Leaders in lasers

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For 40 years, JK Lasers has been developing industrial lasers around the world, as Warren Clark discovers

The story of JK Lasers begins in the early 1970s, when Jim K Wright (the JK in JK lasers) and Ron Burbeck started the company in Rugby, UK. It manufactured pulsed YAG lasers, and quickly became one of the first industrial laser providers in the world. It established itself as a solution provider for cutting, welding and drilling applications; these markets are still the company’s main focus.

There have been various changes to the name and constitution of JK Lasers, beginning with its acquisition by Lumonics in 1982. During that decade, it produced a series of industrial CW YAG lasers, many of which are still in use. Indeed, leading aerospace companies still use such lasers for drilling turbine parts.

The ‘JK’ became a brand name of products within Lumonics, which itself became the largest industrial laser company during the 90s. The automotive industry emerged as a major focus for JK Lasers towards the end of the 90s, resulting in the development of the company’s first 4kW Nd:YAG lasers for body-in-white welding. It also represented a period of growth for JK Lasers’ headquarters in Rugby, UK, with expansion in the form of new production buildings.

In 1999, the company merged with General Scanning (GSI) and became GSI Lumonics. At the turn of the century, the automotive market became quite tough – and, by 2002, the company pulled out of it altogether, closing down a number of product lines that had been developed specifically for that market.

At the same time, the telecoms market was also suffering, leading to the closure of the GSI Lumonics facility in Canada. This meant all laser production for GSI Lumonics was once again focused in Rugby. In 2003, as part of this consolidation of laser technology, GSI Lumonics purchased Spectron Laser Systems, then run by Mark Greenwood, and also based in Rugby. The company was renamed again, this time to the GSI Group Laser Division.

During the next couple of years, the company rebuilt its lamp-pumped laser line completely, before beginning work on a new technology – fibre lasers. By 2008, its initial low power fibre lasers were launched.

Greenwood is now general manager of the company, which has recently completed a rebrand back to its original name, JK Lasers. ‘It made sense to go back to our original name,’ he says, ‘as we now have our own distinct brand and sit within the GSI Group alongside other companies such as Cambridge Technology, Synrad and Continuum.’

In a further move to focus on specific technologies, JK Lasers sold off its excimer laser product line. ‘This has allowed us to focus more on cutting, welding and drilling metals,’ says Greenwood, ‘which is achieved via our fibre lasers and our YAG lasers. Our fibre laser products now range from 50W to 3kW. This year we’ll have quadrupled our fibre laser output, which is all done here in Rugby.

‘JK Lasers has always been about application-driven sales. It’s never been just about the laser sources, but also added value in terms of beam delivery, scanning systems, software and other enabling tools. We don’t install the full laser system as such, but we do tailor solutions that take care of all the laser elements in that system.’

JK’s customers have evolved over time and, in certain cases, have come full circle. ‘In the 90s, we sold a significant number of lasers into the electronics industry,’ says Greenwood. ‘The technology was used for applications such as welding batteries, precision cutting electronic stencils and micro welding flexure arms. In many cases, we’re now going back to these customers, whose systems are now 20 years old, and replacing what they have with new technology. This might be replacing an Nd:YAG laser  with a fibre laser scanner solution, for example.

Mark Greenwood, general manager of JK Lasers

‘We also have traditional “individual” customers who require lasers for applications such as car parts and micromachining. We’re very much focused on working with our customers and solving specific problems, whether that is in their factories or in our own applications laboratories.

‘In terms of newer applications, our multi-kW fibre lasers are helping us make significant in-roads into the flatbed cutting market.

‘Geographically, we’re seeing a lot of activity in eastern Europe. The switch to China has slowed and many companies are moving their manufacturing to eastern Europe or Turkey, which is outside the euro.’

JK Lasers employs more than 150 people worldwide, around 100 of whom are in Rugby and are involved in manufacturing and engineering. Around 30 people operate from a facility in Suzhou, China, and there are also offices in the US, Japan, Italy and Germany.

‘We have distribution throughout the world too,’ says Greenwood. ‘But we’re switching to a more active sales management strategy wherever possible. With a rapidly expanding product range and quite a technical sell, we’re constantly reviewing our sales force and looking to expand into territories where we’re not directly represented.’

With lasers becoming accessible to more people, because of a better price/performance ratio, it has changed the type of customer with whom JK Lasers deals. ‘The laser has certainly become a much more “go to” tool than ever before,’ continues Greenwood. ‘There’s also a lot more knowledge out there – customers tend to know more about what to expect from a laser.

‘A lot of the focus within our engineering team is not just on the laser itself, but on making it easy to integrate and easy to use, with lots of tools and beam delivery capabilities. At the end of the day, we ensure that the customer doesn’t have to do too much to get it to work. Indeed, in our replacement work, we always try to improve the “units per hour” rate – and that is helped by ensuring there’s little or no dead time in the operation of the laser.’

Looking ahead, JK Lasers will continue to seek new markets. ‘Our power is increasing all the time – our roadmap takes us up to 5 or 6kW next year,’ adds Greenwood. ‘We’re also working to drive down costs to make ourselves more competitive.’

Beyond fibre lasers, JK Lasers is also working on other projects – including work funded by the UK’s Technology Strategy Board on direct diode lasers, which will come to fruition in terms of products at some point next year. ‘This is very exciting for us,’ concludes Greenwood, ‘as it will give us a shared platform for both our fibre and direct diode products.’