“It all started with sailcloth”

© Photo | Sarah Martinsen

In 1978, William Lawson founded one of the first laser processing companies in America. In the following interview, he shares with us how he built up a customer base back when laser technology was still in its infancy.

Do you see yourself as an American laser pioneer?

If a pioneer is someone who is one of the first to do something, then yes. You could certainly say that our company pioneered the practical application of lasers in production. My wife Rita and I started our company, Laser Machining, Inc., in 1978 in the basement of our house – not in the garage, sadly. “Began as a garage startup” somehow sounds better.

William Lawson

William Lawson studied mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis. In 1978, he and his wife, Rita, founded the company Laser Machining, Inc. (LMI) in Somerset, Wisconsin, one of the first American suppliers of laser systems for industrial applications. In 2002, Lawson sold LMI to Preco Industries and founded NewTech Development, a consulting company. Since then he has been helping companies that want to succeed with new technologies in emerging markets. In his spare time, Lawson can be found flying his seaplane or tinkering in his workshop, working on projects such as a dirt bike with two-wheel drive.

You and lasers – how did this love story start?

In 1976 I had finished my college degree in electromechanical design and was working as a consultant engineer for small businesses. An old friend from college where I was chief engineer at Harken Yacht Fittings, put me in touch with a company, North Sails, that was making sails for large boats and that had begun to design its products using a computer. They asked me to build them a plotter for printing patterns on polyester sailcloth. As we were working on the project, the question arose of how we could improve the technique for cutting the polyester sails, and we came up with laser light as an option. So I travelled to Cleveland to visit a contract manufacturer who was doing laser processing with a 50 watt CO2 as part of its business, and carried out some tests there. It turned out that laser cutting wasn’t an economically viable option in this case. But I had seen my first laser.

So what impact did this encounter have on you?

One thing fascinated me above all else: there was no trace of any marks in the area immediately around the cut, by which I mean within one or two hair widths away. On the basis of what I knew about thermal processes, I found this very intriguing. I liked the idea that it was possible to concentrate and control energy in this way, and thought to myself: this is a good business opportunity. After that, the second laser I ever saw in my life was one that I myself owned. I’d asked my mother to lend me 15,000 dollars, and she was crazy enough to agree to the loan. I used this capital to buy a 50-watt CO2 laser and put it in my basement. Our first kid was crawling around upstairs, while down in the basement I was experimenting with the laser machine.

The second laser I ever saw in my life was one that I myself owned
William Lawson

Laser Machining, Inc. (LMI)

LMI started out as a contract manufacturer with a 50-watt CO2 laser, but soon began to build complete laser machines for customers. The company rapidly grew to be an international market leader with 225 employees. Over 25 years, LMI developed and built over a thousand cutting, welding and marking laser systems. In the company’s history, there have only been two customers who received a refund because the machine did not do what was promised.

How did you get the word out about your business?

As a company working with new technology, we had to make sure we were noticed. At the time there was a publication called “Thomas Register of American Manufacturers” that listed every company producing goods in the United States. It was a green book of 30 or so thick volumes – a real monster, but as such it was seen as a kind of bible for anyone searching for manufacturers. I talked to one of the editors, and they introduced “laser machining” as a category to accommodate our company. It was a simple but very effective form of advertising! Once the new issue hit the shelves, our phone wouldn’t stop ringing – “Star Wars” was playing in theaters at the time, and people thought laser beams were amazing!

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From job shop to integrator in no time: In the early days of the company Lawson had to find many practical solutions to achive good beam quality and control the light.

What did the people calling you want?

Initially, it was typical wide-ranging job-shop type requests. All we could really do with our compact 50-watt laser was cut or drill small holes in plastic components for use in products such as copy machines. Since we didn’t have much power at our disposal, and faced with a host of practical issues to address, we set about finding solutions to questions such as how to achieve good beam quality and manipulate the beam to manufacture the best parts.

“Star Wars” was playing in theaters when we started our business. People thought laser beams were amazing!
William Lawson

That approach, building your own equipment, goes beyond what a standard job shop is about, doesn’t it?

I suppose so, yes. Contract manufacturing had long been an important and reliable pillar for our company. In no time at all, however, we also started integrating laser systems, buying laser sources and building our own systems around them to sell as a full unit. One of the ideas we developed was a control mechanism for the cutting process that could control the laser power relative to the actual movement of the part. This power control allowed us to regulate and control the energy input much more precisely. This was necessary because of following error in high speed servo systems. We also built a machine that could engrave nonmetals– in other words, the first practical laser engraving system using conventional black and white copy as the input.

Lawson and the laser

Lawson holds 13 patents in the US and several related foreign patents, most of them in laser material processing, such as one for a “steered Laser Beam system with laser power control” (US Patent 6177648). Since 1998, Lawson has been actively involved as part of the Laser Institute of America, serving as president in 2003.

How did you convince industrial customers of the benefits of this brand-new laser technology?

Nowadays, lasers are standard tools in many industries – but in the 1980s, this was out of the question. We had to put a lot of effort into winning people over. You see, it’s the same in every sector: Once a manufacturer has figured out how to make a product, as a general rule they’re inclined to stick to what they know works. In terms of unwanted expense, a manufacturing process that fails is the worst thing that can happen to a company. That’s why people are hesitant when someone approaches them at a trade show and starts suggesting they change their manufacturing process. In order to convince them to try using lasers, you first have to talk to the customer at length, in order to find out what they’re trying to do and whether lasers would be an economical way to do it. And then you have to do the tests and produce the samples that prove what you’re promising is possible. Having the experience manufacturing parts in the laser job shop as part of the business, and being able to make sample and production parts for a customer, was very useful in this process. Once customers see for themselves that a laser process delivers the same quality many times faster and, or better than they can achieve using existing methods, it becomes easy to convince them. Incidentally, even today there are still the likes of the food or textile industries that haven’t yet warmed to the idea of using laser technology. They are so risk adverse because of their low profitability that it takes them a very long time to adopt a new method of manufacturing.

Your website includes a list of books as recommended reading for companies, including “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, which dates from the 5th century BC. What did you learn from this Chinese military strategist?

If you read between the lines, you can take much of what Sun Tzu says about successful warfare and apply it to the world of business. “Understand your enemy” becomes “understand your competitors”, “survey the battlefield” translates into “know your market.” But the most important idea for me was: “know yourself, and know what you’re good at and what you’re not” – this is extremely important for anyone wanting to be successful in business!

Many fundamental developments in laser material processing can be attributed to you. Which is your favorite?

In the early 1990s, we developed our own computer-based control system for our laser cutting machines. There were already lots of good motion control systems available on the market, but they were expensive and not nearly as flexible as we’d have liked. They were good at controlling motion but not good at controlling the laser beam relative to the actual motion of the system. We earned a lot off the back of that system, but that aside, I’ve always loved finding better ways to control laser light.

Do you know the story of the emperor’s new clothes? No one dares tell him he’s naked. This is a big problem for CEOs.
William Lawson

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2002 Lawson sold his prospering Company Laser Machining, Inc. to get closer to his initial passion again: developing new markets with new technologies.

Your company Laser Machining, Inc. had 225 employees as well as international sales offices in Europe and Asia, yet you sold it in 2002. Why?

Do you know the story of the emperor’s new clothes? No one dares tell him he’s naked. This is a big problem for CEOs; employees only tell you the good news, so you don’t get the feedback you actually need. That was one aspect. Another was that I was no longer doing what I actually wanted to be doing – developing markets and making machines. Instead, by the end I was focusing almost exclusively on the financial side of the business, dealing with banks and so on. That brings us back to Sun Tzu: “know yourself.” This was not my primary talent, nor was I having any fun doing it. So it was a good time to pass the company on to someone who wanted to take it to the next level. After that, I went back to working as a freelance consultant, and I’ve been helping companies choose the right laser system for their needs ever since and help emerging technology companies with marketing development. I also help small businesses dealing in new technologies of any kind get a foothold in the market.

You’ll never stop tinkering, will you? Have you got any projects on the go right now?

Oh, yes: full power, full time two-wheel drive systems for motorcycles. For years, these were more or less considered the Holy Grail of motorcycle engineering. A solution had been around on the market for some time, but it was very expensive. My son, who’s also an engineer, found a way to mechanically drive the front wheel using affordable materials and using an advanced front wheel suspension design that retained the full suspension characteristics of rear wheel drive off road motorcycles. We built it together in our workshop, just for fun. Then we realized that there’s an interesting market for this kind of product. Off-road driving in sandy or muddy conditions is hard because you often have to control the bike by sliding the rear wheel. With our two-wheel drive motorcycle, you can always steer using the handlebars with the front wheel pulling in the desired direction. This is ideal for amateurs who just want to do a bit of off-road riding in their spare time. We’re now in the process of turning this into another business or selling the technology to a motorcycle manufacturer. I just can’t help myself.

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