PHOTONICS WEST 2008: Clear skies marred by storm clouds on horizon?

Despite record attendance of more than 17,500 at SPIE’s Photonics West in San Jose, CA, Jan. 19–14, recession fears in the U.S. and the large stock-market drops in Europe and Asia cast a shadow on an otherwise bright outlook for the solid, growing photonics marketplace—while unusually cold rainy weather persisted outdoors. Just how directly the gathering clouds on the horizon will affect the market in 2008 is anyone’s guess.

Several startup and mid-size companies are stepping back to evaluate the application areas that brought them the most success in 2007 as they chart a cautious spending roadmap for 2008. With many larger companies seeing no sign of a downturn, and the ever-expanding size of Photonics West, the pessimism is hard to see. All indications are that factory automation and the biomedical market will continue to shine and hopefully buffer laser and optics manufacturers in the years ahead.

Bullish on bio

Over the last few years, the Biomedical Optics (BiOS) portion of Photonics West has grown dramatically. The two-day weekend commercial exhibit has gone from a few tabletops in a meeting room at the convention center to 150 exhibitors in 2008. And the scientific sessions, with more than 1300 papers presented this year, now stretch throughout the entire week. Some of the most well-attended sessions were those featuring nerve stimulation, 3-D tomography, and single-molecule counting. For example, Wonshik Choi and Michael Feld of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, MA) presented research on tomographic phase microscopy. Choi and Feld sought to build a quantitative phase microscope that could produce a real-time, 3-D map of the index of the material in a living cell and thus observe changes in the cell under varying conditions. They applied techniques used for x-ray computed tomography—such as rotating the imaging system around the patient—to the optical regime. Extending their technique to high speed, the team has applied video-rate optical tomography to living cells to monitor changes as they are exposed to different chemicals.


Coherent displayed its unique optically pumped semiconductor laser via a multiwatt four-color (460, 532, 577, and 635 nm) diode-laser display. (Courtesy of Coherent)
Click here to enlarge image

As always, the BiOS Hot Topics session was packed. Among the highlights was a presentation by Rox Anderson of the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard School of Medicine (Boston, MA), who described how laser-guided fractional microbeam surgery now being used in ophthalmology and dermatology provides a new paradigm for treatment of more deadly cancers, and the potential for low-light laser therapy in treating and preventing stroke damage.

Marketplace: steady as she grows

In light of a worldwide market slowdown, Steve Anderson, Laser Focus World editor in chief, reported at the Laser & Photonics Marketplace Seminar on Jan. 21 that the global laser market (diode and nondiode lasers) grew approximately 9% in 2007 to reach $6.9 billion dollars, and is expected to grow 7% in 2008. Among the nondiode-laser categories, CO2 lasers dominate for materials-processing applications. The diode-laser market ($3.8 billion in 2007) is dominated by and closely tied to consumer applications such as gaming consoles, DVD players, and displays. Analyst Robert Steele of Strategies Unlimited (Mountain View, CA) noted that, for the first time since 2001, diode-laser sales for telecom exceeded that of the optical-storage market, largely due to an increasing need for pump diodes for fiber lasers and for a strong fiber-to-the-node/premise/curb (FTTx) market. For more on the laser and industrial laser markets, see www.laserfocusworld/articles/316321.

OPTO plenary

Eli Yablonovitch from the University of California at Berkeley began Tuesday’s OPTO plenary with a talk entitled, “Nanophotonics: from Photonic Crystals to Plasmonics.” The packed room of about 400 individuals—with many more sitting on the floor or spilling outside into the hall—listened as Yablonovitch defined a photonic crystal as a “semiconductor for light waves” that has moved out of the laboratory and into mainstream applications. His presentation (a duplicate of his talk at the 2007 OSA Frontiers in Optics at www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/308378) concluded with a discussion of plasmonics—a bridge from the micro to the nano that offers subwavelength metallic circuits operating at optical frequencies, optical antennas that will serve as new focusing elements, and even plasmonic transmission lines that will allow impedance values greater than free-space impedance.

In the second presentation on organic or “plastic” optoelectronic devices, presenter Niyazi Serdar Sariciftci from Johannes Kepler University (Linz, Austria) boldly stated that molecular chemistry will rule the 21st century, following semiconductor materials. He sees a future with cheaper-to-produce, less-expensive, “printed” semiconducting polymer inks for applications in photovoltaic cells, displays, organic transistors, and organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). Because only small changes in the polymer chemical structure changes the semiconductor properties of these materials, large-area devices can be easily screen-printed with roll-to-roll processes.

LASE plenary

The Wednesday morning LASE plenary, presented in the unheated Montgomery Theater across from the convention center to a much smaller crowd than the OPTO plenary, emphasized the use of lasers in real-world applications. Dieter Bäuerle from Johannes Kepler University (Linz, Austria) described how lasers are used in nanopatterning applications; specifically, he discussed the use of microspheres on the surface of a material to form laser-beam focusing and affect maskless, large-area patterning to a substrate.

“The Long Journey from Idea to Industrial Success” by Holger Schlueter of Trumpf USA (Farmington, CT) followed, echoing many of the same points made by Peter Leibinger (managing partner, Trumpf) in his presentation at the Laser and Photonics Marketplace Seminar—primarily describing the specific technological and business advances that, over many years, can result in a successful laser-based product line. The LASE plenary concluded with a presentation by Fred Dylla of the American Institute of Physics on the free-electron laser (FEL) and the role that institutional collaborations in academia, government, and the corporate sector played in the success of this endeavor. 

China: Customer, competitor, conundrum?

Relationships are crucial when doing business in China, and companies in the modern economy need to be doing business in China and not try to avoid it, according to two speakers with extensive experience in the country. Adonis Mak, publishing director of Laser Focus World China, and Robert Huang, CEO of Singapore-based Wavelength Technology, spoke in a Marketplace Perspective session on Thursday.

Mak told the audience that the two primary markets for lasers in China include universities and industry, most of which purchase optical and laser products from international companies. Many opportunities also exist for lasers for materials-processing applications and in the emerging Chinese semiconductor field. Huang said high growth rates from 8% to 10% over the last 25 years means unskilled labor and low-cost product is in great supply, while middle management is scarce. China’s new labor law, effective Jan. 1, adds employee protections and a new tax system for foreign and local companies. With regulatory changes and privatization of state-owned companies, banking has opened up, decentralizing financial power.

SPIE announced at the show that Photonics West will move from San Jose to San Francisco in 2010. The decision to move to the Moscone Center was prompted by the announcement of plans to remodel the San Jose Convention Center, and by the continuing expansion of Photonics West, which has surpassed capacity for exhibition and conference space in San Jose. The show will remain in San Jose next year, running from Jan. 24–29, 2009.
Valerie Coffey, Gail Overton, and Kathy Kincade

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