Evolution of Industrial Lasers: Persistence of Marshall Jones leads to revolutionary changes in additive manufacturing

By Steve Brachmann
June 30, 2017

Marshall Jones, Class of 2017. Picture from the National Inventors Hall of Fame website.

Additive manufacturing processes which utilize fabrication techniques like 3D printing to minimize waste byproducts are a key part of future economic growth in industries across the globe. Last April, Forbes published a piece covering a report issued by market research firm Wohlers Associates which indicated that the additive manufacturing industry grew to $5.165 billion in 2015 after experiencing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 26.2 percent over the past 27 years.

In certain additive manufacturing segments, such as laser sintering, metal powders are utilized as a raw material. According to market research firm MarketsandMarkets, the global market for metal powder is expected to increase by a CAGR of 3.8 percent between 2015 and 2020, when the market should eclipse $4 billion in revenue. The sector has seen growing usage of industrial lasers for additive manufacturing processes. From 2014 to 2015, industrial laser revenues increased by 6.9 percent year-over-year to reach a global market size of $3.2 billion. Fiber optic laser revenues have been particularly strong according to statistics published by Industrial Laser Solutions Magazine, increasing by 16 percent from 2014 and 2015 and forecasted to increase another 11 percent in 2016 as of February of that year.

Friday, June 30th, marks the 30th anniversary of a seminal patent issued in the field of fiber optic lasers used in industrial applications. The lead inventor, Marshall Jones, is one of the class of 2017 inductees into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Jones has had a long career in industrial laser development at American tech conglomerate General Electric after rising up from humble beginnings and persevering through academic difficulties. Today, we honor the work of this innovative pioneer and the many years he has dedicated to increasing the power of lasers and the array of industrial applications which they’ve found.

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From Aquebogue to Niskayuna: The Early Life of Marshall Jones

Marshall Jones was born August 1st, 1941, in Southampton, NY, but he spent his earliest years in Aquebogue, NY, a small hamlet in Suffolk County out near the eastern tips of Long Island; his father served in the Navy and Jones lived with his great aunt and uncle on their duck farm. In school, Jones showed a good aptitude for math and science but his reading skills suffered to the point that he had to repeat the fourth grade. In a video produced about his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, he credits the fact that he had to retake the fourth grade with being a major reason why he learned to be persistent in his work much later on.

At the suggestion of a guidance counselor, Jones, whose family didn’t have the resources to send him to a four-year college, pursued an associate’s degree from a two-year school. In 1962, he received his associate of applied science degree from Mohawk Valley Community College. He would go on to pursue studies in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, completing his bachelor’s degree in 1965. Jones continued his engineering studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, obtaining his master’s in 1972 and his Ph.D in 1974.

Jones had thought that his education was leading towards a career in academia until a professor serving on his doctoral committee told him about GE Global Research, the research and development division of General Electric. He was hired by GE Global Research in 1974, the same year he obtained his doctoral degree. Jones joined GE Global Research at a time that the firm was heavily involved in research into both lasers and semiconductors.

Marshall Jones Revolutionizes Industrial Lasers at GE Global Research

The work of Marshall Jones has been of incredible importance to a wide array of industries. A profile on Jones published by GE Reports quotes Dale Lombardo, manager of GE’s Manufacturing Processes Laboratory and a colleague of Jones, as saying:

“At a time when the original Star Wars trilogy and Superman movies dominated people’s imagination with light sabers and superheroes that could bend steel, Marshall was showing how lasers could perform amazing feats in the real world… [The laser applications Jones has developed] have changed the way manufacturing is done, demonstrating new ways to work with the most difficult advanced materials at a speed, cost, and quality that can’t be beat.”

Within a few years, Jones had been promoted to become the manager of the Laser Technology Group at GE Global Research. By 1982, he had directed his research focus towards the improvement of high-power transmissions of laser beams through optical fibers. Fiber optics improve the flexibility of beam steering, helping lasers reach areas of a workpiece which are difficult to access. A major drawback preventing the use of conventional optical fiber lasers in industrial applications at the time of Jones’ research was generating a laser with enough wattage for industry use; fiber optics lasers at that time were used for engraving, cloth cutting and surgical applications at power levels an order of magnitude lower than what was required for metalwork, such as welding different metals together.

The innovative work of Jones that led to his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame is on display in U.S. Patent No. 4676586, titled Apparatus and Method for Performing Laser Material Processing Through a Fiber Optic. Issued on June 30th, 1987, the patent protected an improved method of delivering laser energy to perform metal processing by generating a near infrared or visible wavelength pulsed laser beam, providing a single fiber optic with a quartz core having a diameter of less than 1,000 micrometers as well as cladding and protective shielding for the core end, focusing the laser beam onto the end of the core on a small spot with a diameter less than the core diameter at an including angle of less than 24°, coupling the beam into the fiber optic through air-core and core-cladding zones to transmit energy with a peak power in the kilowatt range, and then focusing the laser beam emerging from the fiber optic onto a workpiece at a power density sufficient for metal processing. The invention resulted in a laser beam delivery system with minimal optical losses and improved freedom of laser beam manipulation capable of being robotically controlled.

Jones’ invention made a serious immediate impact during the 1970s, a decade during which the United States underwent a significant energy crisis. There was industry interest in replacing copper windings in motors with aluminum, a material much less expensive than copper, but mechanical joints between the two metals could create a fire hazard when electrical charges were transmitted. Further, arc welding techniques to weld copper and aluminum created intermetallics, impurities in the joint which caused the welded joint to become brittle. The use of fiber optics laser welding still causes the formation of intermetallics but leaves a much thinner layer of those impurities, resulting in a much stronger joint. According to his entry in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Jones then began working in 1988 to develop a fiber optic system capable of simultaneously splitting a laser beam and heat opposite sides of a workpiece.

As of this May, Schenectady, NY-based The Daily Gazette reported that Jones continues to work at GE Global Research, having earned 55 U.S. patents with more currently pending. Products from nuclear reactor control rods to ceramic metal halide lamps to flat emitters for x-ray tubes have been fabricated using the laser material processing techniques pioneered by Jones. His various career recognitions include being named Black Engineer of the Year in 1994, the Pioneer of the Year Golden Torch Award from the National Society of Black Engineers in 1999, and was elected into the National Academy of Engineering in 2001.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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Discuss this

There are currently 3 Comments comments.

  1. Jeff Lindsay July 2, 2017 10:10 pm

    A great story of persistence and technical excellence leading to valuable inventions and IP. Thanks, and kudos to Marshall Jones!

    Thank goodness he was able to obtain his foundational patents before the current era, where some examiners might be tempted to claim his inventions are not even patentable subject matter. “This is no more than the abstract idea of using energy to heat and melt a material.” Or more diligent examiners might find each of the components of the invention — laser, fiber optic, lens, metal powder, etc. — present in a large handful of scattered references and with clever hindsight explain how it is all obvious. Or in an IPR, a judge, perhaps one with recent connections to a former client now opposing the patent, would readily find the claims unpatentable and the Federal Circuit would affirm without explanation. In the current patent-hostile era, great inventors like Marshall Jones could easily be blocked at every turn and motivated to go elsewhere or just give up. May we make the patent system strong again.

  2. Poesito July 6, 2017 12:00 am

    Of course, this brings to mind the incredible story of Gordon Gould and his long legal struggle with the USPTO to have patents issued for the key foundational technology of the most common types of lasers. To say that Dr. Gould was royally screwed by the USG would be an understatement. The tide of battle shifted in his favor after hooking up with Patlex.

  3. Rick Derris July 6, 2017 12:16 am

    Great story! Fifty-five issued patents – truly an outstanding inventor!