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The force is with you: How lasers are transforming the economy

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Produced in conjunction with Strategies Unlimited, and with input from Industrial Laser Solutions magazine, Laser Focus World’s annual review and forecast for the industry, presents exciting trends, challenges, and a bird’s eye look at the laser landscape, focusing on emerging industrial and consumer innovations in the industry. According to one insider, in the same way that steam fomented the industrial revolution, and petroleum drove the nascent automobile industry, photons are set to become the new 'fuel' of the 21st century. This is due in no small part because of the greater efficiencies in materials processing they support. Laser innovations are responsible for medical and materials science breakthroughs that are not only making the laser industry but auxiliary industries more competitive and profitable.

For example, by 2008, many had arrived at the obvious conclusion that femtosecond lasers were a much better option for industrial and surgical processes, due to their ability to outperform Ho:YAG, DPSS equivalents, and other lasers. The impact of photonics on an array of industries led one insider to predict that by 2050 photonics companies would be the largest companies in the world, and in particular, to laud fiber lasers for their role in helping revitalize and invigorate the renaissance of American manufacturing.

When Laser Focus World checked their crystal ball last year, they predicted that new applications would create new inroads that would enable the industry to achieve double-digit growth in some laser sectors. Far from hyperbole, in 2013 worldwide laser sales hit $8.806 billion dollars (growing by 1.7% from the previous year) and it’s expected that sales will reach $9.334 billion dollars in 2014.

The 2014 forecast and the forecasted market numbers to 2017 included in the Strategies Unlimited quantitative laser market report should please laser manufacturers playing in some emerging sectors.

Material Innovation through Lasers

Single industrial laser systems can process a wide variety of materials, which is particularly useful given the rapid development of new materials in manufacturing. Prior to 2013, high-strength steel and aluminum, for aircraft assemblies and autos were the up-and-coming materials. Now it’s carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP), half the weight of steel and 30% lighter than aluminum, which has as much if not more strength than its predecessors. The only drawback with CFRP is that, for the present, it is more expensive than aluminum and high-strength steel. Research groups are working, however, to reduce the costs of CFRP in mass production. This is particularly timely, given that McKinsey Global Institute predicts that CFRP demand will increase by 20% through 2030.

According to Magnus Bengtsson, director of strategic marketing at Coherent, lasers can shield manufacturers from some of the costs of mechanical processes and implements, such as drills and knives, because they do not exhibit the same wear and tear they do. This results in “higher yields and more predictable processes". Emerging materials, such as organic films, ultrathin glasses, and some semiconductor materials, are optimally processed by lasers.
Achieving a desired power-per-area parameter is possible in any materials-processing laser, either by fiber, DPSS-based, or other custom beam-delivery optics, which enables lasers to meet customers at their optimal price point. For these reasons, industrial processes and materials uniquely suited to lasers should continue to propel laser sales.

Lasers in Manufacturing: Fact versus Fiction

For decades CO2 lasers have dominated many laser-supported manufacturing processes. However, recently, fiber lasers have begun to usurp several other manufacturing applications, e.g., mechanical cutting, surface texturing, and welding, as a result of offering an efficient, low-cost, and reliable alternative. There has been a lot of hype around laser-only manufacturing applications, such as 3D printing, but the hype is at odds with reality. While $1000 to $3000 3D printers have entered the market, these are mostly student or small-business grade. Professional (and more expensive) 3D printers, capable of producing additive manufacturing processes, are highly unlikely to become available to the average consumer and even broad commercial deployment will depend upon a substantial reduction of parts production costs.

Nevertheless, though it distorts the present reality, in the long-run the hype around 3D printing will invariably benefit laser manufacturers by bringing greater acceptance – and it is hoped – innovation and economization to this industry.

Part I 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

"New avenues", Coherent, http://www.coherent.com/Downloads/EO2_13.pdf

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