Keeping safe

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Safety specialist Laservision's history starts almost 40 years ago, as Warren Clark discovers

The story of Laservision can be traced back to 1973, when corrective eyewear manufacturer Rupp & Hubrach started making laser safety eyewear. Until then, with the laser little more than a decade old, there had been no need for such a product, and Rupp & Hubrach became pioneers in the field.

By 1987, the laser safety eyewear market had grown to such a size that Rupp & Hubrach started Laservision as a joint venture with Uvex Safety, a name more associated with ski helmets and goggles. The products combined Rupp & Hubrach’s expertise in safety glass with the frame design and construction of Uvex, creating high-quality products that became popular very quickly.

The Uvex Group, of which Laservision remains a part to this day, employs more than 2,700 people and has a turnover of more than €330m, around two thirds of which comes from its Safety Group. In 2004, the owners of Rupp & Hubrach retired, selling their shares in Laservision to Uvex, meaning that the company is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Uvex. As a consequence of that sale, Laservision was able to move to the main Uvex location and fit out an unused facility to the exact specifications it needed, including a cleanroom for its coating processes.

Peter Bura has been managing director of Laservision for the last nine years

Today, Laservision’s product portfolio falls into four main areas: eyewear, laser safety windows, large area protection, and small filters and accessories. Of these, eyewear is by far the largest. Peter Bura, who joined the company as managing director in 2003, having previously worked for Siemens and Laser 2000, says that the company’s strength can be found in the flexibility of its product portfolio.

‘Even within eyewear, we have a choice of glass, polycarbonate or reflective coating,’ he says. ‘Whether it’s the absorbing properties of the glass, the specially developed dyes within the polycarbonate lenses, or a reflective coating in front of the glass, we can provide a solution – or a combination of solutions – to suit the needs of the laser user.’

For laser safety windows used to provide visual access to laser cabinets, again there is a choice of glass or polycarbonate. Glass options provide higher levels of protection, but are limited to window sizes of around 20 x 30cm. Larger windows of up to 60 x 90cm, but with lower levels of protection, can be achieved with the plastic option.

‘We have also developed an active laser protection system,’ explains Bura. ‘Here, we use a three-layer solution – two outer layers of absorptive plastics with a waveguide layer in between. The waveguide layer directs a potentially harmful laser beam to a sensor, which is set to shut down the laser system immediately before any damage is done. This is usually achieved within 8ms.’

For the research and industrial market, Laservision provides large area protection, which is usually a flexible combination of stiff barriers, curtain materials and laser windows, all of which have been tested to work with laser systems and offer the lab users appropriate levels of protection.

The final product area is that of small filters and accessories, and it is one that is growing largely because of the increase in the use of lasers in the biomedical market. Here, lasers are often used in conjunction with microscopes and cameras, and the delicate optics and mechanics therein also need protection from potentially powerful laser beams.

The product area also includes associated software, which can be used with beam test and measurement systems to help integrators define the level of laser protection required.

Laservision is based in Fürth, near Nürnberg, Germany, alongside its parent company Uvex. There are 38 employees directly involved in Laservision based there, with a further 28 based in the US.

‘The differences in standards between Europe and the US means that, although the product design is basically the same worldwide, there are differences depending on whether the products need to meet EN standards (for Europe) or ANSI standards (for the US),’ says Bura. ‘But even our US customers sometimes require products that meet EN standards, as they often ship laser products into Europe.’

In Europe, Laservison’s largest market is in industrial lasers, while in the US it is medical, which includes aesthetics, surgery, eye surgery and dentistry. ‘We also have a significant market in the R&D sector,’ continues Bura. ‘We forget sometimes that laser technology is still relatively young, so there is a great deal of research going on all the time as we learn more and more about what lasers can do.’

Laservision also serves a number of niches – including the military, where the use of laser pointers to blind pilots is a growing concern. ‘It’s difficult to convince pilots that they need to wear laser safety eyewear as a matter of course,’ says Bura, ‘but if these threats continue, then they will have no choice.’

During Bura’s decade or more at the head of Laservision, he has seen many changes, the most significant of which has been the deluge of solid-state diode lasers. ‘Now, lasers can be made at a fraction of the cost of what was once possible,’ he says. ‘The technology in those laser pointer pens can be mass produced at a unit price of a handful of euros, but 10 years ago, that sort of power would have cost tens of thousands of euros to generate. Basically, this means there are now many more laser sources in operation in a huge range of applications, and it has opened up markets for our laser safety products as a result.’

Indeed, Laservision’s own product development has had to keep pace with the ever-increasing power levels achieved by today’s lasers. ‘Companies are developing lasers at higher powers and different wavelengths every day,’ says Bura. ‘It’s a challenge for us. We do work with some laser manufacturers earlier in the process – so, by the time they launch their laser, we can provide the appropriate safety protection to accompany it.’

Bura believes there are many reasons why customers should choose Laservision over its competitors. ‘We’ve been around a long time,’ he says, ‘and we hold the number-one position in Europe. Being part of Uvex means we continue to take advantage of the frame design capabilities that company has, which we see as a huge positive factor.’

In conclusion Bura says that, ironically, it is the ‘laser guys’ who are most reluctant to purchase laser protection. ‘Talk to an automotive manufacturer and they immediately get the need to have protection,’ he says. ‘But guys who have been working with lasers all their lives think they know what they’re doing and don’t believe they need protection. And guess where the highest proportion of safety incidents involving lasers can be found? That’s right, among the laser guys!’