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  • ECO Photonics: How Green Is Your Laser?

Mar 2009
Innovation and green thinking prove a winning combination for Global Laser.

Kimberley Clark, Ireland Correspondent,

Global Laser Technology Solutions Ltd. is a specialist designer and manufacturer of laser diode modules. Located in South Wales, UK, close to Brecon Beacons National Park, it offers a wide range of OEM, high-performance, high-reliability laser products for use in machine vision, alignment, medical, measurement, scientific and military applications.

Standard products include red, green and infrared lasers with powers up to 200 mW, and optical outputs include lines, crosses, and circular and elliptical spots. Its products incorporate built-in control electronics designed to provide power stability over time and temperature, and a range of control over modulation features that, it believes, is unmatched in the marketplace.

ECO_GL_Factory.jpgThe products have been used in applications as far ranging as streamlining the automated milking of cows to detection of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus during the 2002 outbreak. In fact, much of the company’s success can be attributed to its ability to develop customized solutions, providing a bespoke fast track service for single prototypes and small production runs. This service enables rapid response to customer requests, providing a technically efficient and cost-effective solution that shortens time to market.

The company has targeted the premium market where tailor-made products are required; to date, it has produced more than 10,000 product variations for its customers.

But there is something else that is helping this small firm stand out from the crowd: Global Laser has made a serious commitment to environmental responsibility. Part of its philosophy involves reducing its carbon footprint without reducing the quality or performance of its products. Using ecodesign principles is one strategy the firm is using to achieve its goals.

What is ecodesign?

Ecodesign is an approach that gives special consideration to the environmental impact of a product during its life cycle. It seeks to minimize the effect of the life cycle of products (e.g., energy consumption, materials used, distribution methods, packaging and end-of-life treatment). This involves assessing, prioritizing and designing out problems – or designing in new solutions. Solutions can range from specifying renewable materials to reducing energy consumption during usage. Eco-design also takes into account social impacts in the production and consumption of products, making a significant contribution to sustainable development.

In 2007, Global Laser was one of four Welsh small and medium enterprises (SMEs) selected to participate in a 12-month commercial ecodesign project developed by Ecodesign Centre (EDC) Wales. An applied research organization, the latter aims to build capacity and capabilities to enable effective ecodesign. Based in Cardiff, it recently was designated a Centre of Expertise by the Welsh Assembly Government and is recognized as the voice of, and knowledge base for, ecodesign in Wales.

EDC worked with Global Laser to develop a customized, multilevel Ecodesign Support Package that provides specialist knowledge, guidance, facilitation, research, monitoring and promotion. In addition, commercial support partnership sessions were held to provide a platform for selected companies to share their experiences about implementing ecodesign and embedding sustainability in their business strategies. Experts from leading partner companies also were invited to provide insight and transfer knowledge.

Financial support was provided for specific aspects of the projects such as life cycle assessments of products; construction of and training in the use of life cycle assessments tools for future product development; new graphics, branding and business communications to convey the environmental message; eco-friendly packaging development; and the implementation of “Cradle to Cradle” (C2C) design strategies. C2C design employs a regenerative strategy. Put simply, it is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not just efficient but essentially waste-free.

The Ecodesign Support Package initiative explored how ecodesign principles and life cycle thinking could be used and embedded in Global Laser’s core business strategies, with the ultimate aim of changing the way its products are developed and used.

To gain access to the support package, Global Laser was required to make an in-kind contribution to the ongoing activities of EDC and to assign appropriate resources – monetary or otherwise – to ensure the smooth running of their project.

Before the support package, Global Laser’s environmental strategy focused mainly on cleaner production and on the on-site treatment and separation of waste. In addition, the company strictly complies with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment and the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances directives.

Working together

The impetus for the ecodesign project was driven by Global Laser management. According to EDC, by challenging the status quo, ecodesign plays a key role in the global move toward a more sustainable economy. Some of the approaches to ecodesign that EDC used in working with Global Laser included:

• Life Cycle Thinking, which considers the full life cycle impact of a product. Completing a Life Cycle Assessment enables a comparison between various design options to identify the least damaging one. It divides a product’s life cycle into four phases: procurement, manufacture, use and disposal.

• Design for Disassembly, which considers the easy separation of various materials from a product, once its useful life has come to an end, to allow for effective recycling.

• Reducing the negative impact of a product on the environment; for example, by removing hazardous chemicals or materials without compromising the design.

• Redesigning a product to take advantage of more sustainable materials and cleaner production methods.

In its initial project proposal, Global Laser indicated its interest in developing an energy-efficient laser diode module for the alignment market. Through project meetings with EDC, it was decided that the new product development should be supported by:

• A life cycle assessment of the product.

• Construction of a streamlined life cycle assessment tool for future product development.

• New graphics, branding and business communications.

A main benefit of using life cycle assessment is that it can provide an environmental and energy impact comparison for two products or services. Global Laser wanted to use the assessment to create a benchmark to evaluate all future product development work.

EDC and Global Laser also conducted a strategic review of the company’s brand and business communications to enable Global Laser to be in a stronger position to communicate the improved environmental performance of its product.

Their efforts paid off, and the company recently unveiled its energy-efficient laser. The results from the life cycle assessment indicate that the new design has reduced the carbon footprint by up to 51 per cent by using 50 per cent less energy than other products in their range. The laser operates in pulsed mode, maximizing the product lifetime and making no difference to the visual output of the laser. As an industry first, this presents clear commercial potential while also posing challenges. Global Laser sees this as its first “green flagship product” and is intent upon developing lasers with a reduced carbon footprint while continuing to strive for the utmost performance in its customized laser solutions.

Creating a communications strategy around the new product will be important because it could provide a useful means of differentiation from the competition, leading to increased sales. This is an exciting challenge for a company in a sector that has traditionally focused on the price differential.

Benefits of ecodesign

The company has identified a number of additional business benefits. The new model opens up market potential with portable and solar-powered options. For existing customers, the new design does not require any additional tooling or layout changes.

Ecodesign can help companies to proactively comply with environmental legislation and can make a direct difference in the bottom line through reducing costs, increasing innovation, attracting investment, improving brand position and enhancing business communications.

According to Chris Price, a design engineer with Global Laser, “Applying the ecodesign philosophy can only benefit the company as environmental attitudes within our markets change. This proactive approach helps us gain a competitive edge until our competitors embrace the same principles in their designs and concepts.”

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