Thursday, February 11, 2010

That was then, this is now

This year we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Ted Maiman's successful demonstration of a working laser. As one who has been around since that time, and is still active in the technology, I am being bombarded with requests for quotes, observations, retrospectives, feature articles, and speaking requests. I don't know if these requests are recognition of my fund of knowledge or just because I have outlived many of the pioneers in this technology. I chose to think the former.

As I was reconstructing activities in the early days for some of these requests, it occurred to me that the 1960s were a period of frenetic research and development, with technology breakthroughs happening weekly. I was a member of a solid-state research team at the time, providing equipment support assistance to another group who were working on optical masers (eventually lasers.) One of our tasks was to build a crystal growing apparatus for that group, which eventually produced single crystal ruby boules that were ground into laser rods.

At the weekly research division staff technology meeting, each group was asked to summarize pertinent progress in their specialty. It seemed that for a time every meeting was dominated by reviews on internal progress with "lasers" and reports from scientists who had attended international conferences where "laser" technology was the prime subject in and out of formal sessions.

It was an exhilarating time participating in the birth of a technology which then was being likened to the invention of the transistor. Interestingly, none in our laboratory had any thoughts about making history. Rather conversations typically centered around speculation on possible uses for this powerful energy source, but rarely on how the technology could be, as we say today, monetized.

My interests shifted away from laser technology into another high energy process, electron beam, and I didn't return to laser technology until 1970. A that time the commercial prospects for laser materials processing were just beginning to jell around the overlap pulsed laser spot welding of hermetically sealed microelectronic packages and realization that CO2 lasers could cut sheet metal. For this reason I arbitrarily date the beginnings of the commercial market for industrial lasers to 1970. As the first person to attempt to quantify the market for these lasers I estimated total 1970 revenues for industrial lasers at $2 million. Since then the market has grown at a CAGR of 18% up to the great economic recession of 2009.

About 15 years after the first industrial laser systems were installed I had the temerity, or brashness, to write two published articles that were an attempt to send a message to the laser suppliers: "Why Doesn't Industry Use More Lasers?" (Lasers And Applications, February 1983) and "Key Issues for Industry Acceptance of Lasers" (Laser Focus/Electro-Optics, November 1983). The first identified: organizational, competitive, and industrial factors that played a role in answering the question posed by the title. In the latter, suggestions on: pricing, system design and integration, processing databases, and equipment standardization were added to the mix.

I'd like to say that industry responded to these articles and as a result that 18% CAGR resulted. Unfortunately my astute analysis has never been credited as raison d'ĂȘtre for this good performance. These did however serve to bring me together, as a consultant, with many of the companies supplying the lasers and systems where I could, functioning on the inside, see the seed of my thinking take root.

Most of the issues I identified eventually were addressed either due to more astute company management or more likely in response to developing competitive pressures. The one that I believed was perhaps a most important factor necessary to raise laser processing to even higher levels of acceptance was standardization, a dirty word to some manufacturers, but one that I have heard over and over as necessary when talking with industries in the markets that industrial lasers serve.

My colleague, Dr. Tom Hausken of Strategies Unlimited (a sister company in PennWell), uttered this word in his presentation at the annual Lasers and Photonics Marketplace seminar (San Francisco, January 25, 2010). After which I asked him if he expected to receive negative response to this idea from an industry that has openly been opposed to standards, except for laser safety and grudgingly to a relatively weak European equipment standard. His answer was a smile and typical Hausken's shoulder shrug, suggesting that he too saw this issue as a battle not to be fought without a lot of bloodletting.

I still believe that the development of some form of industry standards that future potential users of industrial laser systems could use as a first cut in qualifying suppliers of systems for sheet metal cutting, marking, turbine blade drilling, and medical device welding and cutting would go a long way toward opening new market opportunities as potential purchasers would have base standards to refer to when judging and selecting vendors.

It's a painfully onerous and lengthy process but other manufacturers of industrial machines and systems have gone though it and their industry is the better for it. As we enter the second decade of this new century we should be asking ourselves where will the markets be that will ensure a continuing growth of the laser processes now and about to be used? After recovery from the recession we will be looking for the next big application, such as photovoltaic manufacturing in the past year, that will boost annual sales into the double-digit area.

One can argue that making the buying process easier using standards for certain applications should facilitate the lengthy process that buyers now experience. I have talked with sheet metal cutting customers who have had to develop a matrix analysis to understand what their vendors were offering, when in reality the process was the object and the accomplishment of it clearly described in industry standards. Only the options offered by suppliers, their reputations, and the selling price differentiate one from another.

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