Ultrafast laser market—the battle of value vs. cost

May 7, 2015
Many ultrafast lasers have existed for many years and they can do incredible things, but the total market remains relatively small.
Allen Nogee 720

Currently, I am working on a report on ultrafast lasers. Many of these types of lasers have existed for many years and they can do incredible things, but the total market remains relatively small when compared to some other laser segments. The ultrafast laser market is like all laser markets, where specialized tools are matched to applications requiring them. Ultrafast lasers are long-lasting tools but they are also very expensive tools, which can limit their economic advantage in many applications. For industrial applications, ultrafast lasers are almost always the technically best solution for the job, but where they can fall short is being the economically best solution for the job.

Related: Ultrafast scientific lasers expand on their legacy

If a manufacturing process requires "pretty good" quality instead of excellent quality, often times an ultrafast laser is not the best choice. If production volumes aren't relatively high, often times a non-ultrafast laser solution is best. And if production doesn't last for a fairly long time, sometimes manufacturers are better sending their parts off to a job shop rather than purchasing an ultrafast laser in-house. If you want to drill a "pretty good" 150 µm hole, an inexpensive CO2 laser does a pretty good job of this.

With a limited number of applications and so many ultrafast laser manufacturers out there, how do they all survive and the numbers of these companies has really grown in the last three or four years? Certainly not all of them will survive, but what benefits them is the wide variety of products that exist, and for any one application, the number of lasers that can do the job is relatively small. Maybe an extremely short duration pulse is needed, maybe a high repetition rate, maybe a high average power or a high maximum power. Then there is wavelength, which can run from deep-UV to mid-IR. And wait, we haven't even mentioned maybe the most important characteristic—the price.

Related: Ultrashort pulse lasers bring cost-efficient precision to micromanufacturing

Large companies like Trumpf and Coherent have captured the majority of the market share of the largest applications, such as sapphire processing and fuel injector nozzle drilling, which leaves the other companies fighting for the scraps. Some of these companies are better at working with these markets than others. The good news for everyone is that the abundance of ultrafast laser companies and improving technology have led to a pretty rapid decrease in the price of ultrafast lasers. Today, you can purchase a 5 W picosecond laser for south of $90K. That same laser less than 10 years ago was north of $500K.

Dropping prices combined with the small electronics revolution that we all live with (think smartphones, tablets, and miniature medical devices) has greatly expanded the use of ultrafast lasers. In the years ahead, the market should only get better.

About the Author

Allen Nogee | President, Laser Markets Research

Allen Nogee has over 30 years' experience in the electronics and technology industry including almost 20 years in technology market research. He has held design-engineering positions at MCI Communications, GTE, and General Electric, and senior research positions at In-Stat, NPD Group, and Strategies Unlimited.

Nogee has become a well-known and respected analyst in the area of lasers and laser applications, with his research and forecasts appearing in publications such as Laser Focus World, Industrial Laser Solutions, Optics.org, and Laser Institute of America. He has also been invited to speak at conferences such as the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO), Laser Focus World's Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar, the European Photonics Industry Consortium Executive Laser Meeting, and SPIE Photonics West.

Nogee has a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering Technology from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and a Master's of Business Administration from Arizona State University.

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