Ultrafast market is the silver lining

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA—Ultrafast and ultrafast fiber lasers are a bright spot in an otherwise overcast outlook, according to a recent report by market analysis firm Strategies Unlimited.

Jun 15th, 2008

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA—Ultrafast and ultrafast fiber lasers are a bright spot in an otherwise overcast outlook, according to a recent report by market analysis firm Strategies Unlimited. Thank goodness. With tough economic times now fully entrenched in the U.S. (tax rebates didn’t go far to counteract crushing fuel expenses, foreclosures, and a lousy exchange rate on the dollar), it’s refreshing to see good news, particularly if it’s in our market. Although the ultrafast laser market is only moderate in size, projected to be about $260 million in 2008, the growth rates of the various segments range from flat all the way up to 30% (purchase the full report at http://su.pennnet.com).

Until now, ultrafast lasers have been limited to research and development (R&D) applications. But lately it seems like every laser supplier is offering either ultrafast lasers or ultrafast fiber lasers. “Ultrafast lasers are finally moving out of research labs to more mainstream applications like materials processing and surgery,” says Tom Hausken, director, optical components at Strategies Unlimited. “It’s been a long and steady path, but there is a lot of new technology and new business now. It’s definitely an exciting time.”

Such a variety of new technology begs for an exact definition of ultrafast laser. The report notes that the category of ultrafast lasers overlaps with mode-locked lasers, but excludes all diode lasers except mode-locked ones. Although most market veterans agree that “ultrafast” includes femtosecond lasers, some don’t include “slower” picosecond lasers, “perhaps because they are purists,” says Hausken, “or because they don’t want their picosecond lasers to be considered as exotic and expensive as femtosecond lasers.” The definition used by Strategies Unlimited in their market research includes both picosecond and femtosecond lasers.

It is more difficult to pin down the definition of an ultrafast fiber laser. Coherent (Santa Clara, CA) announced the Talisker ultrafast laser this year, which has a fiber-based oscillator feeding a solid-state amplifier. Last year, Newport (Irvine, CA) introduced the Pantera ultrafast laser, which features a solid-state oscillator feeding a fiber amplifier. Both of these are considered ultrafast fiber laser by some in the industry.

Complicating it further is the way that ultrafast lasers are sold. Some savvy researchers buy laser modules, like oscillators and pump lasers and amplifiers or OPAs, and put them together in a bench-top system, while others buy a customized all-in-one solution. Some suppliers sell modules to other suppliers, while some prefer to make their own.

Strategies Unlimited counts 38 companies offering an ultrafast laser product. Each of these manufacturers compete against each other for a piece of the pie, and against the non-laser solutions, whether a mechanical drill, surgical saw, or UV lamp. Can all these competitors succeed? Or will we see a flurry of mergers & acquisitions (M&As) as the market whittles out less successful products? Hausken does not predict a flurry of M&As, nor does he see a correction as a necessary path to the next phase. “Some acquisitions may occur in the market on the part of companies to improve their IP positions. And certainly a lot of companies are selling ultrafast lasers, and many more suppliers offer Q-switched lasers. Most of these companies are diversified across other product lines, and most operate as specialized suppliers, sometimes even as a mom-and-pop operation. Some will last, some won’t, but the laser industry is notorious for tolerating a large number of such suppliers.”

Although a silver lining of ultrafast seems reassuring, the laser market tends to follow behind the general economy. How will ultrafast be affected by a recession, or heaven forbid, a depression? “Recessions are hard on the laser industry because end users tend to spend money when cash flow is good and they hold off on spending when cash flow is poor,” says Hausken. “However, the ultrafast laser segment is more immune to a slowdown in capital spending than most laser products. In part, this is because of the very specialized and R&D nature of the applications that are funded in somewhat different cycles from, say, consumer spending. Also, there are many applications where an ultrafast laser may save money or bring a particular competitive advantage that makes an investment worthwhile in any cycle, such as for wafer dicing or microfabrication of polymer stents. In many applications, any substitution for a Q-switched or other type of laser is a major gain for an ultrafast supplier, even in a weak market.”

Are investors or laser companies missing out on a huge growth opportunity if they aren’t on the ultrafast band wagon?” No, says Hausken. “Success comes through patiently working with the right customers. It’s impossible to make a quick buck (or Euro or Yen) in ultrafast lasers. But laser suppliers who can patiently serve niche customers have many opportunities in the coming years.”

—Valerie C. Coffey

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