Tim Gillett discovers how French laser company Quantel has survived and thrived since its formation in 1970
For someone who spent the first 10 years of his career in banking, Alain de Salaberry has cashed in on the photonics industry very effectively.
De Salaberry’s company, Quantel, was originally formed in 1970 – and when he bought it in 1993 it was still a relatively modest operation, specialising in scientific, mainly tuneable lasers and operating on an annual turnover of around €3 million.
Fast-forward 20 years and the Quantel Group has more than 300 employees worldwide, 110 distributors globally, and offices in France (the company headquarters are in Paris), Germany, USA, Brazil, and Thailand and China.
These days Quantel offers products that meet the requirements of industrial, military and scientific applications including: pulsed solid-state lasers (Nd:YAG, Nd:YLF and Nd:Glass); fibre lasers for marking and engraving, atom cooling and trapping; tuneable dye lasers; and high-power laser diodes.
De Salaberry admits that he had no in-depth knowledge of lasers when he started the company, despite graduating from a polytechnic where he studied quantum physics, but could see the potential of the laser market.
He explains: ‘When I bought Quantel in 1993 I also acquired the activity of a small company in Clermont Ferrand, in central France. The company had gone into bankruptcy, but this gave an opening to me and I decided to purchase its business in ultrasound for ophthalmology. It was this decision that allowed us to develop the medical division of Quantel, and also to introduce our first lasers for photocoagulation (a process for treating a range of eye conditions, involving the use of lasers to cauterise blood vessels, and also in urological and gastrointestinal medical procedures). De Salaberry continues: ‘This was in 1995 – it seems like a very long time ago now. But it was a crucial stage in our development; we continued to develop the medical division and the industrial/medical scientific divisions in parallel and they still each represent approximately 50 per cent of our global activity.’
The economic conditions over the last few years have represented a challenge for Quantel, but a wide range of products and applications – along with a constant effort to innovate and stimulate laser markets – have brought the company success.
Alain de Salaberry
‘At one point we had 350 employees,’ says de Salaberry, ‘but we sold the dermatology division last year. In this particular market I felt that we were too small compared to other, bigger operators in the USA, and as a company we decided it would be better to concentrate on ophthalmology and also the industrial division, which has required some investment but which is now progressing very well.’
Diversity has also proved to be one of Quantel’s strong points.
De Salaberry explains: ‘There are many markets and many applications. Some are doing very well, like the lidar market. The scientific market is not too bad – but not exceptional – the flat-panel display market is not at its peak at the moment, but I have to say the medical market is excellent.’
As far as plans for the next few years are concerned, De Salaberry says the company is inspired to keep innovating in as wide a range of areas as possible: ‘As an organisation we have many technologies.
‘We have lots of technology suitable for ophthalmology, and the industrial and scientific markets in general.
‘In terms of our solid-state lasers we are renewing our product line; we have recently introduced a new product named the Q-smart 850, a pulsed Nd:YAG laser, and we are going to introduce other similar products in the near future. We have a line of diode pumped systems in which we have invested heavily – we are always aiming to improve our offering and bring innovation to the market.
‘Innovation has always been the basis of all our strategies – to bring new applications, new functions, and new products to the market – and this will remain the basis of the company’s strategy in the future.’
Ramping up the joules
Quantel is playing an important part in the Laser Mégajoule (LMJ) project, a key element of the French Atomic Energy Commission Simulation programme.
The project is based around an inertial confinement fusion device being built at Bordeaux, in the south-west of the country. The long-term intention is for the Laser Mégajoule to produce 1.8MJ of power – comparable to a similar United States facility, the National Ignition Facility, located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.
The programme provides a long-lasting alternative for nuclear simulations after the termination of nuclear tests. Quantel is involved in the design and manufacturing of the pre-amplification laser modules (PAM). These modules amplify a nanojoule source up to a joule level, as well as shape the pulse both spatially and temporally.
Quantel is manufacturing the first four PAMs, in order to equip a LMJ arm (eight beams). As many as 88 PAMs will be delivered by the end of the programme.
De Salaberry told Laser Systems Europe: ‘We are very proud to be part of this initiative; on a national level it is a huge project and for Quantel as a company it is of significant importance.’
Quantel PAMs in use at the Laser Mégajoule project in Bordeaux