Lasers in China

Wuhan—considered the Optics Valley of China—is a hotbed of laser activity

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In the January 2003 issue of Industrial Laser Solutions an overview of research and development and use of laser processing in China presented what appears to be a higher level of activity in laser processing in China than in the USA. In addition to laser manufacturers particularly in lower-power solid-state systems for markers, hundreds of job shops produce a variety of goods from laser marked buttons to laser welded saws. This in-depth assessment of laser processing in China is based on the authors' recent visit to Wuhan, the seat of China's laser processing activities.

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Wuhan, located on the Yangtze River in the central part of China, has the official designation of Optics Valley of China (www.chinaov.org). Wuhan East Lake Development Zone, where the Optics Valley is located, has 23 universities, 54 research institutes and 12 national laboratories. The optics industry here includes telecommunications, software and the key manufacturing of CDs, digital cameras and lasers. Electronic parts for cameras are made locally and optics are imported from Japan or Europe. The Wuhan area has 40 percent of China's RMB$1B optics business. There are more than 30 laser companies in Wuhan alone, most of which are small but with more than a dozen employees. Three of the larger laser companies in Wuhan are Wuhan Unity Laser Co., Hubei Guantong Photoelectronic System Co. (GTPE), and Wuhan Huagong Laser Engineering Co.

Wuhan Unity Laser Co. or WUL (www.unity.laser.com) was formed in 1994 with 12 employees, six of whom were from Huazhong University in Wuhan. The Chief Scientist, Donghua Liu, was a professor at Huazhong University, which has a nationally designated key Research Center on Laser Processing. There are currently 80 employees in the Wuhan headquarters and a total of 230, including subsidiaries. Unity Laser claims to be the largest high-power laser company in China, dominating (70%) the market for high-power laser processing systems. Its primary products are 2-5kW CO2 laser systems. It has subsidiaries in Shanghai and Guangzhou province, and several collaborations with universities. For example, Shanghai Best Choice CNC Laser Equipment Co. is a system integrator and Guangzhou Haojie Laser Technology Company develops laser markers and performs laser marking.

The 5kW CO2 laser is a transverse-flow design derived from developments at the Huazhong University. It uses a GaAs output window with a 3000- to 5000-hour life for heat treating and ZnSe for welding applications. The electrode maintenance schedule is 5000 hours. The beam size is 28 mm at 1 m from output window and M2 is ~ 17 to 25. The domestic price complete with heat exchanger is RMB $800,000 (~US $100,000) for domestic and 20 percent higher for export. About 30 systems were delivered in 2002 with sales requiring 70 percent of production capacity. Most sales were for domestic consumption but several were exported to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.

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Figure 1. CO2 laser cladding of drive axles.
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The assembly plant has a staff of 30, including service personnel. WUL together with its CNC subsidiary has developed and sold high-power systems for heat treating of automotive cylinder blocks and liners, and oil drilling components. Other applications include: cladding of petrochemical plant parts, valves, and steel rollers (see Figure 1) and surface alloying of rollers and aluminum piston ring slots. Also included are systems for welding of automotive components, heat exchangers, tanks and saw blades (see Figure 2), and for the production of nanophase materials.

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Figure 2. D.H. Liu examining a CO2 laser-welded saw blade.
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In 2001, systems were sold into the petroleum market for heat treatment. Applications in 2002 included roller hardening and surface texturing for the steel industry. In 2003, rollers for sugar cane refining were included. The 14-member research and development group focuses on workstation and laser improvements, processing and applications research and collaboration with universities in laser processing.

WUL subsidiary Shanghai Unity Best Choice, started in 2000, claims to be the ninth largest laser systems integrator in the world and the largest in China. Of the 100 cutting systems sold in China in 2002, Best Choice built 42 and 40 were imported. Every type of cutting, welding and cladding system is supplied. Best Choice imports most components and assembles the systems locally and provides service. The prices of cutting systems are 60 percent of international list prices with the main competitors being Bystronic and TRUMPF. All systems were sold for local consumption except for a scribing system exported to Japan. Best Choice is currently seeking a partner to market and service its systems in the USA. Best Choice has 80 employees with 26 in R&D and 35 in production. R&D includes system design, software/.hardware integration and technology transfer from its university collaborators and training.

Unity Laser's sales are directly with customers for both domestic and export. There is currently no effort directed outside of China, although several systems have been exported. International sales were generated from direct customer inquiries. WUL plans to increase export to the Asian market because Unity's price is approximately 40 percent of the international list price. WUL also partners with American and European laser companies to broaden their product offerings.

Hubei Guantong Photoelectronic System Co. Ltd or GTPE (www.China.Lasers.com) is a joint venture with Singapore. Dr. (James) Yihong Chen, chief scientist and chief executive officer, had worked at GINTIC (featured in ILS in January 2002) in Singapore previously. GTPE, a medium-size laser company with 73 employees, is a leading Nd:YAG manufacturer in China. The three principals are Ph.D.s, two from Singapore and one from USA. The rest mostly have bachelor degrees with some masters. GTPE manufactures sealed CO2 lasers, diode-pumped solid-state lasers, and CW and pulsed Nd:YAG lasers to 400W. Systems include laser engraving, laser marking, cutting and welding. GTPE also provides components and subsystems. It acquires key components such as diodes and Q-switches internationally. Control systems are built locally with precision to one micrometer while higher-accuracy systems are imported from the USA or Japan. Galvos are sourced from overseas.

About 300 systems are produced per year. Diode-pumped marker systems are priced starting at about RMB $130,000. A 50W DPSS marker system is priced at about RMB $250,000; a 10W DPSS is about RMB $170,000. CO2 laser engravers are priced as low as RMB $25,000. Seventy percent of the output is sold in China and the rest is exported to 23 countries, including Asia, Europe, USA and Argentina. Global marketing is done by Sintec, its holding company in Singapore.

Huagong Laser Engineering Co. Ltd (www..hglaser.com) recently relocated to a new industrial park funded by the university. It is a subsidiary of the Huazhong Technology Group, the industrial arm of Huazhong University of Science and Technology and a listed company on China's stock market. Huagong Laser's key technical staff is basically members of the university's laser group.

Huagong Laser has a 25,000-sq-ft facility with 220 employees. The CO2 assembly is in a separate building from the main one, which houses its marker systems. Huagong Laser has a joint venture with a system builder and also manufactures Nd:YAG lasers to 200W. It also operates a job shop for welding saw blades that uses several CO2 lasers, including the Rofin-Sinar CO2 slab laser. A 10kW laser welding system from Prima was being installed during our visit. The University Laser Center is working on fast-axial flow CO2 lasers, and 3.5kW fast-axial flow laser production will begin soon with Convergent Prima technology. The University Laser Center provides R&D work for Huagong Laser.

In terms of revenue, Wuhan Chutian Laser Group Co., Ltd is the largest and Huagong Laser is the second. Chutian Laser Group Co. Ltd (www.chutianlaser.com) manufactures a large range of Nd:YAG laser systems and has subsidiaries among the major cities in China.

Collectively, the laser business in Wuhan is several hundred million $RMB. China's current home-grown, high-power CO2 laser technology is confined to transverse-flow lasers that have lower beam quality than fast-axial flow lasers typical of German design. In the Nd:YAG area, the technology is confined to lower (<400 W) powers and is driven by the demand in marking and welding. There is also ready access to foreign technology for applications requiring high power and high beam quality. Chinese laser technology appears to be advancing rapidly with in-house innovation and joint ventures. The low price of current Chinese laser systems derived from low labor cost makes the technology attractive. The availability of such systems worldwide would make an impact on cost effectiveness of laser technology.

Keng Leong, is chief technical officer at DiodeTec (Allison Park, PA; lkh@core.com). H.C. Man is assoc. professor and assoc. director of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Research Centre and also the manager of the Laser Center at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. (mfhcman@smtpgwy.polyu.edu.hk).

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