LME 2013 experts provide insight into continued laser market growth

Developments in the laser processing industry and the annual Lasers for Manufacturing Event in Illinois last month are maturing together.

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Orlando, FL - Expanded exhibit space, new exhibitors and networking opportunities, and more working laser systems increased the impact of the third annual Lasers for Manufacturing Event (LME) on the laser community.

The Laser Institute of America's unique event, held Sept. 11-12 at the Schaumburg (IL) Convention Center, showed more signs that it is maturing as a must-attend event. Bringing together laser makers, systems integrators and providers of all manner of related equipment and services, LME 2013 gave attendees the know-how they need to get laser-based manufacturing projects up and running.

Once again, the Laser Technology Showcase Theater at the front of the active exhibit hall drew many standing-room-only crowds for industry experts, including:

* LIA Past President and ILS Editor David Belforte (see his blog post), who noted big opportunities for laser sales and applications, particularly in microprocessing, production of SUVs and composite-heavy narrow-body passenger jets and their engines, gas and wind turbines, smart phones and even agricultural equipment.

* Prabhjot Singh of GE Global Research, who challenged the laser community to meet the growing global need for additive manufacturing productivity, which will require hundreds of new laser-based devices.

* Magnus Bengtsson of Coherent, who addressed ultrafast lasers advances, including cataract surgery with femtosecond lasers and dicing sapphire wafers to make LEDs with picosecond lasers.

* Silke Pflueger of DirectPhotonics, who demonstrated the advantages ultra-high brightness direct diodes bring to the table.

* Jason Hillenbrand of Amada of America, who compared the cost and process differences between fiber and CO2 systems in cutting applications.

LME continues to serve its primary function: to bring together those seeking the bottom-line benefits of laser technology face to face with the providers of that technology. Attendees were treated to expert analysis of the full spectrum of available options and considerations a fiber, CO2, ultrafast, macro and micro processing, and more.

They also received updates from nearly 40 exhibitors who presented details of their latest products and services on the exhibit hall stage.

Additive manufacturing
GE puts about 20 additively manufactured fuel nozzles in each of its new LEAP engines for the latest generation of the 737, Singh noted. Manufactured through direct metal laser melting on machines featuring 200- to 400-watt fiber lasers, each nozzle takes about a day to make on one machine. With more than 5,000 engines sold, GE needs to fabricate close to 100,000 nozzles. "We probably need a few hundred machines to support production." He said GE has about 20 machines with more on the way.

Medical Device Market
In his tutorial on microprocessing, CEO Ron Schaeffer of PhotoMachining in Pelham, NH, and ILS Contributing Editor and Blogger, noted that the medical device market can be lucrative for job shops (see his blog post). Although it is hard to get into the sector, it is easy to stay in once qualified because large firms want to avoid having to recertify new vendors. He also noted that, even though his is one of three job shops within 10 miles of one another, they rarely overlap competitively because of the volume of work available. (As Belforte noted, $2.8 billion worth of stents were sold in the US last year.)

And since lasers are the only way to manufacture many complex medical devices and components like stents, catheters and diagnostic tools, profits can be generous. In an exhaustive study of system and operating costs, Schaeffer noted that picosecond lasers are coming down in price to the point where they are as attractive as nanosecond devices for machining. He also emphasized that CO2 lasers, the most common in the industry, are the most inexpensive on a dollars-per-photon basis, although fiber lasers can approach those prices depending on power range.

Growth forecast

While metal processing dominates the industry and photovoltaic production has slowed globally, Industrial Laser Solutions Editor David Belforte forecasted significant growth in microprocessing applications in his state-of-the-markets address.

"North American manufacturers are continuing to beat the odds," he said. "Even the fiscal restraints in the United States have not slowed growth. Exports to China were offset by slower European market growth a bit, but even so it was a good year and looks like it's going to finish up a good year for exports."

In metal processing, "over $1.5 billion of industrial lasers go into that marketplace, overwhelming the other sectors of marking, engraving and microprocessing." But, with double-digit growth, "microprocessing looks to be the market which is really going to drive this business in terms of ultrafast pulsed lasers, both solid state and fiber, and other lasers used for semiconductor, solar cell and flat-panel display work. Overwhelmingly it's printed circuit boards and hybrids that consume most of the lasers that were used in microprocessing."

Fiber lasers have had a significant impact. "The industrial laser technology forecast has been looking pretty good since we came out of the recession in 2008," Belforte said, thanks to fiber lasers. "Because of the second quarter performance of IPG Photonics a 26 percent revenue growth in the industrial laser market, it raised the entire industrial laser market by two percent." Furthermore, fiber laser revenue grew 17 percent in 2012 and is projected to hit 21 percent this year, "which will lift the entire industry to about six percent growth for this year."

Pflueger later addressed an emerging revolution in diode lasers, which constituted about half of the overall $7.5 billion laser market in 2012, she said. Laserline has driven much of that growth, she noted, having achieved up to 20 kilowatt fiber-coupled devices that in prototypes demonstrate 48 percent efficiency, vs. 40 percent for previous direct diodes.

The fourth annual LME will be held Sept. 23-24, 2014, in Schaumburg.



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