People often assciate laser with star-wars science fiction. But the
idea of lasers–devices that produce an intensely hot, narrow beam of
light–dates back as far as 212 B.C. when Archimedes used a Burning
glass to set fire to Roman ships during the siege of Syracuse.
Today’s lasers are a far cry from Archimedes’ magnifying
glass, of course. (The way they work is explained in the accompanying
box.) Their use, both independently and as parts of other equipment, has
proliferated during the last 2 decades. And new uses are continuously
being developed. Sales of lasers in commercial markets are prjected to
increase 5 Times or more between 1980 and 1990. Along with the new
equipment wil come new jobs.
The development, manufacture, and use of lasers require workers
with many different skills and have resulted in the emergence of new
occupations. Although employment in some occupations will be adversely
affected, the increasing use of laser technology is expected to result
in overall employment growth. Many occupations influenced by the
increasing use of lasers are listed in the accompanying box, “Laser
Occupations.” The major occupations are discussed blow.
The development and manufacture of laser equipment require the
expertise of highly trained scientists and engineers. Although
engineers and physical scientists constitute less than 2 percent of the
total work force, they make up over 20 percent of the work force in some
laser manufacturing firms. At the applications of lasers expand, more
electrical, communications, mechanical, optical, design, and process
engineers will be needed to design and devdelop lasers and laser systems
and processes. Sales engineers who can demonstrate and explain the
characteristerics of lasers to potential buyers salso will be in demand.
More safety engineers will be needed to safeguard workers from blindness
and other serious injuries caused by the inapropriate use or handling of
lasers. Optical engineers will be neede to develop and improve the
optical elements of lasers. Fiber optics engineers will be needed to
help develop more efficient light-communications equipment.
More physicists with a thorough knowledge of optics and the
light-emitting properties of molecules and other particles of matter
will be needed for research and development. Many will be referred to
as electro-optical engineers. More health physicists will be needed as
safety officers to set up and enforce safety standards relevant to laser
usage. Demand will also be spurred for chemists–primarily physical
chemists–to do research on the light-emitting properties of particles.
Besides scientists and engineers, other highly skilled technicians
will be needed. Although engineering and science technicians (excluding
drafters and surveyors) account for only about 1 percent of all workers,
they represent over 10 percent of the work force in some laser
manufacturing firms. Strong demand for engineering and science
technicians is expected, particularly for those with a background in
electrical, mechanical, or optical engineering. A new, very
fast-growing occupation–laser electro-optical technician–has emerged
to fill this need. These technicians test and assemble lasers, service
and maintain laser equipment, and train other technicians.
Demand for some semiskilled occupations should be spurred by the
increasing production of lasers. For example, more specially trained
assemblers will be needed for the less technical assembling and testing
operations in the manufacture of lasers and laser systems. Demand
should also increase for crystal cutters and crystal grinders who
prepare (cut and polish) the optical elements of lasers. New varieties
of glass with improved light-transmission properties are continuously
being developed for use in diode lasers used in optical fibers. Tese
tiny elements are made by crystal growers, for whom demand should
Applications and Occupations
Most of the growth related to lasers will be concentrated in two
areas–materials working and health services–which are projected to
account for at least half of all purchased laser equipment by 1990.
Following is a discussion of major laser applications and the
Materials Working. Laser technology will probably have its
greatest impact on the modification, shaping, and transformation of
materials 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 many
workers, such as heat treaters, patternmakers, sheet-metal workers,
machine too operators, drill press operators, and welders. The
increasing use of time-saving and labor-saving laser technology will
result in slower employment growth of some metalworking occupations. For
example, a machine tool operator may complete an intricate machining job
more rapidly and precisely using a laser. Sheet-metal workers will be
able to work more rapidly, and other workers–for example, drill press
operators–will be adversely affected by programmed, automated laser
systems. As lasers requiring less energy are developed, extensive
metalworking operations on larger pieces of metal will become
economically feasible; this will accelerate the slowdown in employment
growth of heat treaters, welders, and related occupations.
Other occupations, however, will benefit from the new technology.
Metalworking laser systems include computer numerical control units that
monitor and direct lasers. The increasing use of these systems will
spur demand for data processing workers such as computer programmers and
numerical-control tool programmers.
Lasers are also being used to work many nonmetallic materials, such
as semiconductors, diamonds, cigarette filters, and cloth. They are even
being used to make the holes in the plastic nipples of baby bottles.
Health Services. Lasers are increasingly used to treat health
problems. Thousands of eye operations involving cataracts and detached
retinas are performed every year by ophthalmologists. Otologists perform
delicate operations on the inner ear, dermatologists treat skin
problems, laryngologists remove growths from vocal cords, gynecologists
treat problems of the reprouctive system, and neurosurgeons even perform
brain surgery–all using lasers transmitted through optical fibers.
Medical authorities feel that, by the mid-1990’s, half of all
hospitals will be laser-equipped and half of all surgeons and
dermatologists will routinely use lasers. Overall, the use of lasers
will have little or no effect on the demand for physicians and other
members of the medical team–nurses, physicians’ assistant, and
surgical technicians. Lasers will simply become a new weapon in their
medical arsenal, enhancing efficiency and facilitating patient recovery.
Information Handling. The use of lasers in the medical and
material working industries is largely related to the heat that a laser
generates. Many other applications of laser technology grow out of the
use of light to carry information. The use of lasers in the calculating
and memory units of computers, for example, permits storage and rapid
manipulation of large amounts of data. And audiodisc players use lasers
to improve the quality of the sound that they reproduce. The use of
optical cable to transmit data also relies on lasers; fiber optics is
discussed further in the next article.
The storage capability of lasers combined with laser scanning
processes have resulted in laser printers–sophisticated reproducing
equipment. Although expensive, they are suitable for some printing
jobs–catalogs, newsletters, and business forms, for example. This will
reduce the demand for the services of small printing establishments.
Employment growth of most printing occupations will be adversely
affected by the increasing user of laser printers. Their cost is
expected to drop and their performance and quality of output, including
the introduction of color, are expected to improve. Demand for engravers
and strippers will slow down. The employment of photoengravers,
compositors, and typesetters–particularly linotypers–will decline more
rapidly. They may be replaced by machine operators of some kind.
Employment of printing equipment repairers also will be adversely
affected; they may be replaced by laser vendor company personnel.
Other Applications. Numerous other uses of lasers range from the
mundane to the ultrasophisticated. Farmers can more efficiently grade
fields and align rows of crops. Environmental scientists can quickly
and precisely measure atmospheric pollution using laser radar. And
physicists use them to develop tremendous implosions. Engineers,
drafters, and others use lasers to generate holographs that give a
three-dimensional representation of an object. Multi-line lasers are
used for light displays; skilled technicians known as laserists operate
Training and Additional Information
Since laser technology is relatively new, few academic programs
exist to prepare people for laser-related occupations. However, persons
interested in a career working with lasers do have several training
Those interested in research, development, and the highly technical
uses of lasers may prepare by enrolling in the appropriate academic
fields–engineering, physics, or chemistry–in colleges and
universities. Regardless of one’s major field, a strong background
in optics is necessary. A bachelor’s degree is imperative, and an
advanced degree is increasingly required. Further information about
preparing for professional careers involving lasers is available from
Laser Institute of America 5151 Monroe St., Suite 118 West Toledo, Ohio 43623.
Information on medical and other health careers involving lasers is
available 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 can
enroll in one of the growing number of technical institutes training
laser electro-optical technicians and offering the associate of arts degree. Post-secondary institutions offering technician-level courses
in electrical, mechanical, and optical engineering also can provide a
suitable preparation. Many laser manufacturers and users also offer
company training programs. Further information about careers for laser
technicians is available from Center for Occupational Research and
Development 601C Lake Air Drive Waco, Texas 76710.