Economy ever-present, yet spirits high at ICALEO

TEMECULA, CA—The audience didn’t seem surprised when it was announced in the Tuesday afternoon Business Forum & Panel Discussion at ICALEO that Shaochen Chen, program director for Nanomanufacturing at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), could not give the opening presentation on “Research Funding Programs at NSF” as recent budget cuts at NSF prevented him from attending the ICALEO event.

TEMECULA, CA—The audience didn’t seem surprised when it was announced in the Tuesday afternoon Business Forum & Panel Discussion at ICALEO that Shaochen Chen, program director for Nanomanufacturing at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), could not give the opening presentation on “Research Funding Programs at NSF” as recent budget cuts at NSF prevented him from attending the ICALEO event. His absence—as well as reduced ICALEO attendance figures of 527 versus 566 for the prior year—was just another indication that financial woes in the larger economy may indeed have a negative impact on most sectors of the laser industry that are affected by consumer spending. There is little doubt that laser materials processing—the primary emphasis of the 27th International Congress on Applications of Lasers & Electro-Optics (ICALEO) 2009 (presented by the Laser Institute of America; LIA, Orlando, FL and held October 20—23 in Temecula)—may suffer in the current economy.

And yet, conversations with major and minor players in the laser industry both in the technical conferences and during the ICALEO Vendor Program on Wednesday evening yielded a surprisingly upbeat attitude. Many were bullish that the prospects for lasers as replacements for more conventional (and less energy efficient) technologies were fundamentally strong. In fact, Xiaoyan Zeng from Wuhan National Laboratory for Optoelectronics and the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China presented “Research and Development of Lasers and Laser Materials Processing Systems in the &lsquoOptical Valley’ of China” at the Business Forum and stated in the panel review that China viewed lasers as “conventional technology” in the < 25 W category. This year, Zeng said that China imported > 1000 high-power (> 25 W) lasers from Europe and the U.S., while nearly all of the lower-power lasers were manufactured by Chinese companies. In 2006, Zeng said that total revenues from lasers in China were at 6 billion Yuan RMB ($0.9 billion dollars). China is currently raising its power-level targets for in-China manufactured lasers (to 2.7 kW for CO2 lasers and 1 kW for fiber lasers) to capitalize on what it sees as a robust future for higher-power materials-processing lasers of all kinds.

What the vendors see

But even though the ingress of lasers as replacements for saw blades and arc welders will continue, there are signs that economic and financial woes are hitting home in the laser industry. In its recent 2007/2008 fiscal year report, Trumpf’s (Ditzingen, Germany) group president Nicola Leibinger-Kammüller anticipates a restrained course going forward. In addition to the difficult global economic conditions in response to the financial crisis, the mechanical engineering sector is experiencing the end of an unexpectedly long growth phase. “We want to achieve the sales of the past year even under these challenging conditions,” said Leibinger-Kammüller.

At the ICALEO Vendor Program, LASAG (Buffalo Grove, IL) VP and general manager Robb Hudson said he is cutting the materials processing portion of his forecast by 10%. And even though 80% of his business is in laser processing of medical devices, an industry sector that many say will stay strong despite an ailing economy, he said that even some of his medical customers were “grumbling.”

On the flip side, high-power diode maker nLight (Vancouver, WA) was optimistic. With 1/3 of its business in medical devices, 1/3 in defense, and the remainder in materials processing, business development manager Shawn Streeby noted that he hasn’t seen a drop in sales yet—although the materials processing portion of his business was a concern, he said.

This year’s Vendor Program included 76 exhibitors, a slight drop compared to 82 last year.

Technical presentations

There is no shortage of technological innovation in laser processing as revealed by the Plenary Sessions and the three main conference tracks at ICALEO on Laser Materials Processing, Laser Microprocessing, and Nanomanufacturing. In fact, it was difficult to decide which of the five parallel tracks to attend each day. Conference tracks included Direct Metal Deposition, Micromachining, Laser Micro Drilling & Dicing, Unique & Plastic Processing, Welding — High Brightness, Laser-induced Ablation & Breakdown, Ultrafast Laser Processing I & II, Surface Modification I & II, Bio-medical Applications, Nanostructured Materials and Device Fabrication, Nanostructure Integration and Probing, Laser Microprocessing of Semiconductors, and others on Welding, Cutting, and Cladding.

On Tuesday afternoon, a special William M. Steen Lifetime Achievement Session was held. Steen turned 75 at the end of September, and this session celebrated his lifetime achievement in laser materials processing, emphasizing his global influence with speakers from America, Asia, Australia, and Europe. Session attendee Laureen Belleville, senior editor/associate publisher at Industrial Laser Solutions, said that all speakers thanked Steen for the opportunities his work afforded them, referring to Steen’s long publication list that dates back to 1970 with numerous titles on surface treatment. “Speaker Magdi Azer from GE Global Research (Niskayuna, NY) noted that 40% of the papers at this year’s ICALEO were on laser cladding/deposition. Speakers noted that Bill always asked questions like “why do you do this” and “what do you do this for?” added Belleville. “Azer also emphasized Bill’s contributions beyond the laser cladding/repair industry and spoke of Bill’s great investment in his students and colleagues as well as his passion for life.”

The “Plenary Session: Lasers for Sustainable Energy Future” presentations on Monday morning that opened the conference were an apt reminder of one of the key objectives (and advantages) of lasers: to provide a more energy efficient means of performing a variety of materials and microprocessing tasks.

In the first Plenary, Tomá s Diaz de la Rubia from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL; Livermore, CA) described a new approach to carbon-free energy: the Laser Inertial Confinement Fusion-Fission Energy (LIFE) project. The LIFE project is an extension of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) that expands on NIF’s laser fusion goals by adding an external fission blanket to the NIF engine that can consume nearly 100% of dangerous nuclear-fuel stockpiles. Look for a story on the LIFE project in an upcoming issue of Laser Focus World magazine.

Takashi Yabe from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and president of Electra (Tokyo, Japan) described how lasers could be used to extract magnesium for “more efficient than lithium” fuel cells and engines, declaring that Toyota plans to use a magnesium fuel cell in its next-generation car (although I couldn’t find any news on this in a Google search).

In “Laser Processing for our Solar Future,” Thomas Fehn from Jenoptik (Jena, Germany) described the use of lasers for solar-cell scribing, patterning, through-hole drilling (in emitter wrap-through or EWT solar-cell designs), and edge etching. Fehn sees annual growth of 25% up to 2010 in the solar-energy industry, according to forecasts from the German Advisory Council on Global Change. Crystalline silicon, says Fehn, will dominate the solar market through 2012, at which time thin-film solar technologies (with even more laser processing requirements) will take over.

And finally, industry veteran Milton Chang from iNCUBiC (Menlo Park, CA) presented the closing Plenary, “40 Years of Experience, on the Next 10 Years of Laser Entrepreneurship.” Milton’s presentation echoed the current laser industry environment: he sees a “flatter” more global world, a widening gap between the &lsquohaves’ and the &lsquohave nots’, a modest slowdown of the laser/optics industry, and emphasizes that cash is king in the current global economy. Unfortunately, he also predicts a three-year turnaround for the industry (not the one-year or two-year maximum slump &lsquowished for’ within the laser industry). He encourages entrepreneurs to close their current financing rounds at any valuation, noting that half a loaf of bread is better than none.

Next year

It will be interesting to see how the economy impacts lasers in the materials processing industry in 2009. If history is any indication, Industrial Laser Solutions chief editor and publisher David Belforte says that “Since 1970, industrial laser sales have increased every year except for 1992—a 17% decrease over 1991 (with a margin of error of +/- 5%). 1992 was the depth of a very severe recession in the U.S. economy.” While the industry could see a repeat of this performance in late 2008 and 2009, it is clear that the record number of 30 participating countries at ICALEO 2008 indicates that the laser has “arrived” as a useful industry tool—if not a conventional technology.

Gail Overton

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