At the Speed of Light

Spectra-Physics (Mountain View, CA) turns 40 this year. And no, it’s not facing a midlife crisis, but the timing does provide an opportunity to take a look at where the industry has been and where it’s going.

The company was founded in 1961, less than a year after the invention of the laser, and has been around through the development of the gas laser, the ion laser, the next generation of argon ion lasers, and the development of high-power helium-neon (HeNe) lasers.

Through the late 1970s, the primary market for laser applications was scientific. That changed with the availability of HeNe lasers, which opened a couple of significant OEM markets: bar-code scanning and high-speed, noncontact printing. In 1986 fiber-coupled semiconductor-based lasers set a new industry standard for reliability and ease of use. In 1993 high-power models of these products enabled the growth of the direct-to-press thermal-imaging market. Meanwhile, despite ongoing technological advances in gas lasers, the overall market saturation threshold remained low.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, researchers laid the foundation of what was to become the semiconductor-based laser revolution. The development and deployment of high-power diode lasers and diode-pumped lasers, manufactured in progressively higher volumes at progressively lower costs, have mirrored the evolution of the electronics industry from transistors to integrated circuits. As a result, the laser-industry paradigm has shifted from conventional technology (gas- and flashlamp-pumped systems) to the semiconductor-based technology (diode lasers and diode-pumped solid-state lasers) that is leading to the photonics opportunity of the 21st century.

The view today

Photonics—the use of light to move data, process materials, and make measurements—continues to feed the escalating demand created by the Internet for computer power and network bandwidth. High-power semiconductor-based lasers deliver dramatically lower operating costs, smaller size, greater efficiency, and higher reliability for a wide variety of applications in diverse markets.

The scientific research market, which remains a steady consumer of pump and seed lasers, and the image recording market, which encompasses commercial printing and graphics, remain steady. Today’s major growth markets include telecommunications, computer and microelectronics manufacturing, industrial manufacturing, and medical photonics. Diode lasers are the workhorses of optical networking, while applications for diode-pumped solid-state lasers range from semiconductor and computer display manufacturing to confocal microscopy to prototyping of industrial materials.

Even with the current economic uncertainty, market forecasts from industry experts support this proliferation of applications. The worldwide laser market, excluding telecommunications, has grown at a compound annual rate of 23% since 1993 and is expected to reach $4.6 billion in 2001. Application markets for high-power lasers, both conventional and semiconductor-based, are projected to increase 18% to $2.6 billion in 2001. Sales of high-power semiconductor-based lasers are estimated to grow 19% to $347 million.

Almost 25 years passed between the invention of the transistor in the late 1950s and the commercial deployment of the personal computer in the early 1980s. And the world of electronics, which includes semiconductors, PCs, software, and telecommunications, has gone through countless growth cycles in the last 20 years. Applying the earlier industry parallel, it took 25 to 30 years for lasers to evolve from large, expensive, scientific products with limited power and reliability to the cost-efficient, multifunctional, solid-state photonics engines of today. Relatively speaking, photonics powered by semiconductor-based lasers is still in its infancy.

It seems that 90% of the change in the industry has occurred in the last 10% of time. And given the speedy growth of the passive and active segments of the telecommunications market, we can expect the pace of change to continue accelerating. It took us a long time to get here, but we have an even longer way to go. Happy birthday to the commercial laser industry (and Spectra-Physics). Life begins at 40.

(By Patrick Edsell is the chairman, president of Spectra-Physics,

OE Magazine, June, 2001)

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