Another record Photonics West attendance

It seems like every year I am more amazed at the strength of the photonics industry, and no show or conference highlights this more than Photonics West.

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It seems like every year I am more amazed at the strength of the photonics industry, and no show or conference highlights this more than Photonics West. When the conference moved to San Francisco, attendance jumped immediately. It has continued to rise every year (this year, over 20,000) and, in fact, the show now uses all three of the halls at the Moscone Conference Center. Another indicator of increasing attendance is the fact that it is much harder (and more expensive) to get a room anywhere close to Moscone. I would use this as one indicator that the photonics industry is very robust.

The week starts with the PennWell-sponsored Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar, where the state of the laser industry is discussed—see the January/February issue of ILS for David Belforte's article (page 6) and closing My View (page 36) for a review of the industrial laser machining portion of the industry. The bottom-line takeaway is that the photonics industry in general is more robust than the economy in general. This is true in the US and also pretty much worldwide. It is also personally gratifying to know that the laser micromachining market—particularly using ultrafast lasers—is seen as a potential growth area right behind fiber lasers, which lead the industry in the growth column.

Another topic at the Marketplace Seminar was whether the industry was too fragmented and whether consolidation was on the horizon. Well, look around the show floor and it is apparent that there are a myriad of small companies all carving out their own space. The photonics industry is full of physicists, scientists, businessmen, etc., who all think they have not only a better idea of how to do something, but also that they have the business acumen to do it themselves! So, in spite of the fact that there is continued consolidation, I believe we are still at a point in our industry growth where the number of small companies being formed is greater than the number being absorbed—kind of like a population inversion, which is necessary to sustain lasing. In this case, small companies are populating the industry more rapidly than they are consumed, which is a good thing. Let's face it—small companies are usually more innovative than larger companies, so the big players have found it to be much more cost-effective to buy small companies than to develop technology in-house.

The conference itself is possibly the most important photonics conference in the world. The Munich conference is bigger but held only every two years, so the actual impact of the Photonics West show may in fact be bigger on the industry. I am continually amazed at the number of new companies that spring up every year, especially from outside the US, who use this show as a springboard to international markets. I do not have the numbers, but I am sure they will be available from SPIE—and I would suspect that over half the attendees are from outside the US, with very strong contingents from places like Germany, France, Lithuania, Finland, Japan, and China (in most cases, they have "pavilions" with small companies exhibiting on tabletops).

Everyone asks the same question—did you see anything that blew you away? This year, I saw mostly engineering advances rather than any great science breakthroughs. Personally, I thought the samples displayed in the Laser Light Fab booth were beautiful—using femtosecond lasers to perform selective laser etching (SLE) on hard, brittle materials like fused silica and sapphire with micron accuracy and surface smoothness (this technology was featured in an earlier ILS article). I was shown a small reindeer about 2mm in height with fully articulated legs and head, all hogged out of a solid piece of material. Wow!

For the last few years, I have been so busy and the show has grown so large that it has not been possible for me to actually start on one side of the conference and walk the entire show. This also helps point to the vitality of our laser industry. I will be sending in more reports over the next few months as the spring conference season marches forward.

I am always interested in hearing your thoughts concerning laser micromachining, the laser industry, comments on entrepreneurial endeavors, etc. AND … we are always looking for fresh, publishable material. Please feel free to contact me at

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