2002 may be a year of zero growth for industrial lasers, but advances in technology and their wider application will keep the sector strong in the long run. According to analysts, the worldwide market for the laser sources and systems used in industrial materials processing has shown, on average, double-digit annual growth over the past five years. This trend should continue over the next few years, despite the global economic malaise and the events of Sept. 11. These factors may predominate in 2002 and lead to a year of zero growth, mainly attributable to the slowdown in North America and to the weak semiconductor and electronics markets in Asia. Many things contributed to the growth of the industrial laser as a viable tool in the 20th century. Among these were a strong machine tool industry and innovative automotive manufacturers who integrated lasers into their production lines. Today, many more industries have recognized the advantages of laser materials processing with respect to product design and optimization, and to just-in-time manufacturing. Laser materials processing continues to move beyond the automotive plant to new industrial applications, such as the production of medical stents. Most recently, laser marking and microprocessing in the semiconductor and electronics industries have shown the greatest growth, driven by extremely short product-innovation cycle times and by the need for miniaturization and for flexible, permanent marking for identification purposes. Applications, such as the fine cutting of stents for medicine and microwelding for the electronics and telecommunications industries, also play a major role, and they will continue to do so. Finding new applications New laser technologies will open new industrial markets. One example is remote laser welding, in which CO2 slab lasers are used with scanning optics to weld automotive parts, such as doors, yielding extremely efficient movement times compared with conventional robotic spot welders. Lasers are also entering areas such as 3-D laser material removal (competing against spark erosion), laser deposit welding with filler wire for the repair and maintenance of tools, and injection molding. Another promising application is the microstructuring of solar cells, in which lasers — rather than knives — will make the isolation cuts. Growth in solid-state lasers will surpass growth in CO2 lasers, particularly as diode pumping replaces lamp pumping. New laser designs, such as the solid-state disc laser, and the expansion of applications that require frequency-doubled and -tripled sources also will continue to yield new markets. Solid-state industrial lasers, such as this diode-pumped Nd:YAG, are expected to surpass the CO2 laser in terms of growth. Photos courtesy of Rofin-Sinar Inc. Finally, there will be new, direct applications for laser diodes, which will no longer be limited to metal hardening and welding but will be used in the processing of plastic materials. Meet the author Thorsten Frauenpreis is a public relations and marketing manager at Rofin-Sinar Laser GmbH in Hamburg, Germany. He holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Hannover in Germany.