Trolling for the next big hit

During vacation time, in a relaxing mode, we thinkers tend to let our synapses relax and let fresh thoughts flow through to fill the vacant spaces. For me, it happens to also be the time I begin to think about the ILS editorial content for the coming year, as we prepare the media kit which will contain the 2013 editorial calendar.

Fishing is not actually my thing, so illustrator Chris Hipp and I have exercised a little poetic license to make a point. Fishing is one of the sporting activities that lends itself to contemplation, as events can move slowly followed by bursts of action that get the juices flowing, stimulating the synapses. Deep-sea fishing from the stern of a boat could also be a metaphor for trolling the depths for an idea — maybe the next big laser application.

I spent parts of May and June in Germany, where I was exposed to dozens of new ideas for industrial applications of laser energy, much of it delivered from the rising stars of the technology, fiber, disc, ultrafast-pulse, and diode lasers. Picking a winner from the applications I saw and heard about is akin to plumbing the ocean for a strike that will rise to the top.

A laser marketer friend has a nose for industrial applications — I always say in admiration that he never saw a laser application he didn’t like. I swear he could find one in a Bedouin market in the middle of the Sahara desert. Admittedly, much of what catches his eye never makes it to the top, but he gives each a boost to at least give it a shot. I’m a little pickier, hooking on to those that others have already been chummed from the depths.

Why do I do it? Not only for editorial possibilities, but to get a sense of what impact these gems will have in the marketplace and what effect they will have on the laser equipment used to produce the results.

This year the industry will ship around 60,000 industrial lasers, most integrated into systems that cut, weld, drill, mark, and process materials. Over the past 10 years, including the recession, the CAGR for industrial lasers has been about 7%–8%. In a market that could approach $8 billion this year, the industry will have to find more than $600 million in new sales revenues in 2013, for the more than 5000 additional lasers to be built. Much of this will come from expanding mature markets, but a portion that will appear as markets begin to plateau must come from the new applications for which the industry and I am trolling.

In some respects, the laser industry is a victim of its own success; the more it expands, the more difficult it is to meet market expectations. At one of the meetings in Germany, after hearing of a new application for the medical device market, I asked what the potential would be. Before the answer I added that it would have to be in the hundreds of units to get market attention.

Except for few well-known exceptions — sheet metal cutting, solar cell processing, and smart phone displays, for example — many laser applications are for hundreds of units, not thousands. Fortunately, there are dozens of these, and taken together they add up to the thousands of lasers sold each year. Diverse markets for diverse applications: a good definition for the industrial laser market.

So here I am, enjoying the calm of no strikes at my lure, while I contemplate the soothing ocean waves, and mull over the world that ILS serves and what we will do next year to bring new application possibilities to readers.

David A. Belforte

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