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Nearly 25 years ago, Icon Laser Technologies, a small startup in Florida, developed and patented (Patent 5567207) the first laser-based color-fading process for dyed denim garments and fabrics. Icon’s color-fading process was based on the vaporization of indigo dye using high-power CO2 lasers, high-speed scanning mirrors, novel beam focusing, and specialized software. Icon’s process was later included in the broad definition of “finishing” in the denim apparel industry, and the process was the first to create graphics, text, photos, and simulated abrasion effects on denim garments and fabrics.
Icon’s initial inspiration was to apply laser-based graphic images and also stonewashing effects, which were popular at the time. We knew that when scaled to industrial levels, such a process would not only revolutionize denim finishing but could lead to a significant reduction in water usage and water pollution.
An Icon Laser Technologies retail laser system in the Levi’s flagship store in London in 1999. Icon co-founder Wayne Shaffer performs a calibration (left). Jeans showing special effects produced by a laser (right). Courtesy of Rofin-Sinar UK Ltd. and William Lockman.
In those days, millions of gallons of water were contaminated in the finishing of denim garments. Stonewashing led to massive discharges of contaminated water, typically in countries such as Mexico, Pakistan, and India, because they had almost no water pollution standards or regulations. After dyeing — a source of pollution — a process of mechanical abrasion required more water to remove much of the same dye from the fabric.
In the mid-1990s, when Icon introduced laser-based denim finishing, abrasion effects were at the time applied to denim by sandblasting and mechanical abrasion. Unprotected workers inhaled sand (silica dust) particles, which was considered to be dangerous — even deadly — for personnel working in the denim sandblasting industry.
As engineers, we found the existing processes to be highly wasteful and illogical, and we knew there had to be a better way.
Icon’s process vaporized the dye and removed it via a fume extraction and filtration system. Continued process development led to the refinement of color-faded abrasion effects on denim. Icon established the first laser-based denim-finishing operation that used several high-power CO2 lasers to apply graphics and images to tens of thousands of garments. Areas on the thighs and seats of denim garments were faded to simulate the look of a well-worn pair of jeans. Even simulated creases, known as “cat’s whiskers,” which are still routinely created on jeans, furthered the illusion of worn and creased denim.
In 1998, Icon licensed the process to Levi Strauss and installed high-power denim-marking systems in its flagship stores in San Francisco and London. This was followed by the development and sale of our own laser-based denim-processing systems.
Conversations with and information given to Spanish denim finisher Jeanologia allowed it to enter the market as well. Since then, Jeanologia has done much to advance the technology and to help the environment. Jeanologia reduces total water use in denim garment production by blending its denim wet-processing methods with laser-based denim finishing.
In 2003, Icon licensed its process to the Italian denim equipment manufacturer Tonello, which began incorporating Icon technology into its denim finishing equipment. Manufacturers in China, India, and Pakistan quickly joined the laser-finishing community.
Unfortunately, Icon was unsuccessful in realizing sufficient growth to remain viable, and the company closed in 2006. In an interesting turn of events, several Icon Laser Technology founders were issued subpoenas for a case brought to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) in 2014.
One of our early competitors was attempting to prevent the import of any and all denim garments that had been finished via laser processing. Because Icon’s original team was able to provide early records and dated logbooks, it was established that Icon was the original inventor of laser-based denim finishing and the ITC case was dismissed. It is ironic that many of the same companies that relied on our patents to defeat the ITC lawsuit were also infringing on our patent through the importation of denim garments finished using Icon’s process. Ultimately, we resorted to legal means in order to force several infringers to pay damages to Icon.
Currently, over 6000 dedicated laser-based denim systems are in use, operating 24/7 around the world and creating the look of worn denim on millions of pairs of jeans per year. And although the process has taken nearly 25 years to be fully integrated into denim manufacturing, Icon founders are proud to have created this laser application. We launched a new industry based on laser material processing, and we are very pleased at the positive impact our process has had on the environment and in shaping the future of denim finishing.
Meet the author
William Lockman is a systems engineering manager at Raytheon Space and Air Systems and has more than 35 years of experience in the laser electro-optics industry. He has an associate degree in laser electro-optics technology, a bachelor’s degree in electro-optic engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and an MBA from Webster University; email: william.j.lockman@ gmail.com.
Editor’s note: In February, Photonics Spectra (PS) published a short article on its back-page column, “Lighter Side,” about the role of lasers in denim finishing. The article was originally published in 2018 in PS’s sister publication EuroPhotonics. The author of the column received a variety of comments, including a letter from William Lockman, former CEO of Icon Laser Technologies, who was eager to set the record straight regarding the birth of this application more than two decades ago.READ MORE