More than 20 years after helping its first customer - The University of Southampton`s Department of Physics - Laser Support Services is still going strong, as Warren Clark discovers
It is reported that as many as 90 per cent of small businesses fail within the first five years of operation. Very much in that remaining 10 per cent is UK company Laser Support Services, which was founded in 1990 by Grahame Rogers. By that time, Rogers had spent the best part of a decade in the photonics industry, working for Cambridge Lasers UK and Spectra Physics.
‘I had picked up a lot of skills and knowledge in that time,’ he says, ‘and I felt the time was right to put them to use for the benefit of laser users in the UK. Initially, Laser Support Services was formed to provide third-party support services to laser users in universities. At the time, there were very few companies offering this sort of service. I can still remember my first customer – the Department of Physics at the University of Southampton.’
‘We service lasers old and new,’ he continues. ‘With older lasers, often the original manufacturer has withdrawn support, but we’re still able to help with original parts. And, with newer technologies, we’re often more competitive than the manufacturer’s own servicing.’
By coming into contact with laser labs around the country, Rogers saw an opportunity to supply ancillary products, alongside the servicing he was offering. ‘We would be in the customer’s laboratory repairing their laser, and we’d get talking about their set-up. If they needed a product, I’d go away and talk to the suppliers and get what they needed. We ended up representing suppliers, and started selling laser safety eyewear protection, optics, mounts and positioners, and much more,’ says Rogers. ‘And we’ve continued to grow our supplier base over the years.’
Rogers has always been able to spot and exploit an opportunity, such as the refurbishment work he has been doing in the semiconductor industry. ‘A leading manufacturer asked me to dispose of some lasers,’ he recalls. ‘When I told them that I could repair the lasers, it was the first time they’d heard of such a service. I ended up repairing five lasers for what it would have cost them to go out and buy a new one. So, we picked up business from there, and I travelled around the world pitching our services to semiconductor manufacturers, and picked up other blue chip customers.
‘We’re now moving into repairing solid-state lasers from the likes of Coherent and others. Basically, if there’s a laser out there, I’m happy to have a go at fixing it.’
Rogers has been supporting the aesthetics market, initially by supplying laser eyewear for hair removal clinics, hospitals and so on, for use by both the operator and the patient. ‘On the back of that, we have become far more involved in laser safety,’ he says. ‘We found that a lot of off-the-shelf safety products were over-engineered for the applications where they ended up. So, we began designing our own products, and we now produce our own laser safety panels. We take a pragmatic approach to laser safety, where it becomes part of the overall risk assessment for the environment the laser is in. We do our best to ensure that any hazards are engineered out before we even get to specifying the laser safety options.’
The panels developed by Laser Support Services have been installed in high-profile locations such as a Formula 1 team and government research establishments. ‘The design of the barrier is also important,’ says Rogers. ‘For example, some other options on the market have wheels on the base that create a trip-hazard. We’ve come up with a design that has a small footprint, making it suitable for many more locations.’
Safety has now grown to represent around 40 per cent of Laser Support’s business, and there are plans to expand that still further with the introduction of a safety interlock system later this year. ‘It’s a modular system,’ says Rogers. ‘It will allow the customer to come to us if they want anything from a warning light right up to a computer-controlled interlock system.’
Grahame Rogers, Director of Laser Support Services Ltd
Rogers has maintained Laser Support Services as a small business, employing four people, and as a result has been able to adapt his marketing strategy according to industry needs at any given time. ‘Being a small company, you can be flexible and change with the way the market goes, but maintain links with the older technologies that might still be in universities.
For Rogers, part of the small business ethos is that the personal touch still counts. ‘I still believe that the right way to do business is to meet the customer face-to-face to discuss their requirements,’ he says. ‘The internet is useful to a point, but in meeting the customer and fully understanding the problems they have, you often end up with a solution that is different to the one the customer thought they wanted. Whether it’s specifying safety products or talking about our repair business, it’s important for us not to just guess at what the customer wants.’
The majority of Laser Support’s business is currently in the UK and Europe, but through its work in the semiconductor industry, it has picked up customers in the Far East and the USA. The office is based in Fife, Scotland (Rogers moved there while working for Spectra Physics), and onsite facilities include a repair lab with nitrogen floating table.
The company has negotiated recent economic instability with relative ease. ‘We find that when the economy is down, our repair business goes up as customers stretch out the lifetimes of existing equipment,’ says Rogers. ‘An upbeat economy helps our sales business.’
Looking ahead, Rogers remains enthusiastic. ‘I still enjoy what I do, whether repairing or selling,’ he says. ‘I also enjoy trade shows – they are another opportunity for face-to-face contact, whether that’s in the cosmetics industry, where they know less about lasers, or in the photonics industry, where you’re talking to experienced physicists and biologists. For us, we can introduce a product to a lot of people at one go.’
In terms of the type of work Laser Support Services sees itself doing in the future, Rogers believes there are opportunities to move into the servicing of laser systems, as opposed to just the lasers themselves. Flexibility will remain key.