ANALYSIS & OPINION
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Stopping by in Stuttgart

Matthew Dale reports from this year's Lasys, the international trade fair for laser material processing (Image Bildnachweis Messe Stuttgart)

The market for high-power diode lasers sources grew by approximately 15 per cent in 2017.

That was a key finding at Lasys, the international trade fair for laser material processing, held in Stuttgart, Germany, in June. The expansion brings the worldwide diode laser market to a total of €195 million, representing a two-digit share of the overall laser market.

The news was delivered by Dr Christoph Ullmann, managing director of Laserline, who explained that while fibre lasers still remain the largest laser market, the market for high-power diode laser sources continues to expand, with customers becoming increasingly aware that the technology is an attractive alternative to established lasers.

‘Integrators, system installers and plant providers are offering more and more of their technical solutions with diode lasers,’ said Ullmann. 'The ease of integration, low cost and high reliability of these laser sources are important factors in the increased acceptance of the technology.’

At Lasys, 5,800 attendees had the chance to visit 189 exhibitors from a total of 23 nations. (Image Bildnachweis Messe Stuttgart)

According to Ullmann, not only is the power of diode lasers continuing to increase – with systems in output ranges of up to 60kW now available – but developers are also continually enhancing their beam quality. For direct diode cutting systems in the 3-4kW range, for example, the beam quality has now become comparable to fibre lasers at 4-8mm mrad. In addition, sources between 4-25kW that are used for metal additive manufacturing, coating, hard soldering, and heat treatment can now be offered with beam qualities of 30-100mm mrad.

It was also reported by Ullmann that the development of innovative beam-shaping solutions such as multi-spot modules, which allow the energy distribution and beam geometry of a diode laser to be adapted, are enabling diode lasers to be used for new demanding material processing applications. Laserline’s triple-spot-module, for example, can be used for the hard soldering of hot-dip galvanised sheets in the automotive industry – a technology that won the 2018 Innovation Award for Laser Technology at AKL last month.

In addition to new applications, diode lasers are increasingly taking ground in established applications such as welding, where their use is seen to be growing at a disproportionately high rate, according to Ullmann. Positive growth is also being observed in protective coating applications, despite weak demand from the oil and gas industry.

New manufacturing technologies for electrical contacting in batteries in the growing segment of e-mobility are driving the usage of new diode sources up to 700W in the visible blue range (450nm) – which, Ullmann said, are being used to achieve process reliability in the heat conduction welding of highly reflective metals such as copper and gold.

Blue diode sources up to 700W in out power are being used to achieve process reliability in the heat conduction welding of highly reflective metals such as copper and gold (Image: Laserline)

E-mobility has been identified as an area of tremendous growth potential for lasers due to the large number of fabrication steps they can be used in. In addition to the joining of cells in prismatic batteries via aluminium and copper welding with lasers, another application that shows great promise for laser technology in e-mobility – according to Dr Armin Renneisen, managing director of Coherent Rofin’s industrial lasers and systems business segment – is the welding of metal hairpins in electric motors. These hairpins remove the need to wind copper in the manufacturing of ‘windings’ for these motors, which can be very time consuming.

According to Dr Rüdiger Brockmann, director of industry, product management and marketing at Trumpf Laser-und Systemtechnik, the volume of queries that Trumpf has had regarding its laser manufacturing technologies for e-mobility shows that the market is preparing for large-scale production, and that the groundwork for the industrialisation of the e-mobility sector has been laid. ‘Now it’s time to launch mass production operations and to develop and establish the right products and processes for those [e-mobility] operations,’ he commented.

Preparations in the East to participate in the West

Asia was reported by Renneisen to be the continual dominant region for e-mobility, with China making clear its intentions of leading the sector by aiming to have one fifth of all its sold vehicles be electrically powered by 2025. The country’s economic performance, which grew by 6.8 per cent relative to the first quarter of the previous year, continues to heavily influence the Asian laser market.

Renneisen also highlighted that a considerable shift in priority is currently underway in China, one that could change how the country is perceived on a global scale.

China cannot remain the world’s workbench forever,’ he said. ‘Wages have risen too high for that. As a consequence, the Chinese want to manufacture higher value products and rid themselves of their reputation as a supplier of cheap wares.’

Approximately 1.3 million patents were registered in China last year, 18 times more than in Germany and twice as many as in the US.

‘This clearly shows the tendency which is establishing in China – namely with increasing wages, higher production cost and better technologies – that they are getting ready for western markets,’ Renneisen added.

Asia is also showing strength in laser processing for the production of medical devices following a disproportionately high growth in demand, stemming from rapid population growth and longer life expectancy. A range of laser technology operating between UV and mid-IR wavelengths are used here, enabling smaller medical tools and implants to be produced for use in minimally invasive surgery.

Black marking can be perormed with lasers to form characters and patterns with a high contrast ratio while imparting no heat to the material. (Image Bildnachweis Messe Stuttgart)

In addition to enabling medical instruments to be made smaller, lasers are also being used increasingly to inscribe stainless steel instruments directly via ‘black marking’ – a process that uses ultrashort pulses to form characters and patterns with a high contrast ratio, irrespective of the viewing angle, while imparting no heat to the material. The process is particularly well-suited for implementing unique device identification (UDI) on medical instruments, and can also be used to blacken anodised aluminium surfaces.

Southeast Asia was reported to be showing particular prominence in the medical manufacturing market, with Singapore currently acting as the main driver and Malaysia also having been heavily invested in by medical technology firms. On a global scale however, the US still ranks ahead of China and Germany in the production of medical technology goods.

European market development

Following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the resulting 15 per cent fall in exchange rate against the euro has led to prices increasing in the region, it was reported by Brockmann of Trumpf. While the low exchange rate currently benefits the UK’s export market, it is still unclear how the Brexit decision will affect economic development in the region over the long term. Some customers have even postponed their investments until a clearer business situation develops, according to Brockmann.

The investment climate for laser systems in Italy was reported to be in good shape, particularly as a result of continued funding incentives in support of industry 4.0. Meanwhile, in France, investments in laser-based material processing are going mainly towards R&D facilities, rather than production, Brockmann said, with aerospace continuing to be a secure growth market for laser technology in the region. In Spain, a sustained investment has been observed in the nation’s automotive industry that is even stronger than investments being made in France or Italy. It was also reported that the effects of the recent referendum in Catalonia have appeared to have had no current effect.

While the situation in Eastern Europe has remained very stable in recent months, continued growth is expected in the region’s laser technology sector – according to Brockmann, who explained that the only cloud on the horizon for the region is the ongoing sanctions in Russia, which continue to serve as a very strong impediment to market access for German laser technology.

In a report given by Gerhard Hein, managing director of the VDMA’s working committee for lasers and laser systems for material processing, it was said that Germany-located firms involved in the committee produced approximately €931 million-worth of laser-assisted manufacturing systems equipped with either CO2, solid state or diode lasers last year, representing a 6 per cent increase over 2016. Incoming order volume for laser systems expanded by 10 per cent in 2017 to €1.3 billion, a vigorous increase from the 3 per cent expansion reported in 2016. Exports of laser systems increased 12 per cent to €772 million.

On a global scale the production of both beam sources and laser systems was reported to be very positive at Lasys. (Image: VDMA)

Figures for laser beam sources, rather than systems, were not so positive for Germany in 2017. Production volume in the segment decreased by 5 per cent to €446 million, while incoming orders declined by 1.5 per cent to €473 million. Exports of beam sources also declined by 2 per cent to €313 million. For lower power beam sources, 64 per cent of the exports were to the Asian market, a 10 per cent larger share than the previous year. For higher power beam sources, the percentage of exports to China fell by 4 per cent to approximately 25 per cent, and the percentage of exports to Japan and ‘other Asia’ fell by 2 per cent, also to a 25 per cent.

On a global scale the production of both beam sources and laser systems is looking to be very positive, with VDMA committee members reporting a 7.8 per cent increase in the value of beam sources produced to €677.5 million, and a considerable 23.8 per cent increase in the value of laser systems produced to €1.22 billion.

Despite the continuing substitution of CO2 lasers for sheet cutting with solid state systems being in full force at the end of last year, the ratio of CO2-assisted systems to those equipped with solid state lasers in terms of value rose disproportionately by 3 per cent to 36 per cent. The export of CO2 systems also saw consolidation, according to Hein. It was explained in multiple presentations throughout Lasys, the Stuttgart Technology Forum and at a European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) executive meeting on industrial lasers, that CO2 lasers, specifically those manufactured by Trumpf, are increasingly being used to perform extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) at 13.5nm in microprocessor production, and are set to become the standard production tool for such devices in the future.

Now hiring: skilled personnel

With regards to the labour market figures for Germany, the only current dark cloud that was reported by Brockmann was the ongoing industry-wide shortfall in professional resources, a topic that was also discussed by a panel of industry experts during the show’s Lasers in Action Forum.

‘Recruitment is unfortunately getting more and more difficult,’ confirmed panellist Basil Garabet, CEO of NKT Photonics. ‘The industry has been through both up and down periods in the last 15 to 20 years, and the problem that we’ve seen is that there is both a lot of veterans in the industry and a lot of people who have only recently gone into photonics. Between these levels of experience is a gap, and that gap occurred somewhere between the years 2000-2010, where due to the telecom and 2008 crashes people weren’t seeing the photonics and telecom industries as something they’d want to get into.’

A panel of experts discussed how making the switch to laser technology from conventional mechanical processes has become easier (Image Bildnachweis Messe Stuttgart)

Although photonics is now an exciting and faster pace industry that is drawing in new talent, according to Garabet, ‘…there is still a gap in finding good people who can hit the ground running.’

Panellist Dr Ulf Quentin, head of industry management for microtechnologies at Trumpf Laser-und Systemtechnik, added that while Germany has quite a large supply of engineers and physicists that come in from the optical and laser technology field, there is also an increasingly large demand for such personnel. ‘The competition is getting tougher because currently the demand is growing a little faster than the supply actually is, so I would like to see more people going into the optical fields,’ he said.

As the sales manager Lasermet, panellist David Lawton described how the field of laser safety faces its own unique challenges when searching for new talent. ‘You can’t go out and find someone who has a degree of laser safety knowledge and experience off the shelf,’ he explained. ‘We therefore have to go out and instead look for a particular set of skills, and then train the laser safety knowledge ourselves.’ While this method of recruitment comes with its own challenges, it also instils a level of commitment in employees that have been trained by the company, according to Lawton – meaning they tend to stay a lot longer, resulting in a lower turnover rate of staff overall. Lawton added that there are currently only 45 registered laser protection advisors in the UK, compared to the approximately 1,500 registered for radiation safety.

Speaking with Laser Systems Europe, the panel discussed how their firms encourage young minds to persue careers in lasers and optics.

'We are part of forums at universities, we advertise, we come to shows such as Lasys, we use every opportunity to present ourselves as a possible solution for a young person’s career interest,' said Jean-Paul Nicolet, head of laser business development and market support at GF Machining Solutions. 'You have to be present, visible and attractive.'

'We work with a number of universities on very specific programmes,' said Garabet. 'We recruit those persuing a degree or doctorate and work with them on these programmes, and then keep them on following the completeion of their degree.

'We need to spend more time on it however. It’s like a football team – you can’t just keep on recruiting stars, you need to train new players, otherwise you’ll have no feeder into your engineering talents. Additionally when you train them yourself they come without the bad habits that they’ve acquired at other companies or previous situations they’ve been in.'

'The laser and optics industry is very dynamic, is growing, and has a lot of interesting challenges for young engineers and physicists,' commented Quentin. 'On the recruitment side I would say the first challenge is to show these aspects to as many people as possible. We do this by going to universities and giving guest lectures and hosting courses to show the variety of what you can do with laser technology.'

Embracing the beam

The topic of making the switch to laser technology from conventional mechanical solutions was also addressed by the panel, and whether or not the discussion with potential customers had become easier.

‘If you look back over the past 20 to 30 years, it’s remarkable to see how many laser processes have been introduced in the industry and how vast the portfolio is,’ said Quentin. ‘But it’s also amazing that some of the processes that we would consider traditional laser processes, like laser cutting and welding, are still sometimes challenges to introduce.’

He explained that one of the difficulties faced by those using mechanical solutions is that while the net geometry of a mechanically processed part is determined by the shape of the tool, using a laser instead requires multiple parameters to first be considered, which is where having previous experience or training with the technology would be beneficial. ‘That is, I think, one of the reasons why it is challenging for somebody who is not from the laser world to switch to laser technology,’ he said.

These challenges are becoming less significant however due to the decreasing level of expertise that is required to use a modern laser system. ‘At the user level it is rather easy to operate a laser today,’ Quentin confirmed.

‘If you look at macro material processing then everything is built into the machines and its more or less plug-and-play, switch it on and everything should work fine. Going towards the micro and ultrafast regime it gets a bit more difficult because parameter space is harder to handle. For the operator, however, this should not make much of a difference…’ Ultrafast and micro-processing applications are instead challenging for those that design them into a production cycle, as they are often required to perform multiple tests in order to determine the optimal parameters of a process. ‘I would expect in 5 to 10 years, however, that even this will become easier with the help of sensor systems,’ Quentin commented.

Overall Quentin concluded that the discussion to switch to laser technology has become easier in recent years, not only due to the increasing simplicity of user interfaces, but also because the reach of laser technology has increased as well.

‘More and more customers, especially the smaller ones, have not only seen laser technology at a trade show, but also at their suppliers, peers, or even their own customers,’ he said, ‘So the confidence to go and bring in a laser process is a bit higher now, and the technology is no longer considered difficult or exotic. You do, however, need the right partner in order to do it.’

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