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Laser Trends: Laser Companies Look to Rocket Out of the Recession

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2011
Lynn Savage, Features Editor, lynn.savage@photonics.com

Lasers are tools, no more and no less. They are used to illuminate and to burn, to mark items and to measure them. In many ways, they are as ubiquitous as knives and tape measures, and they are treated as common consumer products in many ways. Yet their highly technical nature – consider the firm grasp of physics required to design them – means that lasers have a certain amount of mystery and wonderment surrounding them. That they can be used in products ranging from presentation pointers and home video projectors to industrial-scale hole drillers and semiconductors scribers adds more power to their global reputation.

Flexible and efficient

Laser companies report that the most pressure being placed on laser makers is to make their technologies more powerful and efficient than ever – but while improving reliability and reducing costs, especially for volume production.

William Shiner, vice president of industrial markets for IPG Photonics in Oxford, Mass., said fiber lasers offer both the flexibility and efficiency that the company’s clients require. IPG’s fiber lasers, he said, provide 30 percent wall-plug efficiency and can be used to cut brass, copper and aluminum faster than gas lasers can. For added flexibility of design, fiber lasers are good for long-reach applications, such as welding and cutting.


An electron microscope image shows a corneal incision made with a laser surgical system. Courtesy of Qioptiq.

Responding to a client’s needs is paramount to most laser makers. Diode laser makers, for example, must be able to provide, often on very short notice, devices that produce beams with challenging power levels, wavelengths and power efficiency, while squeezing into ever-tighter packages. To be successful going forward, laser manufacturers will have to be strong in customer service and flexible with their product offerings, said Ian Alcock, managing director of Qioptiq.

IPG Photonics’ Shiner said that efficiency and beam control are near the top of customer requirements. However, cost control is the overriding issue.

“We haven’t seen the bottom of prices,” he said. “Price reductions will have to come through material choices and economies of scale.”

At JDSU Corp. in Milpitas, Calif., it’s the same story. “Power and beam quality are in demand,” said Werner Wiechmann, the company’s director of marketing. “People want just one laser – not 10 separate ones – to do 10 tasks on wafer jobs.”

Going forward, Wiechmann suggested, the laser market remains fluid. JDSU, along with other companies, is building more and more single-emitter diode lasers and squeezing them into systems. Fiber lasers, he said, will expand to shift the industry much the way that diode-pumped solid-state (DPSS) lasers did a number of years ago.

Not everyone has given up on dye lasers entirely; they are still ubiquitous in some niche markets, including astronomy and aesthetic surgery. Most diode laser makers feature semiconductor devices designed to pump gas lasers, and improvements in diode lasers are expected to further support dye laser applications.

Robin Elkins, CEO of Elk Industries LLC and chief scientist at American Advanced Technologies Inc., sees both liquid and solid-state dye lasers making somewhat of a comeback because of the increased availability and lower cost of diode lasers.


Flexibility in design may lead to novel laser-based inventions, such as this “universal” lamp and laser, which uses a single tube filled with nitrogen, argon or other gas. Courtesy of American Advanced Technologies Inc.


Applying themselves

The research world will continue to use lasers of all stripes toward applications in attosecond imaging, solar cell texturing, laser cooling of atoms, metrology and interferometry, holography and high-powered beam combining for energy research. For many laser manufacturers, though, the watchword is industry.

“We see opportunities for industrial applications such as rapid prototyping, laser-based measurement, remote sensing and the continuing development of biotech applications such as the next-generation DNA sequencers and stem cell sorters,” said Qioptiq’s Ian Alcock.


The handheld portion of a laser scalpel made by Linos GmbH, now part of Qioptiq. Courtesy of Qioptiq.


“The beauty is not just in the lasers, but in how you use them,” added IPG Photonics’ William Shiner, who added that the company has a lot of product representation in university labs, which in turn provide it with application development ideas. He also noted that the alternative energy markets represent a large niche for lasers. For example, the company’s fiber lasers are used in the production of the batteries being installed in the new generation of electric cars. Lasers are likewise prominent in the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels, and likely will continue to remain so.

JDSU is seeing a strong trend toward micromachining applications, including wafer semiconductor processing and lasers for drilling silicon and sapphire substrates used in LED and display technologies, Wiechmann said.

In addition to traditional OEM pumping of industrial lasers, especially fiber lasers, high-energy science and defense applications will be hallmarks of the coming year, Dilas’ Joerg Neukum said. DPSS lasers in the 50- to 100-kW class will grow as these applications continue to require increases in power, brightness and durability. Challenges in the high-power field remain, however. The output of each bar in a diode stack must grow into the 500-W to 1-kW range, Neukum said, plus high-power lasers still haven’t found a “killer app” yet. Additional government funding will be required to develop techniques and products for such an unthought-of application, and it’s still at least a couple of years away.


Industrial lasers for welding, cutting and other materials processing are a major strength for an industry exiting the recent recession. Courtesy of Trumpf.


Neukum said the company also is focused on providing lasers for computer-to-plate and printer manufacturers – a market that he said disappeared a couple of years ago but is now coming back. Medical lasers for surgical, ophthalmological and aesthetic applications also are on the company’s radar for the next year or more.

New laser technologies may be generated from customer demands for higher power, more brightness and better beam quality, but new applications just as likely follow from new technologies. Advancements in beam quality, shorter pulse widths and increased power at alternative wavelengths, such as ultraviolet and green, together act as an incubator for novel applications, said Tim Morris, general manager of Trumpf Inc.’s Laser Technology Center.

“Some recent breakthroughs resulting from (Trumpf’s) high-power picosecond laser developments are high-volume precision cutting of thin display glass and nonmetallic stents,” he said.

One of the key technologies to watch in 2011 will be green diode lasers, said Walter Burgess of Power Technology Inc. of Little Rock, Ark. Applications for these as part of picoprojection systems will continue to expand, he said, but their use will grow beyond that because they work well in analytical instruments also. Diode lasers in the 50-mW region are needed to make cell phone projectors possible, and they must be highly efficient to be practical. The power requirements of larger projection systems will be a hindrance, at least for a while longer.

Speaking of analytical instruments, smaller and less costly diode lasers mean more opportunities to bring miniature spectrometers to the market.

“Customers are asking for handheld portable spectrometers to take out of the research lab so as to apply them in real-world environments,” said Eric Bergles, vice president of sales and marketing at BaySpec Inc. in San Jose, Calif. Compact lasers, miniature spectrographs, increasingly sensitive detectors and semiconductor nanotechnologies will lead to a “fruitful new generation of laser-based sensors and instruments,” Bergles said.

Placed in the hands of field agents, smart phone-size spectrometers will improve inspections of imported foods and other materials, help identify bioweapons on the battlefield, assist emergency crews with identifying and handling toxic spills, and make possible on-site inspection of installed solar panels, among many possible applications.

“There are many new handheld field-deployable spectral engines entering the market,” Bergles said. “It is the realization of the tricorder.”

Ancillary markets

The market forces affecting laser makers also are affecting the companies and products supporting them. Advances in optics, coatings and beam profilers, for example, have had to keep up, and the major players in this field are keeping a close eye on laser trends.

“The strongest area of growth for us has been the trend for high-power optics technology to migrate from military applications to commercial and industrial sectors,” said Nick Traggis, vice president and general manager of Precision Photonics Corp. in Boulder, Colo. In all, the company’s revenues grew by 45 percent in 2010 compared with the previous year and, like many laser companies, Precision Photonics is concerned with retaining and adding qualified workers in the coming year.

Looking at the laser markets from an optical component perspective, Traggis sees room for improvement.

“As I talk to more of the end users for [laser] systems, I realize that too many laser manufacturers still focus on their laser technology instead of a customer’s problems,” he said. “No matter who the end user is, Traggis asserts, they have a problem that must be solved, and they don’t care whether the solution is photonics-based.

“Solution-focused manufacturers will always be more successful; or, to put it another way, take the word ‘laser’ out of your marketing material.”


GLOSSARY
astronomy
The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
metrology
The science of measurement, particularly of lengths and angles.
power
With respect to a lens, the reciprocal of its focal length. The term power, as applied to a telescope or microscope, often is used as an abbreviation for magnifying power.
remote sensing
Technique that utilizes electromagnetic energy to detect and quantify information about an object that is not in contact with the sensing apparatus.
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