Upbeat CLEO reflects industry confidence
Laurie Ann Peac
BALTIMORE, MD--A wide range of products and attitudes was represented throughout the technical exhibition of this year`s Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics and Quantum Electronics and Laser Science Conference (CLEO/ QELS) held on May 20-22. Many visitors thought the atmosphere was positive and promising. "The show was excellent," says David Pointer, president of Point Source (Winchester, England; see box on p. 22). "It was quite upbeat. The industry itself is buzzing, particularly in the USA. In European countries the market is moving more slowly, but in the USA it is very strong and this is good for us."
At the other end of the spectrum was Dana Marshall from Cutting Edge Optronics (CEO; Bridgeton, MO) who commented that there was not as much activity at the booth as he would have liked. "But then we aren`t here to get lots of volume," he says, "rather, to see a few very specific customers, and we were very successful at that. Also, we came to see who Coherent has bought lately!"
Diode-laser-pumped systems and components targeted for original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) seemed to be the primary focus of this year`s exhibit. Similarly, semiconductor and solid-state devices accounted for a significant portion of the technical conference--fiber lasers, for example, were a hot topic in postdeadline papers (see related story, p. 16).
Solid-state show stopper
The show stopper was the 10-W visible-wavelength solid-state laser developed by Spectra-Physics Lasers (Mountain View, CA). The diode-pumped, green-output laser is the newest addition to the company`s Millennia line. It emits CW at 532 nm, operating on standard 110- or 220-V single-phase power. When used as a pum¥source, the Millennia X is much more efficient and cost-effective than large-frame argon-ion lasers, "although it will not absolutely replace the argon laser," says Bruce Craig of Spectra-Physics. "It will further erode the argon business, as we know from our own experience from selling the 5-W Millennia laser last year."
In a technology demonstration, Coherent (Santa Clara, CA) showed its diode-pumped solid-state Verdi--a single-frequency ring laser design--delivering 10 W of output power at 532 nm. The company also featured, for the first time, aluminum-free diode lasers and exhibited, as a result of a marketing partnershi¥with B.M.I. (Evry, France), the Alpha-1000 line of kilohert¥regenerative amplifiers and the Venturi line of optical parametric amplifiers.
Another highlight at the show was the periodically poled lithium-niobate optical parametric oscillator (OPO) demonstrated by Aculight (Bothell, WA). This new product is a closed-box, compact, mid-infrared source that can be extended to visible wavelengths as well (see box below).
Polytec PI (Auburn, MA) introduced the Integra, its all-solid-state Nd:YAG/ OPO system integrated into a modular, compact, single laser head (see Fig. 1). With wavelength extension optics, Polytec PI has demonstrated that the laser can be tuned from 205 to 4000 nm and can operate at repetition rates u¥to 50 Hz. The laser can be run in either Gaussian or top-hat mode.
The New Focus (Santa Clara, CA) booth was busy with inquiries about the company`s new narrowband tunable diode laser, the Vortex (see Fig. 2). The external-cavity diode laser can be customized for wavelengths from 630 to 1630 nm over a tuning range from 45 to 100 GHz. "Taking a semiconductor diode, we developed a very inexpensive, reliable, and flexible-wavelength CW laser, designed specifically for spectroscopy and metrology applications," says Bob Shine, of New Focus. Commenting on the show, Shine said, "I haven`t felt this much excitement in years. It is a very positive atmosphere."
The excitement over diode-pumped solid-state (DPSS) lasers was not shared by everyone at the conference, however. "Diode-pumped solid-state lasers are oversold," says Ken Ibbs of LiCONiX (Santa Clara, CA). "They just are not there yet, especially for the shorter wavelengths. There are still good cost-efficient solutions out there that people shouldn`t forget about." An example of a "good cost-effective" solution is the CADline lasers that LiCONiX re-engineered to be more reliable. These air-cooled helium-cadmium lasers plug into a standard wall socket, have lifetimes of 5000 h or more and are one-third the price of any other low- to moderate-power UV-output system, says Ibbs. "If we advertised our lasers as DPSS laser diodes with the same performance, we would have hundreds of people here. People need to kee¥in mind that the industry is not a fashion show. We need to come down to functionality."
LiCONiX was showing its Prototyper DPSS-UV Q-switched laser prominently at CLEO, but "this is not a simple solution," says Ibbs. "There are still issues to be resolved with UV DPSS lasers. The Prototyper is designed to meet the material processing needs of the OEM. The biggest secret in the laser industry is that 90% of the business is in OEMs," says Ibbs.
Q-switched diode-pumped lasers
Cutting Edge Optronics introduced an acousto-optically Q-switched, diode-pumped laser that generates 100 W of output power at 1064 nm. This newest SlabMaster, part of CEO`s family of industrial lasers, is for high-power industrial micromachining and marking. The laser produces 200 mJ/pulse at kilohert¥repetition rates. The company also offers electro-optically Q-switched and CW versions. "This is the highest-power diode-pumped laser being shown at CLEO," says Dana Marshall. From a business standpoint, the company sees the device as a replacement for the lamp-pumped laser. "People here are more scientific than industrial, but there is still a lot of interest expressed in it, particularly for pumping Ti:sapphire amplifiers and pumping OPOs," says Marshall.
With all of the excitement concerning the latest laser technologies, the goal of Robert Schricker, Lee Laser (Orlando, FL) vice president, at CLEO was to remind attendees that "state-of-the-art is not necessarily equivalent to reliability." Lee Laser introduced its Series 600 pulsed Nd:YAG lasers at the show. These lasers are designed specifically for an extended range of high-speed industrial applications including microcutting, drilling, and welding. For each pulse of the flashlamp, a pulse of energy is emitted. "The industrial market is more stable than the scientific field. And `state-of-the-art` is not necessarily a good thing in industry," says Schricker. "A manager wants reliability. The laser may be turned on at the beginning of the month and turned off at the end of the month. Arc lamps will operate more than 1000 hours per lam¥and cost less than $100 each. For the laser that is operated 6000 hours a year, that is only $600 a year for lamps. Now compare that with a bank of diodes that cost a lot more for comparable lifetimes," says Schricker.
Also at CLEO, unique laser-design software package, LASCAD, was introduced by Micro Systems Design (Munich, Germany). Konrad Altmann, director of Micro Systems, had a great deal of interest expressed in this Windows-based software that calculates how the thermal effects in laser crystals distort beam shape. The graphical interface allows the user to change elements and positions of resonator optics with a click of the mouse. The resulting change in beam shape and intensity is immediately shown on the screen.
The exact number of exhibitors, speakers, and attendees at CLEO `97 is not yet available. However, the Optical Society of America (OSA; Washington, DC) estimates that a total of 6500 people, including walk-ins, participated.
FIGURE 1. The Integra from Polytec PI, a Nd:YAG/OPO system, uses wavelength extension optics to permit tuning from 205 to 4000 nm.
FIGURE 2. The Vortex from New Focus is evidence of an added OEM focus the company is taking to spur its long-term-growth strategy.