The LASER World of Photonics 2015 exhibition held in Munich last week was a very vibrant affair. It is probably the most important photonics trade show in the world and this year, both attendance and vendor participation were up almost 10% from 2013. In round numbers, there were over 1200 vendors and over 30,000 attendees in five large exhibit halls. Attendees come from all over the world, with Europe (particularly Germany, of course), Japan, China, and the US all making notable contributions. Four Nobel Laureates gave talks as part of the technical conference that had over 2700 scheduled lectures. I personally did not talk to anyone who said business was "bad" or even "ok," with responses ranging from "good" to "we are busier than we have ever been!"
Other authors will comment on the many technologies present, but my focus was mainly on the precision laser micromachining area. Here are a few observations:
1. Neon shortage: An excimer laser uses about 98% neon (Ne) gas in every gas fill—the halogen and rare gas are only there in small proportions. A 6000-liter bottle bought one year ago for about $1000 now costs about $6000—if you can get it. I am told the price may go to $30,000 to $50,000 by the end of the summer. At that rate, I cannot only not afford to run excimer lasers, it just doesn’t make any sense, as I can sell my excess gas for way more than I could generate in micromachining revenue. A major factor is that a very large percentage of the world’s Ne comes from the Ukraine. New capacity is being generated, but it will take a few years to equalize and by then, the demand (for large, flat-panel displays) may be much higher anyway. So, be considerate of Ne price and availability! All excimer laser vendors are nervous about this problem, especially since the "little guys" will be competing with the Samsungs and Intels of the world for what is available.
2. Fiber lasers: There are a lot of new players entering the field, but for the most part the field is still dominated by IPG. Coherent showed a 4kW fiber laser and SPI displayed a very nice, 100W single-mode fiber laser "smaller than a breadbox." I still did not see an all-fiber UV laser, though.
3. USP beam delivery: Several vendors were present this year that did not exist in 2013. Photonic Tools (Berlin) showed a fiber beam delivery system for the fundamental wavelength of a femtosecond laser. Up to a millijoule of pulse energy has been used and up to 100W have been demonstrated without fiber damage. Keep your eyes open for an upcoming article in ILS. The guys at Laser Light Fab, a spin-off from Fraunhofer ILT, also had a booth where they were showing the latest in selective laser etching using femtosecond lasers, fast and precise galvo-based beam delivery, and subsequent selective etching.
4. Other beam delivery: Laser Mechanisms was displaying their usual assortment of primarily "fixed" beam optics, as well as Precitec and a few others. Scanlab announced a 5-axis machining head and, in addition, their Blackbird Robotics division showed their integrated solutions for remote welding (and appointment of industry veteran and former Trumpf manager Tim Morris as VP). Other companies such as Arges and Cambridge also displayed the newest offerings.
5. Optics in general: I am always amazed at the number of "optics" companies from all over the world and I wonder how the industry can support such a large number of vendors, many of whom seem to provide nearly identical products and services. However, I am sure that this is another indication of the robustness of the laser industry in general.
6. Femtosecond and picosecond lasers: The trend that I observed in my ILS article last December continues. On one hand, more players continue to enter the market. On the other hand, there is consolidation (Spectra-Physics/Newport buying Femtolasers) and some companies, like Raydiance, appearing to exit the market or at the very minimum change their core business and approach. There does appear to be enough space in this arena for growth, assuming that there is a good business plan in place. Light Conversion showed a very nice, compact femtosecond laser (Carbide) with a power supply about as big as the one on my laptop and priced very attractively, 300fs and about 85µJ in the fundamental. Amplitude was, as usual, presenting very interesting lasers and was also in collaboration on the fiber beam delivery. The French quarter in general had a good showing, especially in the ultrashort-pulse (USP) laser market area.
7. Controls: It is not always about having the biggest, most powerful, or sexiest laser. The laser has to be usable and one of the big advances I have seen in the last few years is the ability to control the laser, even at high rep rate and in conjunction with many different moving parts. Integration of galvo and table control into one seamless operation was also demonstrated by companies like Aerotech and Polaris Motion.
I really could go on and on—the show was that exciting. According to the show organizers, the 2014 total photonics revenue was about 350 billion euros and this is expected to hit 615 billion euros by 2020, which is over a 10% compounded growth rate. Consider also the fact that some sectors (such as USP) will grow at an even faster rate. Once again, I feel blessed to be in such a growing, interesting, and dynamic industry. Finally, I am sure I missed many cool things at the show, so please feel free to contact me with anything to share.
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