Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The next big fireworks

I’m sitting on the side of one of three hills that make up most of a bowl; dense woods comprising the rest shields us from the launching point of the annual July 4th fireworks display. About 6000 others join my family for what has become a holiday tradition.

Those of you who have experienced it know that the anticipation level for the first explosion ratchets up as darkness finally settles in about 90 minutes after sunset. In this period, costumed villagers mingle with the crowd and hand out lollipops to the impatient children. Meanwhile the odor of mosquito spray mingles with the smoke from the rifle fire of the local militia who entertain the mostly happy crowd.

So I had some uncomplicated time to think about the next big fireworks in industrial laser material processing. I thought back to the 1990s when the tapering off of older technologies and the decline of the semiconductor and microelectronics sectors were offset by the growth in processing sheet metal, followed by the rapid acceptance of laser applications in the medical device business, which accounted for most of the growth rate. Since then, we have been looking for the next big bang.

Slyly, seemingly unnoticed, microelectronics came back midway through the first decade while aerospace and marking/engraving held their own. The recession was the great leveler and only application in semiconductor (surprisingly) and energy (photovoltaics) bucked the trend. Medical device processing prompted by new laser technology, fiber and ultra-fast pulse took us out of the recession as noted by quarterly reports of public companies.

A few weeks ago I had walked through the laboratories of Fraunhofer ILT in Aachen and saw several dozen early developments in laser material processing, many in the microprocessing category. At that time I mentioned to several of the innovators showing their work that ILS had christened the first decade of this millennium as the era of microprocessing, a prediction that was slightly premature as this sector only caught on towards the end of the decade as the new lasers offered users a better approach, making up for some of the declines of the older lasers.

At LASYS in Stuttgart a raft of new ultra-fast pulse lasers were introduced to serve the growing needs of the microprocessing sector. And across the plaza at the Congress Center 500 attendees were listening to advanced material processing technology, much of it in the microfabrication sector.

Has the era of the high-power laser cutter run its course as the major revenue producer? I think not, at least for the foreseeable future as pent-up buying demand will boost sales sometime and the advent of multitudes of high-power fiber laser cutters will expand the process into new market subsectors. Bu the handwriting may be on the wall and a shrinking market share may make metal fabricating less than the 800 pound gorilla of the system revenue picture.

The problem is that even with ultra-fast pulse lasers at $200K plus, it will take a lot of them to make up for the almost $1 billon of high-power lasers sold in 2008, the last great year for this product.

Maybe I was in a too laid back frame of mind July 4th evening, but I just couldn’t quite see a major explosion that would vault another application - other than sheet metal cutting - into the revenue lead in the next couple of years. But just then the fireworks company unloosened a barrage of magnificent bombs that took our breath away. And maybe, just maybe, I thought I might be wrong.

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