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Asian market slows, while Europe set to grow, VDMA reports

Photonics growth in Asia has begun to ease up, while the European industrial laser market is expected to grow over the next six months, it was reported by the VDMA Mechanical Engineering Industry Association during Laser World of Photonics in Munich last month.

The VDMA provided an update on the technological and regional market developments of the laser industry via a panel of experts in the wake of two recent market studies carried out by the VDMA and Photonics21.

Thomas Merk, executive vice president and general manager of industrial lasers and systems at Coherent Rofin, spoke on the growth rates and trends in Asia, expressing that although it is still clear that the region remains dominant in the photonics industry – roughly 50 per cent of Coherent’s business takes place there – and that the development of local markets can now be observed, growth in general has begun to slow down.

Material processing is seen to be one of the fastest growing markets in Asia, where a trend towards higher power lasers exists – while 2.5kW lasers were widely used in the region two years ago, lasers between 3kW and 8kW are now preferred for typical welding and cutting applications.

Automotive is still reported to be a great driving factor in Asia as well, with 28 million cars sold in China alone throughout 2016. Lasers are increasingly being used in the sector for battery and body-in-white welding, along with cutting airbags and even glass.

Lastly, a clear increasing trend towards laser-based medical device manufacturing has also been observed in Asia, an application that originally saw development across Europe and the US.

In terms of laser material processing in Europe, Gerhard Hein, managing director of the VDMA, commented that although the last quarter of 2015 wasn’t positive, which consequently affected development in 2016, 2017 looks to be a promising year, with the following six months anticipated to be a period of growth for manufacturers in the laser industry. The success of ultrashort pulsed lasers is expected to help drive this period of growth, having already positively affected the market for the past two years.

The VDMA recently conducted a report on the German photonics market that revealed domestic production of the German photonics sectors reaching €31 billion in 2016 – a 30 per cent share in European domestic production and a 16 per cent share in global domestic production. Thirty-seven per cent of the €31 billion 2016 figure is attributable to laser material processing, lithography, image processing and measurement technology. The market report states that German domestic production is expected to grow to around €39 billion in 2020 at an annual growth rate of 5.7 per cent.

The report also highlighted a diminishing German photovoltaics market, which within the space of a few years shrunk considerably because of tough competition from China, with German solar cell manufacturers either halting production or moving operations to Asia. In 2016 the remaining production of the German solar industry amount to €1.7 billion.

Dr Christian Schmitz, vice president of lasers for Trumpf, highlighted that there is now a clear industry trend towards using higher quality lasers, and increasing support for those looking to use lasers in Industry 4.0.

In a brief update on regional developments in Europe, it was highlighted by Schmitz that the highest and broadest penetration of laser technology continues to be in Germany, with most applications in the country coming from integrators. It was also reported that the photonics investment climate is currently looking good in Italy, that Spain’s laser market is developing well, that Eastern Europe is showing positive development, and that a number of commercial programmes are positively affecting photonics development in France.

Dr Christoph Ullmann, managing director of Laserline, reported on the state of the €200-250 million diode laser market, which is increasingly gaining ground from CO2 lasers. Having already been established in many niche markets, diode lasers are now expected to become further established in hard material applications where good beam qualities are needed. Ullmann also reported on the potential of completely new diode applications emerging with the recent development of 100-500W prototype blue laser diodes at Laserline, which are only a few months old and show promise in copper processing applications where the blue wavelength shows good absorbance. 

According to Volker Krause of Laserline, these blue laser diodes are one of Laserline’s highest innovative research topics, and have been funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and multiple research organisations for little over a year. At Laserline’s booth on the exhibition floor the company displayed its new 500W blue laser diode system with 450nm wavelength. The blue diodes are intended to address the high reflectance issues experienced when processing copper with infrared sources, as with only a two per cent absorption rate, infrared lasers are highly inefficient at processing copper and requires large amounts of energy to do so. 

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