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WESTMINSTER -- In a workroom at Laser Applications Inc., employees cover their ears with headsets before the water jet roars and begins slicing a piece of fiberglass into a helicopter blade.

The water fires at the fiberglass at twice the speed of sound, thundering like anairplane barreling down a runway, but cutting like a precision tool.The stream is about .006 of an inch thick and flows from a device mounted on a 10-foot frame guided by a computer.

Nearby, an employee watches another water jet carve holes in sheets of glass that will be used in top-of-the-line stereo equipment. A fine abrasive material that looks like shiny, brown sand adds cuttingpower to the water.

Throughout the cavernous work area at LAI, inthe Air Business Center, employees use water or laser beams to cut through rubber, cloth, metal and other materials for a variety of customers.

Vickie W. Evans of New Oxford, Pa., sits on a stool with a fan blowing to cool her as she places under a set of six lasers smallsquares of plastic that will become fuel and temperature gauges in General Motors trucks.

A machine spins around a tool guiding the laser beams, enabling

them to make smooth cuts in the plastic. When truck sales were better some months ago, LAI was processing 120,000 of these parts a week, said James Wollenweber, sales engineer for the company.

LAI employees make parts for customers in the electronics, medical, aerospace, automotive and manufacturing industries, and also has military contracts, he said.

About half of LAI's customers are from the auto industry; most are on the East Coast, although the company works with businesses as far away as Hawaii.

The company has 11 lasers -- ranging from 100 to 5,000 watts of power -- that it uses to drill, cut and weld various metals. Using focused beams of light, lasers can make cuts more exact and intricate than traditional methods, Wollenweber said. The lasers can weld spots as small as .005 of an inch in diameter and drill holes as small as .004 of an inch.

The 5,000-watt laser machine and work station cost about $250,000, Wollenweber said.

The company's six water jets, which can exert up to 60,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, are used to cut materials, such as rubber or certain metals that could be damaged by the heat of lasers or traditional tools, Wollenweber said. The company has used the technology since 1985, he said.

The water used in the process must be extremely clean; it is filtered seven times, he said.

Water augmented with the abrasive garnet material is used at LAI to cut through laminated glass 1 1/4 inches thick that will be made into shatter-proof windows for Army tanks, Wollenweber said. Water also has been used on other projects to cut through aluminum 7 1/2 inches thick and titanium 3 1/4 inches thick, he said.

The University of Maryland announced last month that LAI received a state grant to develop computer software that will make the operation of the water jet more flexible through advanced robotic technology.

The company received $70,000 from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships program and willcontribute $35,000 in cash and $35,000 in services and equipment forthe project, said Judith Mays, a MIPS spokeswoman.

Twenty-one MIPS grants totaling about $1 million were awarded in the second half of1990 to companies working on technical or scientific projects, she said.

LAI employees are working on the year-long computer software project with a mechanical engineering professor at the university, engineer Scott G. Jorda said.

The object is to develop technology that will be "user-friendly," easy to set up and affordable for small businesses.

Annual sales at LAI are about $4 million a year. The company employs about 42 people, down from about 60 before the recession. It has 43,000 square feet of work space, Wollenweber said.

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