Playing the parts

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Laser SOS has cornered the market in laser refurbishment and repairs, as Warren Clark discovers

Toni Koszykowski, the founder and CEO of Laser SOS, rather stumbled across a career in photonics. In the early 1980s, he was working for a large US company that manufactured thick-film microcircuit paste, as used for printing thick film microcircuits. At the time, abrasive trimmers were used for adjusting the value of the resistors. ‘It was around 1983 or 1984 when ESI (Portland, Oregon) produced the first commercially-available thick film laser trimmer,’ says Koszykowski. ‘Up to that point, as far as I was aware, lasers were primarily R&D tools. This was the first time I had seen their potential for use in industrial processes.’

Noticing that the market for lasers was about to explode, Koszykowski realised that there was a huge market for service, support and spares. ‘I did some investigating,’ he says, ‘and found that the OEMs were charging a great deal of money for laser components and consumables, so I thought there was an opportunity there.’

And so, Laser SOS was incorporated in 1985 by Koszykowski and his wife, initially in the study of his house near Cambridge, UK. ‘We started with nothing at all – no equipment, no customers,’ he says. ‘I simply found business the old-fashioned way. I went to exhibitions and I knocked on a lot of doors. Since then we’ve generated business through other ways, including advertising and, of course, word-of-mouth. We’ve benefited from customers setting up new companies elsewhere, and coming back to us, effectively as a new customer.’

For the first decade, Laser SOS grew steadily as a reseller of laser components, until 1995, when the company began to retrofit existing laser systems. ‘We’d design the necessary components and get them made,’ says Koszykowski, ‘then source things like mirrors, rods, flashlamps and so on. Gradually we expanded the portfolio of products that we could retrofit, and we now supply components for lasers from more than 400 manufacturers. We’re probably now the largest provider of replacement and retrofit parts for lasers in the world.’

As the company grew, customers began asking Laser SOS to supply them not just with components, but with power supplies, RF drivers and so on. ‘We moved to a position where we could effectively provide the market with complete OEM systems,’ says Koszykowski. ‘I was reluctant to go into this market at first, because I knew it would take a lot of effort and a lot of people to do it properly. However, the demand was clearly there, and producing OEM lasers is now a significant part of our business.

‘We also developed our own diodes and other product lines that enabled us to supply ourselves and, later, our sister companies. So we now have our own products to push alongside the catalogue sales business.’

The evolution of the Laser SOS sister companies began with a chance meeting at the Laser World of Photonics show in Munich in  1990, when a representative from India met Koszykowski to discuss providing OEM lasers for use in machines for the diamond industry. ‘I was invited over to India,’ says Koszykowski, ‘and found that the diamond industry was just emerging. However, the lasers used for cutting the diamonds were being imported from places like Israel; they were expensive and the import duties were horrendously high.

‘We soon started to provide lamp-pumped lasers to them so they could build their own laser systems. This one business venture proved to be the making of us as a company, and funded our growth tremendously.’

Indeed, the success led to the

creation of Laser SOS India in 1997, a sister company that has five factories and employs more than 100 people. ‘We’ve installed more than 3,000 machines in India now, and enjoy a market share of more than 80 per cent,’ says Koszykowski.

Having been established for so long in India, Koszykowski is prepared for any competition that will inevitably arrive there. ‘As we produce our own diodes (which are replacing lamp pumps in the market), we’re already one step ahead, as any competitor would have to import them,’ he says.

In 2001, Laser SOS USA was founded, providing distribution and support to North and South America, followed in 2008 by Laser SOS Turkey. ‘We founded this for a number of reasons,’ explains Koszykowski. ‘Turkey, as a country, has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Moreover, its location puts us within easy reach of Russia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. The partnership was set up there to produce fibre laser markers for the European market, as well as provide sales, service and support for the aforementioned areas. Those areas represent huge numbers in terms of population.’

There are plans to launch Laser SOS Germany this year, placing the company at the heart of European markets. The company sells to 85 countries, with India, Turkey, US and Italy leading the way, and the Far East nations coming up fast behind.

Laser SOS employs 130 people worldwide, with 10 employees working in the UK office. This is the site that looks after design, drawing and component production. ‘We decided that we wouldn’t build machines here,’ says Koszykowski, ‘as we have the Indian operation where it can be done much cheaper.’

Koszykowski believes that the reason for his company’s longevity is that the OEMs against whom he competes ‘clearly don’t do their jobs properly’. ‘If they did,’ he says, ‘companies like us wouldn’t be in business. We can do the same jobs better and cheaper than they can.’

So, what does the future hold for Laser SOS? ‘We’re looking to develop into new areas,’ concludes Koszykowski. ‘It’s clear laser technology is moving very fast, with different technologies coming through. We need to be aware of all these things in order to maintain our edge.

‘One area I’ve been looking at is the beauty industry, where lasers are used as the basis for techniques such as skin rejuvenation, hair removal and so on. There are hundreds of thousands of units in use worldwide, so there is great potential for a company like us to be the premier supplier of specialist replacement components. It’s a price sensitive market, and customers are currently being charged far too much for replacement parts, so there’s a great opportunity there. We’re also looking to introduce a whole new product into this market next year. I’m excited about this to the point where I believe it could exceed the revenues of our existing markets.

‘We’re also looking to introduce a green laser for the synthetic diamond market – another fast-growing area, and used in sectors such as medical and military.’