Monday, February 14, 2011

It looks like a duck

Every once in a while I get stumped by a seemingly innocuous question. At a recent presentation before a group of non-laser aware engineers, during the portion describing opportunities for laser welding, I was asked if lasers used for soldering/brazing applications were included under the welding topic. And further, if they were, why wasn’t the topic called laser joining, or better yet since the topic of the presentation was Lasers in Production Operations, why wasn't the section title just joining?

If I was a stand-up comedian I would have had a snappy comeback for that last part that would bring a laugh from the audience. Rather than embarrass the questioner, however, I deviated from my prepared remarks and provided a lengthy rejoinder, which in retrospect was overblown and too weighty. My answer, dealing with a bigger issue, was why we misuse the term laser when we mean laser beam or even more correctly, why not laser energy.

I used the following example. Years ago as the marketing director of a start-up commercial enterprise within a large R & D organization, a new general manager brought in a high-level physicist to help with the development of a multi-kilowatt material processing laser. During weekly staff meetings, each director presented an update on progress and answered questions from the senior staff. The physicist had a partially irritating habit of posing his questions as challenges to a presenter’s knowledge rather than as information seeking queries. He was very critical of incorrect use of terminology and never failed to find mistakes in our reports -. Among these was the use of laser instead of laser beam.

I’ll confess to a personality clash that caused me to take offense at any challenge he raised, factual on not. And I found most unsettling his refusal to acknowledge common usage as an answer to his nit-picking questions. But I must say that even today when I inadvertently use the term laser instead of laser beam, a picture of that insincerely smiling physicist asking that question comes to mind.

This is apropos to a bigger question: Are we now at a point where we can drop the term laser welding and instead refer to welding, soldering, and brazing as laser joining applications? At ILS, we have sort of done this for years as we present applications that include soldering and brazing in our annual market review as laser welding. Admittedly, soldering and brazing are a small potion of annual laser joining revenues, and this is the rational I have used for years. But now it may be time to call it like I see it and refer to the processes under one title: laser joining. This should raise the ire of my nemesis physicist, since he would loudly complain that it is laser beam not laser joining.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

An upbeat buzz at Photonics West

In my last Blog I regaled you with anecdotes about the snowstorms plaguing the Northeast, so this is going to sound like a broken record but we had two more last week. One of them dumped another 69 cm of snow from a fast moving storm that was out of here a few hours before I returned from San Francisco, where I enjoyed record-breaking temperatures in the high 20 cm range all last week. What with record cold temperatures below -18C in Boston and 150 cm of snow on the ground. you’re probably wondering why I came home from that glorious Bay area weather. Me too. It would have been hard to explain to my fellow Photonics West show goers why I stayed after the event was over.

Photonics West was a roaring success, with a record crowd of about 20,000 clogging the aisles in the North and South Halls and the many conference rooms where the SPIE technical sessions were held at the Moscone Center. We knew something was up when the aisles in the South Hall, where we had our booth, filled up just after the opening on Tuesday and stayed that way through Thursday noon.

As I wended my way through the halls to visit other exhibitors, I was impressed by the density of the visitors in the halls and in supplier exhibits. At a Wednesday afternoon LASE conference on Fiber Lasers, my presentation on the fiber laser markets drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 250. I shouldn’t brag about this as most fiber laser sessions drew full attendance, but when I finished almost half of the audience left the room.

The overall attitude in the exhibit halls and conference rooms and at the annual PennWell-organized Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar was upbeat. Veteran attendees like me recognize that buzz that seems to permeate a show when business is good. It’s an undercurrent of excitement on the part of visitors echoed by the exhibit booth personnel. And one can pick it up in the hotel lobbies and bars where the noise level ramps up after the show and in the restaurants populated by show goers and exhibitors where the bills can be obscenely large. Midway through the week we had our impression of business health confirmed with the reports from two public companies, Coherent with sales up 49% year on year and II-VI, which reported a 76% increase y/y.

There is no doubt about it; business is good in the laser markets and getting better. The manufacturing sector in the U.S. is having a great recovery from the recession, so much so that companies have begun to set aside overtime and hiring is commencing — not a full blown industry wide reaction, but large enough to staunch the unemployment number growth and produce some real downward movement. The Associated Press reports that at Number 1, the U.S. out-produces Number 2 China by more than 40% and does it with less workers; by making complex and expensive goods.

At my Lasers & Photonics Marketplace presentation last week, I was very optimistic about the long term prospects for market growth, so much so that at the lunch break I was jokingly being called Pollyanna by fellow attendees. But you can’t deny the numbers; six months ago, the same numbers were neutral and now they are very positive. So go with the flow and enjoy a renaissance in U.S. manufacturing and the growth of the laser market accordingly.