A country on the go

Industrial lasers play a key role in China's growth plans

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So here I am careening through five o'clock traffic as we rush from a company visit back to our hotel in Wuhan for an important dinner meeting. The company had arranged this car for us, which carried a number plate preceded by a red character that signifies that it is an Army car. Why, you may wonder, am I in a government car going to visit a commercial company? Don't ask. I didn't. This, after all, is China, and sometimes it is best not to ask.

I'm touring China with Contributing Editor H.C. Man to gain a perspective on the industrial laser activity. Wuhan it seems, like its traffic, is a bustling industrial city, and lasers are a key part of the local government's growth plans. A combination of university and industrial companies are aggressively exploring and exploiting a fast-growing demand for industrial laser processing. Several of China's largest laser and systems builders, located here, are working full time to supply low-power Nd:YAG and CO2 lasers for welding and marking and high-power CO2 lasers for surface treatment, cigarette perforating (this is still a progressing culture), and welding.

These are savvy companies, cognizant of international competition and well aware of when to buy technology rather than develop it internally. Thus, there are many inter-relationships that offer a means to the market in China for exporters as well as their finding technology in China for the international markets.

Wuhan, with more than 8 million people, is a hectic, always-on-the-go city. Even at 1 AM on a Wednesday morning I found traffic in the city center still reasonably heavy. And the reason becomes obvious when you see commercial construction going on 24 hours a day. For example, in a new office park area I saw welders working on the top floors of an in-the-works multi-story pharmaceutical company office building.

Road traffic is of rush-hour proportions from early dawn to late in the evening. Picture the worst traffic conditions you ever experienced then add thousands of pedestrians trying to thread through that traffic, heedless of traffic lights, and that's Wuhan every day. Woe to the pedestrian who challenges a Wuhan taxi driver as a rude blast of the horn is the only warning given.

The driver mentioned above, ex-Air Force it turns out, used a combination of the car's siren, a klaxon horn, and, in one particularly horrendous traffic tie up on Bridge #1 over the Yangtze, he reached for a microphone to harass other drivers though a loudspeaker. All this while he either straddled the center line or crossed it to drive in the oncoming traffic lane. Give him credit; he made it from the company we visited to the center of Wuhan, an earlier one-hour trip, in 30 minutes. We passengers exited in relief, and I personally vowed never to ride in the front seat in any vehicle marked with a red number on the license plate.

A word about the photo to the left, which shows your intrepid editor resting at the halfway mark to the top of the Great Wall of China at Bada Ling. At this point I was considering calling it quits—it's steep folks—35º in some spots with no steps, just a walkway with a handrail mounted on one wall which is only two feet off the pavement, tough for a six foot plus fellow.

But then a little old lady, just four feet tall and 90 years old, went streaming by me on the way up, and I vowed that if she could do it, then I could—and I did. The metaphor here is that China is that little old lady on the Great Wall of industrial laser technology, and companies that are ready to stop at the halfway point may get run over as they seek to rise to the top of the market.

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David A. Belforte

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