14 Feb 2006
Sales of fibre lasers are soaring, thanks to growing industry approval. Oliver Graydon spoke to IPG Photonics, one of the first firms to commercialize the technology.
It may have taken fibre laser technology a long time to gain the confidence of the materials processing market but, now that it has, its unique benefits are winning new customers every day and sales are booming. That's the message coming from IPG Photonics, a pioneer in the field that was founded 15 years ago to commercialize the technology. The firm has seen its sales grow by 60% per year since 2002 and last year its revenue hit $95 m (€78.5 m). It claims to have shipped around 18,000 production units since 1992.
"We now employ more than 750 people and we have eight facilities worldwide, including four manufacturing facilities - in Germany, the US, Russia and Italy. We will also start in Bangalore," the firm's Russian founder and CEO, Valentin Gapontsev, told OLE. "We also have sales/service forces in Tokyo, South Korea and London and we'll soon open in France, Beijing, Detroit and other locations."
After Gapontsev created the firm in 1991, IPG initially focused on the telecoms market and optical amplifiers rather than lasers and materials processing. Gapontsev saw that long-haul optical communication systems stretching under the ocean and over continents would need an ample supply of powerful erbium-doped fibre amplifiers and fibre Raman amplifiers to boost optical data signals and prevent them from becoming too weak.
Indeed sales in the telecoms sector were the cornerstone of the company until the sector collapsed in 2001, leaving many optical firms in dire straits. Fortunately for IPG it was a relatively simple task to adopt its technology to create high-power fibre lasers. And thanks to their high efficiency, good beam quality and low maintenance needs, it wasn't long before fibre lasers were challenging sources like CO2 and Nd:YAG lasers for tasks such as cutting, welding and marking of metals and other materials.
In fact today it is applications such as welding, cutting, drilling and marking in the automotive, aerospace and semiconductor industries that make up the bulk (>60%) of IPG's business. Firms such as Toyota, Hyundai, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have purchased systems from IPG.
"In the metal cutting market the situation is changing very fast as a fibre laser provides a better solution than a CO2 laser - it's more efficient, more compact and cheaper," Gapontsev explained. "It's a huge market and fibre lasers now compete very successfully with CO2 sources."
According to Gapontsev, fibre lasers can cut up to five times as fast as a CO2 laser. "[First] With a CO2 laser, where you may need a power of 5 kW, you can now use a fibre laser operating at 1 or 1.5 kW, which is a huge benefit," said Gapontsev. "Second, there is less investment cost, and the machines are simpler and smaller, so there are enormous benefits to the end user."
IPG offers a variety of fibre lasers that emit pulsed or continuous-wave (CW) output with powers of up to 50 kW and operate at wavelengths of 1 and 2 μm. At the heart of the lasers is a specially designed optical fibre that is doped with a rare-earth element (ytterbium, erbium or thulium) and pumped by high-power laser diodes. The fibres have a multiple-cladding design to withstand the high pump powers passing through them and optimize the interaction with the dopant.
Unlike many fibre laser manufacturers, IPG makes many of the components that it needs itself to optimize the performance of the laser. This includes the pump laser diodes, doped fibres, couplers and isolators.
"We not only make 300 different kinds of fibre, but we also produce fibre-optic components in house and fibre to bulk components. Most of them do not have any alternatives on the market, so this protects us from competition better than any patents," said Gapontsev.
"We also have the best diodes in the world from the point of view of performance, power, brightness, efficiency and cost. This year  we produced 600,000 of them."
According to Gapontsev, last year the fibre laser market was worth $135 m, with IPG taking a 75% share. He also estimates that fibre lasers took an 18.5% share of the total number of solid-state lasers sold in 2005 and that this will rise to 26% this year.
Needless to say, IPG is not the only firm attempting to satisfy the growing demand for fibre lasers. "There are more than 20 companies claiming to make fibre lasers. Not only small start-ups, but big firms like JDSU and Japanese companies are also making them," said Gapontsev. "We still have the dominant share in this market and hope to keep it, but the market's growing so fast that there is room for others."
However, IPG is the only one that has been able to scale the output power up to the tens of kilowatts. Its highest power installation to date is a 36 kW model that is being used by the nuclear industry, but it is now developing versions that operate at the 50 kW level.
"For remote welding for automotive, they claimed no one needed more than 4 kW, but now all car companies are asking for 6, 8 or 10 kW because they get higher speed and more efficient cost per weld, so they prefer to use higher power," said Gapontsev.
As for 2006, Gapontsev is optimistic about what lies ahead. "Each of the current applications will grow fast as they're still far away from saturation," he commented. "Next year we'll have more contribution from the cutting and medical markets - medical should double its share. Telecoms is also growing extremely fast, and the military market is strong."