Like a good wine

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No laser application will succeed before its time

Speakers at the recent Lasers & Photonics Marketplace meeting–held in Birmingham, UK, and sponsored by the Photonic Knowledge Transfer Network and the ICT Innovation Clubs for the West Midlands–were asked about the rapid rise and assimilation of fiber lasers into the marketplace and the possibility that new laser types might experience the same results.

The panel, including this writer, essentially agreed that the recent growth of fiber lasers in the industrial laser market has been phenomenal–over the past three years these lasers represent about 10% of revenue dollars. However, they added that, in reality, fiber lasers were: a) not new, having been invented in the 1970s and commercialized in the mid-1990s and b) were actually a subset of solid-state laser technology as evidenced by sales gains at the expense of other solid-state devices. The panel further opined that there were few if any applications going begging because a certain laser was not available.

I’ve observed over the years that the industrial market for lasers has always been slow to accept applications using new laser technology: for example the painfully slow acceptance of excimer lasers in the early 1990s and the slow growth of high-power diode lasers in the last decade. Both of these products seem to have now begun to carve out meaningful market share numbers in important and visible industry sectors.

The late Dr. Victor Gregson, in a classic but generally overlooked paper on the economics of lasers in plant operations (SPIE, Vol. 744, pp. 129–133), pointed out that “as one progresses from high volume/low part designation situations to low volume/high part designations, strategic planning and successful implementation become the dominant factor in the integration of a laser system into an existing manufacturing facility.” Greg’s point was that a high volume simple application might take as little as two years, while a low volume sophisticated part could take up to 30 years.

These are two extremes, of course, but consider that the largest application for industrial lasers over the past 13 years has been marking/engraving, basically a simple high volume application requiring basic low cost lasers (consider the rudimentary CO2 tube technology used for button marking in China) and beam motion technology. In that period, industrial lasers grew at a CAGR of 13.5%, while lasers for marking/engraving showed a 19.5% CAGR, a very significant 6% difference. These percentages nicely illustrate Greg’s thesis.

Back to the panel question. Solid-state (Nd:YAG and Yb) and CO2 lasers have enjoyed a long run as popular solutions for industrial processing. Reliable, efficient, cost effective, and applications friendly, these lasers satisfy the majority of user needs in one form or another. Excimer and diode lasers, currently enjoying an active growth period, are mature technologies that find success in a more limited portion of the market.

New lasers such as ultrafast pulse, actually subsets of the solid-state category, are making headlines reminiscent of excimer and diode technology. With the potential to open new, currently non-laser applications, they offer the promise of expanding the market, albeit at a modest rate.

Manufacturing in general is slow to respond to technology change. I have maintained for years that the industry will accept a laser application at its own pace and no amount of hype will expedite quantity sales. Paraphrasing an old TV commercial for wine, “No applications before its time.”

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David A. Belforte

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