The fibre explosion

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In the rapidly expanding market of fibre lasers, David Robson finds manufacturers are doing anything they can to get the edge over their competitors

Anyone who attended the Laser World of Photonics conference in Munich in June can be in no doubt that the fibre laser market is booming. IPG, SPI, Newport Spectra-Physics, Koheras, Jenoptik, and Trumpf were just a few of the exhibitors displaying their shining new fibre lasers, and talks at the Industry Workshops discussed how to apply these new products to everything from delicate scribing to heavy industrial machining.

There had been noticeably less faith in the new technology at the previous Laser meeting, two years ago, but perhaps the predicted annual market growth of 35 per cent may well account for some companies’ change of heart. With this growth comes greater competition, and it is by no means clear who the winners and losers will be. But the growing number of competitors hasn’t yet managed to dent the reported 75 per cent share of the market held by IPG.

This explosive growth could have important ramifications for everyone in the laser industry. ‘Fibre lasers will change the rules of the industry. This is truly a disruptive advance,’ says Gary Colquhoun, an industry development specialist at SPIE Europe.

Ironically, the fibre laser market rose out of the ashes of the telecommunications industry. The diode lasers used to pump fibre lasers with energy are remarkably similar to the laser amplifiers used to boost optical signals in long-distance networks, so when the telecom market collapsed, the laser suppliers had to find other avenues to exploit this budding new technology.

Typically buried underground and difficult to reach for maintenance, those laser amplifiers had to be highly reliable with long lifetimes (up to four years with no maintenance), making them ideal for demanding applications elsewhere in industry. Add to that excellent beam quality, an efficiency of roughly 30 per cent (compared to three per cent of lamp-pumped systems), and an enormous range in output powers, and they are the ideal laser source for many applications including medicine, industrial cutting, and welding.

Their beam quality means the user can control the beam’s shape, size, and energy distribution, giving greater precision than was possible with other lasers. Laser marking in particular is proving a particularly popular application of fibre lasers. ‘The world is going crazy in terms of the need to put marks on things,’ says Jack Gabzdyl, business development manager for SPI.

Their excellent precision has also meant that they are ideal for manufacturing delicate medical appliances, such as mesh tubes (stents) that hold open arteries. Fibre lasers are not just replacing other lasers in traditional applications, however. ‘Hopefully we’re opening up new markets,’ says Gabzdyl. ‘We’re expanding in a hundred different directions.’ In particular, SPI has been investigating the use of fibre lasers for cosmetic surgery, to rejuvenate skin and remove wrinkles. Silicon processing is another industry benefiting from the excellent control of these lasers. Their high powers have created new applications in high-speed metal cutting too.

To achieve even greater powers, in the kilowatt range, the fibres can be bundled together, and because of the high efficiency of conversion from electrical to optical energy, fewer diode pumps are needed than other solid state lasers, making them more compact. All these advantages make them a flexible tool.

‘You can have one fibre laser doing many jobs,’ says Bill Shiner, vice president of industrial products at IPG. ‘Because of their beam quality and dynamic range, the same laser can be used for all production tasks.’ One of the outstanding features that contributes to this flexibility is the stability of their beams: the wavelength will remain constant, both over time and through big changes in the power output.

‘It’s taken a while to build the credibility of these lasers, but even at high powers the number of applications coming out is remarkable,’ says Shiner.

IPG produces lasers with outputs from 5W to 40kW, and Shiner believes there will be little competition at the higher reaches of this range, for the moment at least. He thinks that most competition is concentrated on the 200-300W range. ‘They are competing with the conventional YAG laser too. It’s going be a circus down there.’

That’s not to say there isn’t the demand for competition. Customers like to have a choice of products available. ‘The market as a whole is looking for more than one sizeable supplier outside of IPG,’ says Allan Ashmead, head of worldwide laser sales at JDSU.

However, launching a laser into such a competitive environment is going to be a risky investment. To improve their chances of success, many companies are using their expertise in other areas to give them an edge.

Ashmead explained how JDSU is using its facilities for producing single emitter diodes now to produce fibre lasers in very high volumes, making them more affordable. Eventually, he believes the fibre laser could develop into a cost-effective, multipurpose tool for applications on the manufacturing floor not traditionally associated with other lasers.

Similarly, IPG produces its own diode pumps, making its products cheaper, and GSI is using its knowledge of applications to help tailor its lasers for the requirements of its customers. ‘It is very difficult to make money,’ says Mark Greenwood, technical director of the GSI Laser Division. ‘You need to invest a lot of infrastructure to compete.

A fibre laser from GSI cutting materials at high speeds.

‘A lot of the newer companies don’t have an industrial background, so they are creating scientific tools instead. They are making fibre lasers with no software, control backup, or machine safety features to ease integration.’ Instead, GSI knows to make its lasers more rugged, with back reflection to protect the laser, and its own user-friendly software.

Some observers believe that further developments in the technology could lead to fibre lasers becoming a viable alternative for the CO2 market.

‘This would open a massive market,’ says Dr Steve Turley, chief commercial officer of Bookham, which provides the diode pumps for other fibre laser manufacturers. ‘If we can attack the CO2 market, it would drive the next phase of growth.’

However, this depends on the price decreasing and power increasing. Like JDSU and other manufacturers, Bookham hopes to achieve this by using high-volume manufacturing techniques from the telecom industry. This also means that, in a possibly unstable market, it does not need to make new investments in infrastructure to take advantage of a growth that at times seems precarious.

‘I think there will be a shake out of the market, so some manufacturers will just focus on niche applications’ says Turley. It’s a view that seems to be shared by many in the industry: manufacturers need to find a selling point to save themselves from falling by the wayside in such a competitive environment, and the best way to do this is to serve applications that they already understand.

Some observers had predicted that the sudden explosion of suppliers offering fibre lasers may result in a collapse similar to that of the telecom industry that gave birth to the technology in the first place. However, it seems that the above strategies will be enough to save the sector from recession.

‘It’s really no different from the diode explosion,’ says GSI’s Mark Greenwood. ‘That market is so “nichey”, with lots of suppliers coming up with particular lasers for each niche. All the products available are so different. They won’t all compete.’ If the state of the diode lasers is anything to go by, it seems the fibre laser market as a whole will have a long and healthy future.

Gary Colquhoun from SPIE Europe, however, has a less optimistic view as to whether many manufacturers will actually take advantage of the opportunities that the wide range of applications has given them: ‘Precedent suggests lemming-like behaviour in chasing the same few applications as those targeted by IPG and other major forces.’