Statistically speaking, it looks like the industrial laser market is continuing a downward slide. According to the Laser Systems Product Group of the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT) in McLean, Va., 2002 shipments of industrial laser equipment and systems for North American consumption and export tallied $422.8 million, a 15 percent decline from 2001. The breakdown includes $111.5 million in US exports. This is the second consecutive year that dollar shipments have fallen since a peak of $721.6 million in 2000. Even accounting for the slight variance in companies surveyed (46 in 2000 vs. 43 in 2002), this is a tremendous drop -- in dollar value. Look beyond the numbers, though, to the nature of the industrial laser market as it stands today, and all is not necessarily gloom and doom for this sector of the machine tool manufacturing arena.For 2002, shipment breakdown by applications was roughly 13 percent automotive, 3 percent aerospace, 3 percent medical, 25 percent electrical and more than 50 percent general manufacturing, including appliances. Shipments of CO2 laser systems, which accounted for 60 percent of the total, remained fairly level compared with the prior year ($246,347 vs. $248,323 in 2001). Nd:YAG shipments declined 30 percent, with some 80 percent of this attributable to a decline in capital spending in the electronics industry.Last year, cutting remained the major functional category for laser shipments at 54 percent of the total, followed by other functions at 31 percent (including marking), welding at 9 percent and drilling at 6 percent. In addition, the majority of shipments were for complete systems, including laser source and workstation.Yes, the industry is in a downturn, but as Dave Plourde, chairman of the laser group pointed out, it tracks relatively closely with overall US machine tool demand.The vice president of sales at Preco Laser Systems in Somerset, Wis., Plourde estimated that laser shipments account for 17 to 20 percent of all machine tool consumption in the US. Based on the annual US Machine Tool Consumption Report, a joint statistical project between AMT and the American Machine Tool Distributors Association in Rockville, Md., laser shipments (dollar value) appear to have been hovering near this level since 1999.Some may argue that these data present strong evidence that the days when traditional manufacturers considered laser technology a dark art are long gone. Read "commodity item." This brings another element into the analysis. According to Plourde's estimates, a comparison of unit and revenue shipments indicated a lower cost per average unit -- something that should be of interest to end users once their companies are no longer gun-shy about capital spending.The chairman of the laser group also reported that there are interesting technical developments to watch. Hybrid systems that pair laser processing with another proven technology, such as metal inert gas welding or plasma processing, give end users the best of both worlds. They get the speed and power of laser welding, plus the option to add conventional welding techniques that allow filler-wire alloying or methods to improve bonding in problematic joints. AMT also is monitoring developments such as fiber lasers or direct diode lasers, which should see more use as beam quality improves, especially in welding and heat-treating areas.