipment, hasproliferated during the last 2 decades. And new uses are continuouslybeing developed. Sales of lasers in commercial markets are prjected toincrease 5 Times or more between 1980 and 1990.
Along with the newequipment wil come new jobs. Occupational Implications The development, manufacture, and use of lasers require workerswith many different skills and have resulted in the emergence of newoccupations. Although employment in some occupations will be adverselyaffected, the increasing use of laser technology is expected to resultin overall employment growth.
Many occupations influenced by theincreasing use of lasers are listed in the accompanying box, “LaserOccupations.” The major occupations are discussed blow. The development and manufacture of laser equipment require theexpertise of highly trained scientists and engineers. Althoughengineers and physical scientists constitute less than 2 percent of thetotal work force, they make up over 20 percent of the work force in somelaser manufacturing firms. At the applications of lasers expand, moreelectrical, communications, mechanical, optical, design, and processengineers will be needed to design and devdelop lasers and laser systemsand processes. Sales engineers who can demonstrate and explain thecharacteristerics of lasers to potential buyers salso will be in demand.More safety engineers will be needed to safeguard workers from blindnessand other serious injuries caused by the inapropriate use or handling oflasers. Optical engineers will be neede to develop and improve theoptical elements of lasers.
Fiber optics engineers will be needed tohelp develop more efficient light-communications equipment. More physicists with a thorough knowledge of optics and thelight-emitting properties of molecules and other particles of matterwill be needed for research and development. Many will be referred toas electro-optical engineers. More health physicists will be needed assafety officers to set up and enforce safety standards relevant to laserusage. Demand will also be spurred for chemists–primarily physicalchemists–to do research on the light-emitting properties of particles.
Besides scientists and engineers, other highly skilled technicianswill be needed. Although engineering and science technicians (excludingdrafters and surveyors) account for only about 1 percent of all workers,they represent over 10 percent of the work force in some lasermanufacturing firms. Strong demand for engineering and sciencetechnicians is expected, particularly for those with a background inelectrical, mechanical, or optical engineering. A new, veryfast-growing occupation–laser electro-optical technician–has emergedto fill this need. These technicians test and assemble lasers, serviceand maintain laser equipment, and train other technicians. Demand for some semiskilled occupations should be spurred by theincreasing production of lasers.
For example, more specially trainedassemblers will be needed for the less technical assembling and testingoperations in the manufacture of lasers and laser systems. Demandshould also increase for crystal cutters and crystal grinders whoprepare (cut and polish) the optical elements of lasers. New varietiesof glass with improved light-transmission properties are continuouslybeing developed for use in diode lasers used in optical fibers.
Tesetiny elements are made by crystal growers, for whom demand shouldstrengthen. Applications and Occupations Most of the growth related to lasers will be concentrated in twoareas–materials working and health services–which are projected toaccount for at least half of all purchased laser equipment by 1990.Following is a discussion of major laser applications and theoccupations involved. Materials Working. Laser technology will probably have itsgreatest impact on the modification, shaping, and transformation ofmaterials such as metal, rubber, plastic, cloth, and leather.Metalworking, for example, includes annealing or hardening, cutting,drilling, and welding.
Lasers can be used in all these operations,especially on relatively small pieces of metal. The increased use of lasers in metal work could affect manyworkers, such as heat treaters, patternmakers, sheet-metal workers,machine too operators, drill press operators, and welders. Theincreasing use of time-saving and labor-saving laser technology willresult in slower employment growth of some metalworking occupations. Forexample, a machine tool operator may complete an intricate machining jobmore rapidly and precisely using a laser. Sheet-metal workers will beable to work more rapidly, and other workers–for example, drill pressoperators–will be adversely affected by programmed, automated lasersystems. As lasers requiring less energy are developed, extensivemetalworking operations on larger pieces of metal will becomeeconomically feasible; this will accelerate the slowdown in employmentgrowth of heat treaters, welders, and related occupations.
Other occupations, however, will benefit from the new technology.Metalworking laser systems include computer numerical control units thatmonitor and direct lasers. The increasing use of these systems willspur demand for data processing workers such as computer programmers andnumerical-control tool programmers. Lasers are also being used to work many nonmetallic materials, suchas semiconductors, diamonds, cigarette filters, and cloth. They are evenbeing used to make the holes in the plastic nipples of baby bottles. Health Services. Lasers are increasingly used to treat healthproblems.
Thousands of eye operations involving cataracts and detachedretinas are performed every year by ophthalmologists. Otologists performdelicate operations on the inner ear, dermatologists treat skinproblems, laryngologists remove growths from vocal cords, gynecologiststreat problems of the reprouctive system, and neurosurgeons even performbrain surgery–all using lasers transmitted through optical fibers. Medical authorities feel that, by the mid-1990’s, half of allhospitals will be laser-equipped and half of all surgeons anddermatologists will routinely use lasers. Overall, the use of laserswill have little or no effect on the demand for physicians and othermembers of the medical team–nurses, physicians’ assistant, andsurgical technicians.
Lasers will simply become a new weapon in theirmedical arsenal, enhancing efficiency and facilitating patient recovery. Information Handling. The use of lasers in the medical andmaterial working industries is largely related to the heat that a lasergenerates. Many other applications of laser technology grow out of theuse of light to carry information. The use of lasers in the calculatingand memory units of computers, for example, permits storage and rapidmanipulation of large amounts of data.
And audiodisc players use lasersto improve the quality of the sound that they reproduce. The use ofoptical cable to transmit data also relies on lasers; fiber optics isdiscussed further in the next article. The storage capability of lasers combined with laser scanningprocesses have resulted in laser printers–sophisticated reproducingequipment.
Although expensive, they are suitable for some printingjobs–catalogs, newsletters, and business forms, for example. This willreduce the demand for the services of small printing establishments. Employment growth of most printing occupations will be adverselyaffected by the increasing user of laser printers. Their cost isexpected to drop and their performance and quality of output, includingthe introduction of color, are expected to improve. Demand for engraversand strippers will slow down.
The employment of photoengravers,compositors, and typesetters–particularly linotypers–will decline morerapidly. They may be replaced by machine operators of some kind.Employment of printing equipment repairers also will be adverselyaffected; they may be replaced by laser vendor company personnel. Other Applications.
Numerous other uses of lasers range from themundane to the ultrasophisticated. Farmers can more efficiently gradefields and align rows of crops. Environmental scientists can quicklyand precisely measure atmospheric pollution using laser radar.
Andphysicists use them to develop tremendous implosions. Engineers,drafters, and others use lasers to generate holographs that give athree-dimensional representation of an object. Multi-line lasers areused for light displays; skilled technicians known as laserists operatethem. Training and Additional Information Since laser technology is relatively new, few academic programsexist to prepare people for laser-related occupations. However, personsinterested in a career working with lasers do have several trainingoptions. Those interested in research, development, and the highly technicaluses of lasers may prepare by enrolling in the appropriate academicfields–engineering, physics, or chemistry–in colleges anduniversities. Regardless of one’s major field, a strong backgroundin optics is necessary. A bachelor’s degree is imperative, and anadvanced degree is increasingly required.
Further information aboutpreparing for professional careers involving lasers is available fromLaser Institute of America 5151 Monroe St., Suite 118 West Toledo, Ohio 43623. Information on medical and other health careers involving lasers isavailable from American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, Inc.425 Pine Ridge Blvd., Suite 203 Wausau, Wisconsin 54401. People interested in occupations involving the fabrication,assembly, maintenance, and repair of lasers and laser equipment canenroll in one of the growing number of technical institutes traininglaser electro-optical technicians and offering the associate of arts degree. Post-secondary institutions offering technician-level coursesin electrical, mechanical, and optical engineering also can provide asuitable preparation.
Many laser manufacturers and users also offercompany training programs. Further information about careers for lasertechnicians is available from Center for Occupational Research andDevelopment 601C Lake Air Drive Waco, Texas 76710.