Hats off to Synrad, as ILS recognizes the company’s important contributions to low-power laser technology
Early in the 1980s this writer had the opportunity to provide consulting services to Laakmann Electro Optics at its San Juan Capistrano, California headquarters. The subject of this consultation was how to expand tenfold the market for low-power, RF-excited, sealed CO2 lasers. During this assignment I had the privilege to work with LEO founder Peter Laakmann and the company’s then marketing manager, John Post Wheeler, over several brainstorming sessions that were, in effect, freewheeling, stream-of-conscious discussions.
In these discussions, Laakmann challenged Wheeler and me to think “outside the box,” as they say in current marketing lingo. His theory, which I suspect was heavily influenced by Wheeler, was how LEO could quickly grow the low-power market to thousands of units sold annually. Keep in mind that in 1982 the total commercial market for these units was in the low hundreds. It wasn’t difficult to opine about markets that could be created if the cost of these lasers could be reduced so that selling prices in the low $1,000s was achieved.
Laakmann assured us that this selling price was, indeed, doable. And he made forecasts of where the market would be in a few years if such a low-cost unit were available. At that time, short of outsourcing labor-intensive manufacturing to a third-world nation, it was difficult to see how economies of scale could dramatically reduce unit costs.
In 1982, Laakmann, having sold LEO to Johnson & Johnson, left the company, and in 1984, with the development and patenting of technology in the low-power laser field, he started a new company, Synrad, then in Bothell, Washington. At that time a 25W glass tube, DC-excited CO2 laser was about 4 feet long and sold for about $25,000. Laakmann’s new metal cavity RF excitation technology dramatically reduced the laser size to 2 feet and the list price to $6,000. His philosophy was simple, though counter to common business advice at the time: if he kept the price low enough, he would open up completely new markets and make these lasers “commodities,” a term I first heard used in regard to industrial lasers. He knew that if he maintained what had been “fair market value,” he would never reach his goals. With great foresight, he envisioned the engraver market as his primary target industry, and indeed they were some of his first customers.
Synrad started shipping this new design of RF-excited, sealed CO2 lasers in 1988, starting with a 10W unit, with plans to scale up to several hundred watts. A 25W was introduced in 1989, followed by a 50W in 1990. The company shipped the first 100W in 1991, and by 1995 was shipping lasers with powers up to 240W. Synrad also created a variety of scientific models derived from the standard industrial models.
Synrad reached the magic number of 1,000 total lasers shipped by the end of 1990, and it took only four more years to reach the total shipment figure of 5,000. By 1996, the total installed base of low-power sealed-off units had doubled to 10,000, and in two more years it doubled again to 20,000. The company hit the 50,000-unit installed base mark in 2002, and 70,000, the next milestone, is imminent. The 48 Series as initially developed by Laakmann remained the industry standard, but as customers’ needs evolved, so did the product range.
In 1998, Laakmann sold Synrad to Excel Technology Inc. as he planned his estate prior to an illness. He died two months later. Shortly thereafter, Synrad began the process of creating three new laser technologies, for the first time without the aid of the company founder. In 2001, it introduced the Firestar series, which now ranges from 20W up to 400W, continuing Laakmann’s tradition of highly reliable, low-cost, and OEM-oriented lasers for the industrial marketplace.
The Synrad 50 Watt laser, introduced in 1990, is 35 inches long.
Each year Synrad has experienced steady market growth, and to accommodate demand for lasers, it decided to build its own facility in Mukilteo, Washington, where it moved, in 2001, into a 65,000-square-foot facility, custom-built around its unique laser manufacturing needs.
Why, you might ask, is ILS profiling Synrad? Obviously the founder’s contributions to low-power laser technology are worthy of recognition. Today, the market that Synrad and its predecessor created comprises about 50% of the total market for industrial lasers. And these low-power sealed-off units are used in about two-thirds of the marking/engraving systems that are shipped today.
Laakmann often used the words “light bulb” when describing his vision of the ultimate low-power CO2 laser, by which he meant that customers could expect the unit to operate like and be as easy to integrate as a light bulb, but with even longer life. This led to the term “commodity,” which he used to describe the status of these lasers when they became fully accepted. Since Synrad went into full production, it has taken less than 15 years for its lasers to become a commodity.
Synrad (www.synrad.com) stands at the pinnacle of industrial laser suppliers. With about 30% of the installed worldwide base of industrial lasers, the company’s contributions to advancing the systems market are legion and are deserved of congratulations on its 20th anniversary.✺