FEATURE
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First in safety

As Lasermet reaches 25 years old, Warren Clark explores the history of this leader in laser safety

Lasermet is celebrating 25 years in the laser industry, and has earned a reputation as one of the leading names in laser safety in the UK and beyond.

Back in 1987, Professor Bryan Tozer had taken early retirement from a career at the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), where he had spent 17 years as the organisation’s laser safety officer.

His involvement and experience in laser safety led him to become chairman of the BSI Laser Safety Committee (a post he held until 2008). He later also be became chair of the European Laser Safety Committee for 16 years.

Lasermet (taking its name from ‘laser metrology’) was initially founded as a supplier of laser measurement systems, building on Tozer’s involvement at the physics research unit of the CEGB, where he was using lasers to perform optical inspections inside nuclear reactors to check for corrosion.

When Bryan’s son Paul joined the company in 1994 to handle the sales and marketing, Lasermet began making the shift towards the laser safety market, including the provision of products, consultancy and training.

Lasermet’s first foray into the supply of products was via the distribution of eyewear, as it was a largely untapped market in the UK. Soon, this was expanded to include illuminated signs, for which the only suppliers at the time were in the US. ‘We looked at what was around and decided we could manufacture it ourselves to a better standard,’ says Paul, now managing director. ‘Admittedly, it’s not the most exciting product! But it does have demand, and we have continued selling into this market – and have recently developed some very nice LED-based signs. Our Mini-LED sign is designed to be mounted at eye height, which makes it hard to miss when placed next to or actually on a door. Although conceived as products for laser warning signs, we do sell these illuminated signs into a range of industries now.’

The next major development step in the company’s history came when it won a contract to design a series of 11 interlock laser safety systems for a customer. ‘Available laser interlock systems were pretty poor,’ says Paul. ‘They were little more than a relay in a box, and certainly didn’t conform to any of the appropriate standards.’

So, the company designed its first laser interlock safety control system, the ICS-1, dedicated to the needs of the laser lab, and conforming to the necessary Machinery Directive standards. Its function is to shut down the laser in the event that, for example, a technician opens the door to the lab, and so on. Being a fully integrated system, it also links with warning sign control etc. Options may include linking the safety control system to maglocked doors, or having a time-limited override facility. There are also various ways of connecting the interlock system to the laser itself in order to control the shutdown process.

A significant function of the system is that it is required to retain a safety function in the event of internal component failures. ‘The danger with a simple “relay in a box” set-up is that the relay could fail in the “on” position,’ says Paul. ‘When you’ve got powerful lasers around, you need to be able to do something a little bit cleverer than that.’

Since the ICS-1 was introduced, Lasermet has sold more than 1,000 systems, and the product has evolved through the ICS-5 to the most recent ICS-15XM.

‘When we first introduced the system, there was a bit of education involved,’ says Paul. ‘But once people see the product – which is clearly best practice in laser labs – they instantly see its benefits.’ Such a reaction has helped cement Lasermet  as a market-leader in the UK and Europe.

Another successful line has been laser blocking curtains. ‘Again, these were largely being imported from the US,’ says Paul, ‘but we used our knowledge of lasers to develop our own range. The blocking material needs to obviously have properties that prevent a laser from penetrating it, and that doesn’t break down or burn through easily.’

Such products are available made to measure, with options such as Velcro fixings and so on, as well as similar offerings such as laser blocking roller blinds and screens. Its more recent solid screens are even suitable for use with multi kilowatt lasers. Although these are fairly standard products, many of the systems need some degree of customisation as every lab is different.

Lasermet now has an extensive range of laser safety products, to which it is adding new lines all the time – indeed, there were seven product launches in 2011 alone.

On the testing side, it is one of only two sites in the country that is UKAS-accredited for testing to the EN 60825-1 standard for laser safety (the other is the National Physical Laboratory (NPL)). The company also undertakes laser protection advisory work, principally for organisations such as hospitals and cosmetic clinics.

When Paul first joined Lasermet in 1994, turnover was very low – under £100k – but last year it achieved revenues in excess of £2m and a staff of 18. ‘In recent years, we’ve seen significant year-on-year growth, even throughout the financial turmoil of 2008/9,’ says Paul. Its market is still largely the UK, but Lasermet has distribution in the US, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand – and the network is continuing to develop rapidly.

Exporting to the US has its own challenges, particularly in relation to FDA regulations. ‘Every product that has a laser in it has to be registered with the FDA,’ says Paul. ‘We carry out this process on behalf of the client to ensure the product can get into the country without any problems.’

Going forward, Paul is excited about Lasermet’s latest products, which include the Optoblok, an optical table laser guarding system. ‘When lasers are mounted on an optical table, if a laser misses an optic, for example, it could go firing off around the room,’ explains Paul. ‘Obviously this is potentially very dangerous, so a laser guarding system helps reduce this risk considerably. We worked with the NPL, who had prototyped just such a system, to develop and commercialise it ready for production.’

Also launched was the Laser Jailer, an active laser guarding system, which combines a fail-safe detection technique with the company’s existing interlock system technology. It has been designed to contain high power laser beams in a relatively small and light enclosure. It has an active inner enclosure, comprising detector tiles connected to the Interlock Controller. If a stray laser beam impacts on one of the tiles, the Interlock will immediately switch off the laser. ‘We developed this specifically for a client that was using a 16kW laser designed for drilling through rock,’ says Paul. ‘For this reason, a passive enclosure simply wouldn’t have been effective as the laser would have burned through very quickly. The active enclosure ensures the laser is shut down within 50ms.’

Paul is proud of the success of the company and continues: ‘When you take into account the extensive range of laser safety products - most of which are designed and manufactured in Britain - and the services provided such as laser safety training, laser testing and consultancy, Lasermet is certainly a world leader in its field.’