Growth curve continues in industrial laser market

STURBRIDGE, MA-As was the case in 2005, sales results for industrial laser systems exceeded forecasts for 2006.

STURBRIDGE, MA-As was the case in 2005, sales results for industrial laser systems exceeded forecasts for 2006. A year ago the industry projected an overall 4% growth in units and revenues for lasers and an 8% growth in systems revenues. Better-than-anticipated results from the high-power CO2 laser sector-led by strong growth in the sheet metal cutting market, much greater-than-expected growth in the number of low-power sealed-off CO2 lasers, and continued strength in the market for low-power solid-state lasers and fiber lasers-offset a decline in the growth rate for high-power solid-state lasers resulting from limited activity in the global automotive sector.

Industrial laser unit sales increased by 7% over 2005, led by vigorous growth in low-power CO2 lasers and strong sales of fiber lasers, which continue to erode the markets for lamp- and diode-pumped solid-state lasers. A small but welcome addition to solid-state laser sales in 2006 came from the suppliers of ultra-fast-pulse lasers for microprocessing applications. These sales are seen as a precursor to the long-awaited penetration of these lasers into the semiconductor processing market.

A significant addition to unit sales growth was the continued health of the fabricated sheet-metal products market, which globally purchased about 9% more high-power (and consequently higher selling price) CO2 lasers, especially those at the 6-kW power level. A second year of strength in the domestic market for these lasers in Japan (up 14% over 2005 domestic sales) also helped to push unit sales growth.

On a unit basis, laser marking/engraving continues as the largest application for industrial laser units, with sheet metal cutting being the largest revenue producer. The marking market remains at strong double-digit growth, a situation expected to continue for some years as the leading drivers-security and traceability requirements-look solid.

Low-power fiber lasers continue to take market share from other solid-state lasers, but added together the market for solid-state lasers actually grew at 3%. High-power fiber lasers, disk lasers, and the burgeoning sales of ultra-fast-pulse solid-state lasers are promising developments.

Pricing pressures remain strong as competitors jockey for market share and OEM integrators seek pricing concessions to keep them competitive in the system market. Thus, overall laser revenues grew at 6%. Low-power CO2 lasers are a case in point, where the market leader gained an impressive share of the market in units sold but did not realize as great a growth in sales revenues.

Integrators over the past few years have established a trend in offering more system capability through automation; especially in load/unload operations that allow these systems to produce more productively. As a consequence, system selling prices are higher in 2006, rising 9%. Also contributing to the increase is the higher selling prices for higher-power lasers used in these systems, for example in metal cutting and the automotive industry. Microprocessing and small component welding gained slightly over the 2005 levels.

Globally, Asia continues as the world’s largest market for industrial lasers at about 36% (led by China and Japan), followed by Europe (with strength in the new EU countries) at 33%, and America at 28% (including growth markets in South America).

For 2007 the laser industry expects a replay of 2006, with a long-hoped-for resurgence in the semiconductor market being a determining factor in whether the 2007 market can duplicate 2006 numbers. On this basis, laser units and revenues should grow about 6% and system revenues should grow about 9%.

-David Belforte, editor, Industrial Laser Solutions

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