Industrial laser sales continue to outpace machine tools

Thirty-four years ago, I wrote "If laser systems are to capture an increasing share of the markets now held by lower-cost conventional tools, efforts must be made to narrow the price gap."

Thirty-four years ago, in sister publication Laser Focus World, I wrote "If laser systems are to capture an increasing share of the markets now held by lower-cost conventional tools, efforts must be made to narrow the price gap." At that time, the total global market for industrial laser systems was about $219 million, while in 2016, it was estimated (by Optech Consulting) at $12.6 billion—a 12.66% CAGR. Contrast this with the 2.2% CAGR of machine tools in the same period.

Since a short boom in 2010-2011, spurred by sales in China, global machine tool sales have dropped more than 40%, partly as a result of poor investment decisions by Chinese companies. In that same period, equivalent global industrial laser system sales increased 30%, driven by buying decisions in China and aided in no small part by reductions in unit selling prices by the laser industry. Rebounding machine tool sales are projected to grow 12% by 2020, while lasers are forecast at 20% in the same period. Is it fair to say I was a prophet before my time?

In all fairness, I have yet to reap any praise for this other bit of wisdom posited in that Laser Focus World article: "As the industry matures, and as substantial markets develop for processing systems, laser manufacturers will recognize the need for standardization as a means to facilitate customer purchasing priorities and, perhaps to increase market penetration and the competitive position of the laser versus other competing technologies." Oh well, one can't be right all the time.

The selection of diverse features in this issue is truly international in scope, reflecting the global reach of Industrial Laser Solutions. From the US, Rajesh Patel and colleagues at Spectra-Physics compare lasers with nanosecond to femtosecond pulse widths in various micromachining applications, and discuss economic implications for pulse width selection (see page 21). Martynas Barkauskas and co-authors at Light Conversion in Lithuania describe how ultrafast lasers are finding their way into manufacturing applications requiring high-quality ablation and precision cutting, transforming the manufacturing of medical devices and small-scale parts (see page 25).

In the UK, Lindley Pate (Hope Technology) says that a fiber laser cutter, replacing CO2 units, has become an essential tool for producing bicycle brake discs and sprockets that his company manufactures (see page 2). Jeff Dulaney (LSP Technologies) tells the story of laser peening from its early adoption by the U.S. Air Force to the modern commercialization of diode-pumped laser peening systems integrated into manufacturing processes around the world (see page 12). Metallurgically bonding metals to extend the life of essential drilling machinery components is one aspect of Australian company LaserBond—in our cover story, Allan Morton projects ongoing laser cladding development work could increase drill performance times up to five times (see page 8).

From Japan, Yuji Imamiya and associates at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Machine Tool describe a deep-ultraviolet laser drilling system that makes holes measuring a minimum of 10μm in diameter with an aspect ratio of 10 (see page 17). Finally, from Israel, to meet today's demand for high throughput and accuracy in laser processing, Jason Goerges (ACS Motion Control) details motion control systems that offer a new approach to integrate functionality while still providing systems developers the ability to customize functionality for specific applications or machine topologies (see page 28).

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