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The force is with you: How lasers are transforming the economy (Part II)

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Lasers just turned 50 (2010) and organizations such as the National Photonics Initiative [NPI] used that occasion to garner some much-deserved attention for the contributions lasers have made and continue to make. Worldwide laser sales hit $8.806 billion last year and are expected to reach $9.334 billion this year. What’s driving this? Andy Snow, regional director at EOS of North America (Novi, MI), attributes it to the tangible advantages of using higher quality laser sintering processes versus other additive manufacturing methods. Continuing our previous discussion, we look at the emerging sectors and applications of laser technology breathing new life into domestic manufacturing.

The Growth Markets

Companies are pushing beyond pure telecommunications applications for lasers, targeting industrial, medical, and high-volume consumer markets. Ubiquitous sensing and smart gadgets, such as active optical cables (AOCs), which can capture gestures, as well as voice-recognition, and touchscreen technologies, are seen as drivers of lasers in consumer applications. Insiders predict that lasers will support touch-less technology that enables home electronics to respond without touch, badge-free security doors, and retail outlets that can sense not only were customers are, but the products they converge at.

You may not know it, but you need a flow cytometer, according to Peter Kiesel, principal scientist at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). In clinical settings, high-end flow cytometers dominate, but spatial modulation technology versatile enough to use LEDs or laser diodes and offer a low-cost option are an emerging technology. Applications include: agricultural quality control, medical diagnostics, and monitoring water quality. And Kiesel predicts that handheld or cell-phone-based cytometry will be the next big disruptive technology in point-of-care diagnostics. According to insiders, flow cytometry could be a $250 million laser segment in a mere few years.

Messing with Molecules

In the never-ending quest to unlock the mysteries of molecules and the atom, scientists and academics are proving quantum simulation, redefining absolute zero, and exploring quantum cryptography techniques. The role of lasers in clinical processes such as, spectroscopy, terahertz sensing, and hyperspectral is spurring vigorous growth in the clinical research sector.

Bio photonics – Lasers in Surgery

Of the myriad laser industry segments, this is considered to represent the largest growth opportunity. Laser aesthetics has mass consumer appeal due largely to the aging of our populace, the acceptance of cosmetic surgery, and the greater affordability and convenience of laser procedures. This segment is expected to outgrow R&D health for some time to come and to extend new revenue streams to non-cosmetic doctors.

Adopting femtosecond fiber lasers for surgeries, the development of “smart surgery” tools that can apply the appropriate surgical energy for interfacing with hard or soft tissue (or metal implants), and spectrometers which analyze molecules in human breath (as disease markers), are taking surgical laser applications far beyond anyone’s expectations a decade or two ago.

Lasers in the Movies

There are 40,000 theatre screens in the U.S. and an estimated 120,000 worldwide. Laser projection engines are capable of twice the brilliance of Xenon projection lamps, and this is expected to spur a billion dollar laser projection market. Given that lasers last 10 years versus the three-six months of Xenon lamps, the projection (pun unintended) is a well-founded one. Brightness is a crucial factor in these laser market projections, which hope to tap into the multi-billion dollar 3D movie market – a market pinched (some speculate) by the inherent flaw in 3D movies of being too dim.

Digging into Datacenters

Pressure to improve datacenter energy efficiency is driving the use of lasers in next-generation datacenters. Diode lasers epitomize energy efficiency, and solar-powered lasers are a tremendous renewable energy resource – hence the likening of photons to the “fuel of the 21st century”.

While there has been a decline in optical storage and data storage laser sales, these two segments continue to lead the laser industry, with materials processing and lithography lasers following second and third. Overall communications and optical storage laser sales are expected to grow from $3.443 billion (2013) to $3.579 billion (2014).

In last year’s forecast and review, Laser Focus World stated that as the laser has graduated from “scientific novelty” to industrial differentiator, laser producers need to give due thought to new application areas and capitalize on the unlimited growth opportunities inherent in the laser market.

Part II of a part series on the Future of Lasers.

Sources:

"Laser Marketplace 2014: Lasers forge 21st century innovations", LaserFocusWorld, http://www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/print/volume-50/issue-01/features/laser-marketplace-2014-lasers-forge-21st-century-innovations.html

"Biophotonics in rude health", Coherent, http://www.coherent.com/Downloads/ElectroOpticJune2013.pdf

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