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Laser Components has been supplying optical components for more than 25 years, as Warren Clark discovers

Laser Components, which now comprises several companies worldwide, began life in 1982 near Munich, Germany. Günther Paul was a photonics engineer with an entrepreneurial streak, at a time when the likes of CVI and Melles Griot were beginning to make major progress as suppliers of optical components. Laser Components GmbH, as his venture was known, started out as a distributor, but it was only a matter of a few years later when Paul began moving into manufacturing. Paul is still involved in the business and is now the group’s president, and his son Patrick is gradually taking over his father’s responsibilities, ensuring the company will stay in the family.

Laser Components began manufacturing laser optics in 1986, and has continued to do so ever since. A year later, the company began production of laser diode modules, and in later years, the worldwide manufacturing capabilities would expand to include fibre connector assemblies, to packaging, pulsed laser diodes, avalanche photodiodes, bespoke optics, and instrumentation. It achieved ISO9001 certification in 1994, so can boast a long history of meeting international quality standards in its production facilities.

Today, Laser Components is both a manufacturer of optical components, and a distributor of complementary components from a network of more than 20 partner suppliers that ‘fill in the gaps’ of anything it does not manufacture.

The UK operation of Laser Components was set up in 1993 and is purely a sales and marketing operation. It complements the sales and marketing operation at the group’s head office in Germany, and distributes products from the three other companies in the group: Laser Components Canada Inc, based in Montreal, which produces pulsed laser diodes; Laser Components IG, in Hudson, New Hampshire, USA, which is a sales and marketing office similar to Laser Components (UK) Ltd; and Laser Components DG (Detector Group) Inc, in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, which manufactures avalanche photodiodes. There is also a complementary sales and marketing operation in France, Laser Components SAS, which was formed after the company’s acquisition of French company Optophotonics. Laser Components also has distribution via other companies throughout the world.

All of the companies within the group operate independently, with support from head office as and when required.

‘The areas we have moved into as a manufacturer have all come about through customer demand,’ says Chris Varney, managing director of Laser Components UK. ‘It’s not us deciding to produce something and then hope that there is demand; it’s very much the other way around.’

Varney joined the company in 1999. His own background includes a broad range of photonics expertise, including time spent at the British Aerospace laser systems department, a number of posts at Fujifilm, ending up as general manager of the Fujifilm Electronic Imaging Optics Division, and a brief period as director of production at Gooch and Housego.

UK managing director Chris Varney.

Varney points out that the clue to the company’s market positioning lies in its name. ‘We’re a components company,’ he says. ‘We don’t assemble into high value products, such as laser systems. We provide the component parts – either that we manufacture ourselves or that we source through our partner suppliers – to enable our customers to assemble the product they want. A laser diode module is about as far down the line as we go.’

There are, of course, plenty of opto-electronic component suppliers out there, so what sets Laser Components apart? ‘Our professionalism,’ says Varney. ‘We believe we provide better quality products, backed up by a better level of service. Although we “just” sell optical components, there is still a need to help the customer with advice on product choice, and also to follow up any sale with technical support as and when it is necessary. We don’t just turn our back on a customer once we have completed a sale.

‘It’s important to make a distinction between supply and design. We’re not a full-blown product design company by any means, but our team can offer plenty of experience and advice that helps set us apart from catalogue component companies.’

Continuing the theme, Varney points out that the company’s product range extends beyond the standard offerings to custom parts. ‘One would normally expect there to be a premium added to the price of custom parts, but that is not necessarily the case with us,’ he says. ‘We can provide an element of customisation for not as much as customers might think. What’s more, if we can see a demand for a custom part, with customer permission, we’ll add it to our portfolio.’

As part of its commitment to customer service, Laser Components produces a quarterly newsletter, Photonics News, which is sent to customers worldwide. Different versions of the publication are produced for each market, so the UK has its own, dedicated newsletter relating to products and applications there.

Along with the vast majority of the photonics industry, Laser Components has had to endure one of the toughest years in recent memory, thanks to the global economic slowdown. The company has dealt with it in its own way, with a handful of redundancies across the group, while it has chosen not to replace some staff that have left of their own accord. Nevertheless, there are still more than 100 people employed by Laser Components worldwide, with six in the UK office.

‘Yes, we’ve had to reduce our overheads and make ourselves more efficient,’ says Varney, ‘but we’re still here when others are not. Also, we have the backing of a large group, and our head office in Germany is continuing to invest, in spite of economic conditions. Last year, we opened a new German production facility to extend laser grade optics production, with new smoothing and polishing machines and a multi-stage ultrasonic cleaning station, in a purpose-built clean air facility.’

Varney says there are a number of specific plans for Laser Components in the year ahead. ‘Overall, we still need to be careful and modest in our expansion plans,’ he says. ‘We want to develop our market for avalanche photodiodes and pulsed laser diodes by making modules for them. We do this by adding driver electronics and placing them in housing and so on. There are plenty of applications for this type of product, such as speed cameras, distance measurement and also meteorology, where the modules are used in devices that measure the height of clouds.’

Looking forward, Varney believes the recovery is still more ‘talk’ than ‘reality’, but at least the mood in general is one of optimism. ‘It is most likely to be a slow recovery, but it will be a recovery nonetheless.’