LME 2013 Experts Provide Insight Into Continued Laser Market Growth

By Geoff Giordano

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Expanded exhibit space, new exhibitors and networking opportunities, and more working laser systems took the third annual Lasers for Manufacturing Event® (LME®) to a new level of impact for the laser community.

The Laser Institute of America’s unique event, held Sept. 11-12 at the Schaumburg Convention Center, showed more signs that it is maturing as a must-attend event. Bringing together laser makers, systems integrators and providers of all manner of related equipment and services, LME 2013 gave attendees the know-how they need to get laser-based manufacturing projects up and running.

Once again, the Laser Technology Showcase Theater at the front of the active exhibit hall drew many standing-room-only crowds for industry experts including:

  • LIA Past President David Belforte, who noted big opportunities for laser sales and applications, particularly in microprocessing, production of SUVs and composite-heavy narrow-body passenger jets and their engines, gas and wind turbines, smart phones and even agricultural equipment.
  • Prabhjot Singh of GE Global Research, who challenged the laser community to meet the growing global need for additive manufacturing productivity, which will require hundreds of new laser-based devices.
  • Magnus Bengtsson of Coherent, who addressed ultrafast lasers advances, including cataract surgery with femtosecond lasers and dicing sapphire wafers to make LEDs with picosecond lasers.
  • Silke Pflueger of DirectPhotonics, who demonstrated the advantages ultra-high brightness direct diodes bring to the table.
  • Jason Hillenbrand of Amada of America, who compared the cost and process differences between fiber and CO2 systems in cutting applications.

LME continues to brilliantly serve its primary function: to bring together those seeking the bottom-line benefits of laser technology face to face with the providers of that technology. Attendees were treated to expert analysis of the full spectrum of available options and considerations — fiber, CO2, ultrafast, macro and micro processing, and more.

They also received updates from nearly 40 exhibitors who presented details of their latest products and services on the exhibit hall stage. For example, Visotek founder and CEO Sheila Jensen discussed the company’s diode-based MetalPass unit, developed in conjunction with the Navy for laser cleaning and cladding corrosion-prone areas in one pass. The company has added five Fraunhofer engineers and will expand its Livonia, MI, facility by 10,000 square feet. And Laserage of Waukegan, IL, detailed the broad range of work it does with an inventory of 70 lasers, including cutting of tubes and coronary stents, forms and plastics.

On the show floor were some newer products, including updated CO2 devices by ALKRAS, which the company touted as costing 50 percent to 80 percent less than other devices, with 50 percent more efficiency and 40 percent to 50 percent more cutting speed and quality than fiber lasers. Meanwhile, Ophir brought its new BeamWatch monitor, which the company says measures very high-power lasers without having to intercept or disrupt the beam. Attendees also saw the compact Tangor ultrafast lasers by Amplitude Systemes, which even has a couple of customers doing nanosurgery with its devices.

“My professor recommended that we come down here and check it out just to see all the applications that lasers are doing,” said Mark Hopping, who entered a laser program at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, IL, about two weeks before LME. “It’s blown me away and reassured me that this is a good field to get into,” said the former financial analyst. “Everyone was really helpful in describing everything they do and what the lasers they use are for.”

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It’s About The Economics

“It wasn’t too long ago that lasers were considered a laboratory curiosity,” noted Patrick Grace of TRUMPF in his address Cost Advantages of Laser Processing. How far has laser-based manufacturing technology come in the past 10 to 20 years — and how much business is at stake? Consider:

GE puts about 20 additively manufactured fuel nozzles in each of its new LEAP engines for the latest generation of the 737, Singh noted. Manufactured through direct metal laser melting on machines featuring 200- to 400-watt fiber lasers, each nozzle takes about a day to make on one machine. With more than 5,000 engines sold, GE needs to fabricate close to 100,000 nozzles. “We probably need a few hundred machines to support production.” He said GE has about 20 machines with more on the way.

“To our knowledge, as things stand today, most of the vendors that supply these machines are small, and the supply chain is just beginning to take hold,” he noted. “The potential of this technology is so huge that we need your help to try and mature the supply chain so we can take this technology into production. Lasers are a big part of it; materials handling is a big part of it. And this is just one component; we have a range of components that we are interested in making (with this process).” The engine is slated to enter production in 2016, “which means I need to get all these parts ready for assembly onto an engine in 2015. We are looking for high throughput on our machines; we are looking for much higher reliability, and that’s where you guys can all help us achieve our goals.”

These goals also include additively manufacturing components like valves and ducting. By redesigning multipart components into one piece and manufacturing them with powder-bed processes, Singh estimates GE can save a few hundred pounds per engine — which translates into billions of dollars less in fuel consumption for his customers. In a recent design challenge GE issued, about 700 engineers competed, with the most successful able to remove up to 80 percent of the weight of an engine bracket.

“The number of applications this technology will eventually enable is huge,” he asserted. “This is just one GE business. Our land-based gas turbine business is very interested, as is oil and gas.”

In his tutorial on microprocessing, CEO Ron Schaeffer of PhotoMachining in Pelham, NH, noted that the medical device market can be lucrative for job shops. Although it is hard to get into the sector, it is easy to stay in once qualified because large firms want to avoid having to recertify new vendors. He also noted that, even though his is one of three job shops within 10 miles of one another, they rarely overlap competitively because of the volume of work available. (As Belforte noted, $2.8 billion worth of stents were sold in the US last year.)

And since lasers are the only way to manufacture many complex medical devices and components like stents, catheters and diagnostic tools, profits can be generous. For example, diabetes test strips include a thin conductive layer of metal or ink patterned with lasers. “This has been a big area for us; we’ve got laser systems doing this in several of the top manufacturers of these devices.”

In an exhaustive study of system and operating costs, Schaeffer noted that picosecond lasers are coming down in price to the point where they are as attractive as nanosecond devices for machining. He also emphasized that CO2 lasers, the most common in the industry, are the most inexpensive on a dollars-per-photon basis, although fiber lasers can approach those prices depending on power range.

Expanding on the conversation about pico- and femtosecond lasers, Bengtsson detailed how ultrashort-pulse processing produces extraordinarily clean work thanks to diminished heat-affected zones. For example, picosecond lasers can drill crisp holes in 300 µm stainless steel in about five seconds, at a cost of about $0.014 per hole. But “it’s not like ultrafast lasers are always better; they will be, typically, slightly slower in removing material.” However, he noted rates can be increased by 10 to 14 times using pulse bursting with 50 watt lasers processing steel and silicon.

Underlying the efficiency of laser manufacturing is process monitoring, which Markus Kogel-Hollacher of Precitec surveyed in his 45-minute tutorial. While norms are hard to come by in this area, he cautioned, an array of new technology and methods is refining pre-, in- and post-processing assessments — vital to maintaining profitability.

Math of the Markets

While metal processing dominates the industry and photovoltaic production has slowed globally, LIA Past President David Belforte forecasted significant growth in microprocessing applications in his state-of-the-markets address.

“North American manufacturers are continuing to beat the odds,” he said. “Even the fiscal restraints in the United States have not slowed growth. Exports to China were offset by slower European market growth a bit, but even so it was a good year and looks like it’s going to finish up a good year for exports.”

In metal processing, “over $1.5 billion of industrial lasers go into that marketplace, overwhelming the other sectors of marking, engraving and microprocessing.” But, with double-digit growth, “microprocessing looks to be the market which is really going to drive this business in terms of ultrafast pulsed lasers, both solid state and fiber, and other lasers used for semiconductor, solar cell and flat-panel display work. Overwhelmingly it’s printed circuit boards and hybrids that consume most of the lasers that were used in microprocessing.”

Fiber lasers have had a significant impact. “The industrial laser technology forecast has been looking pretty good since we came out of the recession in 2008,” Belforte said, thanks to fiber lasers. “Because of the second quarter performance of IPG Photonics —26 percent revenue growth in the industrial laser market — it raised the entire industrial laser market by two percent.” Furthermore, fiber laser revenue grew 17 percent in 2012 and is projected to hit 21 percent this year, “which will lift the entire industry to about six percent growth for this year.”

While the usual areas showed robust growth — from the jet engine turbine blades that require millions of laser-cut cooling holes to the displays of smart devices — a particular surprise was agriculture. “The industry is booming again,” he said, with $27 billion in equipment produced in the US by 1,000 companies using lasers to weld, cut and additively repair components.

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Basics and Beyond

LME’s three levels of courses — 101 and 102 level instruction on laser types, systems, safety and cost considerations; extended tutorials; and cutting-edge keynotes — supplemented the real-world knowledge attendees gleaned from exhibitors.

Tom Kugler of Laser Mechanisms offered an updated version of his survey of lasers and their properties and applications, including more examples of ultrafast applications and UV wavelength processes.

“A couple of people asked questions about composite cutting, so mostly graphite composites for aerospace,” he said. “There were also a couple of questions about removal of conductive layers off polymer-glass substrates.” Back in the exhibit hall, he fielded questions related to certain products and best options for certain processes. “We’re meeting potential new customers or existing customers with new projects — the whole gamut.”

Pflueger later addressed an emerging revolution in diode lasers, which constituted about half of the overall $7.5 billion laser market in 2012, she said. Laserline has driven much of that growth, she noted, having achieved up to 20 kilowatt fiber-coupled devices that in prototypes demonstrate 48 percent efficiency, vs. 40 percent for previous direct diodes. “In the past three years, we and TeraDiode have pushed up the brightness level” of diodes significantly with fewer components. “The highest power diodes available are at the 900 to 1,000 nanometer range,” she explained. “I think it’s where everything is going to go sooner or later — not for the ultrafast (but) for the plain CW get-a-lot-of-power-onto-the-workpiece type of applications.” The high efficiency, low maintenance and straightforward technology of ultra-high brightness direct diode devices make them ideal for cutting and remote or keyhole welding, she said.

Friends in the Business

Connecting with old friends in the laser “family” and introducing newcomers to the fold is one of the key reasons people come to LME, which provides a venue for such contact unlike any other in the industry. No matter one’s level of acquaintance with the technology, experts in all areas were on hand to point attendees in the right direction to find solutions to their business needs.

“We’re getting a steady stream of questions and a wide variety of questions,” said Rob Mueller, who oversaw a rotating cast of industry insiders who took 45-minute shifts at the Ask the Experts booth at the exhibit hall entrance. The curious asked about “everything from materials for the optics to processes to systems to the full gamut. There are people here who are just starting their investigations; they know they need to get into lasers. They know that their competitors are doing it (and) they feel like they’re behind the 8-ball and they’re trying to catch up. (LME) is a great spot to do it.”

Schaeffer noted that in his time at the experts booth, he encountered a potential Miami-based customer who had purchased a laser system only to find it didn’t work — and the seller had gone out of business. Since company representatives will be in Boston, near Schaeffer’s facility, they plan further discussions to address their need.

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Bang For Your Buck

LME often makes a notable impression on first-time attendees like Dr. Funsho Ojebuoboh of Phoenix Infrared in Lowell, MA, which makes components for CO2 lasers.

“(LME) achieved its objective,” he said. “To have the presentations going on at the same time, kind of on an a la carte basis, works quite well. I’m surprised at the trend toward fiber lasers. Most of what I’ve got is insight into the direction of the markets; it’s not something we get without talking with these kinds of people, and it’s nice to have all of them here together and see if you can reconcile the information you get from different parties.”

LME was also an eye-opener for Jeff Foster, an engineer for Dana Holding Corp. in Lisle, IL. “I came here to see what was new and maybe learn a little something about additive manufacturing and ultrafast lasers.” He found out about a novel approach for cutting thin stainless steel, which is what he does in manufacturing multilayer steel gaskets.

“This is a really good show (and) a really good venue,” enthused TRUMPF’s Grace. “We got a lot of good leads and a lot of good projects. There’s a value here; this is going to lead to selling lasers.” When he saw an acquaintance from Universal Laser who wondered if he should exhibit at LME, Grace was emphatic: “Yes, definitely, you should be here!” (The first day) was super busy. Ken Dzurko from SPI said the same thing, and so did DirectPhotonics: “I don’t know what the rest of the show looked like; I was busy all day. When you can’t get out of the booth because there are people who keep coming in, that’s a good thing.”

LME is indispensable for staying in touch with trends, said Gary Yearwood of Prodomax Automation in Ontario, Canada: “My partner and I are at a point where we need to do some outside investigation. We don’t want to just rely on going to the guys that we know for information; we want to learn it ourselves. Our customers are coming back to us for (such knowledge).” As a go-to integrator, he says, his clients rely on his firm to be a step ahead.

Stay tuned for information on the fourth annual LME to be held Sept. 23-24, 2014, in Schaumburg. Visit www.laserevent.org for details.