Industrial ultrafast lasers big growth area at Photonics West
Greg Blackman reports from Photonics West in San Francisco, where ultrafast laser technology, in particular, had a strong presence at the show
Continued growth in the photonics industry in 2015, building on that experienced last year, was the general consensus reported by executives from Trumpf, Inrad Optics, Jenoptik, Newport and Amplitude Systèmes during a panel discussion at Photonics West on 11 February.
The laser, photonics and biomedical optics conference and exhibition took place in San Francisco from 7-12 February.
Christof Lehner, general manager for Trumpf, North America, stated that the company’s revenue growth in 2014 had ‘exceeded expectations’ and that the growth remained strong at the beginning of 2015. Newport grew 8 per cent in total last year, while representatives from Jenoptik’s Optical Systems division and Inrad Optics both expressed a positive outlook for the coming year.
Eric Mottay, CEO of ultrafast laser company Amplitude Systèmes, commented that the ultrafast laser market was now mature enough for significant investment and that the growth in ultrashort pulsed lasers has surpassed that of lasers in general.
There was certainly evidence of the rise in ultrafast systems for both scientific and industrial uses on the exhibition floor – along with Amplitude Systèmes, Ekspla, Menlo Systems, Jenoptik, Amphos, Newport, Coherent, Laser Quantum, and many other companies were displaying lasers operating in the picosecond or femtosecond pulse regimes. Newport Spectra-Physics released its Spirit One device, an industrial femtosecond laser that the company was targeting at medical and micromachining applications. It gives 3W average power at 30µJ pulse energy and down to 400fs duration.
A relatively short time ago, the femtosecond laser was a tool consigned to the laboratory; now these systems have the reliability and uptime to be used in industry – micromachining of brittle materials such as sapphire and strengthened glass for mobile phones being one area of application. Newport Spectra-Physics had a demo on its booth showing that glass for smart phones can be bent to a greater degree without breaking when processed with a femtosecond laser compared to a picosecond laser.
‘Materials processing applications for picosecond lasers are growing at a steady pace (30 per cent year-on-year), particularly for processing brittle materials (e.g. glass or diamond), engraving or drilling of tools and components (e.g. for the automotive industry), and for specialty marking of components for the consumer electronics industry,’ Dirk Müller, director of marketing at Coherent, commented in a statement. Coherent was exhibiting its Rapid and Hyper Rapid picosecond lasers at the show. The company also supplies picosecond UV lasers, which are ideal for semiconductor manufacturing.
In the panel discussion, Mottay noted increased consolidation taking place in the ultrafast laser market – Amplitude Systèmes purchased Continuum Lasers in July 2014, while Newport Spectra-Physics recently bought Femtolasers, a provider of high precision ultrafast systems for scientific studies, including attosecond science.
It wasn’t all good news though, and there were concerns over the cuts made in US defence spending as well as the slow growth in the euro zone. Newport’s revenue dropped by 9 per cent in 2014 in the aerospace and defence sector; Inrad Optics’ CEO, Amy Eskilson, commented that US sequestration constraints for the military made in 2013 has largely settled out by now, but warned that there could be further constraints in 2016.
Regarding Europe’s struggling economy, Dennis Werth, senior VP of the Photonics Group at Newport, noted that what is lost in commerce in Europe is gained from cheaper manufacturing. However, he commented that the instability in the euro-zone is a cause for concern, giving the example of the Swiss franc rising by as much as 30 per cent after the central bank abandoned the cap on the currency’s value against the euro in January. Lehner at Trumpf added that while Germany and the UK continue to grow, the rest of Europe is struggling.
Werth drew attention to China and the Pacific Rim as exciting areas for investment. There is a push towards automation in China and the life science market is particularly strong due to the aging Chinese population and the rise in the use of medical insurance.
Other areas of growth predicted include silicon photonics and semiconductor manufacturing, which is expected to pick up towards the end of 2015 according to Dirk Rothweile, executive VP at Jenoptik’s Optical Systems division.
Mottay noted that there were opportunities for industrialisation of many photonics processes that, as yet, are still largely at the R&D stage, such as nanoprocessing and to a certain extent additive manufacturing. He also said that, in the future, more open collaboration between companies will be needed to develop certain photonics technologies. Eskilson also raised the issue of developing the workforce in optics and photonics and encouraging more graduates to begin careers in the industry.
While there is still much to be done to foster growth in photonics, with strengthening US and Asian markets, the signs are positive for the industry.