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Strength by reinvention at pioneering laser firm

17 Jun 2002

This year Oxford Lasers is celebrating a quarter of a century of steady growth since its inception. Vanessa Spedding delves into the secrets of the company's success.

From Opto & Laser Europe May 2002

There is a particular pragmatism about companies that have been in business for a few decades - the ups and downs of the market and the whims of technological fashion don't faze them much. Inevitably, if they have survived a few of these fluctuations, it is because they have evolved appropriate strategies to deal with change.

This certainly applies to Oxford Lasers in the UK, known for its technologies in high-speed imaging and laser micromachining. Despite witnessing major contractions in key markets over the years, the firm has still maintained a programme of steady growth. The key, explained managing director Andrew Kearsley, has been the ability of the company to quickly reinvent itself.

Oxford Lasers was formed in 1977 by a handful of researchers at the laser department of the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University. These included Kearsley himself and project supervisor Colin Webb, now a prominent and acclaimed professor of laser physics at the university (and the recipient of both an MBE for services to the UK laser industry and the 2001 Glazebrook Medal from the Institute of Physics).The researchers had developed one of the first practical excimer lasers and decided to commercialize the technology. For the first three or four years after starting the company the scientists ran it as a hobby, building lasers in the evenings and at weekends. The crunch came when Kearsley was offered a job in Canada, and the group had to choose between committing seriously to Oxford Lasers or dropping it completely.

Things gained momentum once the enterprise became a full-time occupation. The company was approached by what was then the UK Atomic Energy Authority to design a high-power, copper-vapour laser for uranium isotope separation, the know-how for which led on from the excimer laser technology. The task was, nonetheless, no mean feat: "There is a certain amount of black art to building copper lasers so that they offer the required beam-quality and reliability," explained Kearsley. "We solved these problems where many others didn't."

The company quickly made a name for itself with these lasers, becoming the prime supplier to the UK's nuclear industry and the second most important supplier to the French and Japanese nuclear programmes. Kearsley can only think of two other manufacturers of this type of laser even today - both of whom address different markets to that of Oxford Lasers.

Supplying the nuclear industry was the company's core business through much of the 1980s. "But then the Berlin wall came down," explained Kearsley. "The Russians decommissioned many of their nuclear weapons, so there was an abundance of uranium available for nuclear reactors. The market for uranium isotope separation went through the floor."Oxford Lasers had no choice but to find new markets in which to operate. "We turned to high-speed imaging and micromachining, bringing in venture capitalists and focusing on the large industrial markets for these two core areas," said Kearsley.

High-speed imaging was a natural choice: copper lasers can deliver very short bursts of visible wavelength (511 nm and 578 nm) pulses at repetition rates in excess of 50 000 per second - with pulse lengths lasting just 25 ns. This makes them excellent sources for strobe-like visualization and imaging of fast-moving events - such as the fuel-injection processes in internal combustion engines or the rapid discharge of droplets in agricultural sprays.

The copper lasers are also amenable to extremely high-precision control. This is because the gain medium is a low-pressure gas with excellent optical properties - free from thermal lensing and depolarization effects at high powers, unlike solid-state media - so the output power can be efficiently scaled without significant degradation of the beam. In a configuration in which one copper laser acts as an amplifier for another, a 75 W beam can be produced at less than 1.5 times the diffraction limit. Refining the technology for precision micromachining of hard materials was therefore another natural route.

The company has built a great deal on the two key technologies of imaging and micromachining. It now offers full systems: an imaging system might include, for example, the strobe laser, camera, computers and the image capture and analysis software. The firm also supplies a variety of different lasers, having diversified away from copper-vapour technology once the benefits of solid-state lasers emerged.

"We know a lot about lasers and laser technology," said Kearsley. "We supply full systems with the best laser for the job. Generally, the copper lasers still offer the best precision, beam quality, reproducibility and accuracy, and cause little damage to the surrounding material. But they are physically bulky and solid-state lasers are compact. So there are cases where a solid-state laser is more appropriate."

Meanwhile, Oxford Lasers has secured an enviable place in a number of lucrative market areas. Its imaging division supplies major companies in the pharmaceutical, automotive and agricultural industries and offers solutions for exacting applications - such as a method of observing, identifying and analysing the velocities, velocity distributions and droplet-size distributions produced by medical inhalers.

The firm's industrial division sells systems that perform very high-precision drilling and cutting tasks; the systems can produce holes of between 1 and 200 µm in diameter, for example. Applications include fuel-injection systems and ink-jet printing nozzles. "Some 90% of our [industrial] work is making small holes that are very round and have very high accuracy," said Kearsley. They have also been in the news recently for their "pen-nib" shaped construction, featuring microscopic fluid wells and slots, for depositing chemical reagents in minute spots on to DNA chips.And there is another wing to Oxford Lasers' industrial division: yet more evidence of the company's flexibility. The firm has developed expertise in the manufacture of high-performance UV lasers for writing fibre Bragg gratings. "We launched one last year and it was very successful," said Kearsley. "Our lasers are cheaper to run than most others. But the market in that area is depressed. We look forward to the time when it picks up again but our feeling is that will not be until 2003."

The majority of the company's business - between half and two-thirds of it - is in the industrial area, with the rest in imaging. It is also a familiar name in science laboratories worldwide. But it does not entirely eschew the unusual, one-off contracts that featured more strongly in its earlier years. "We have done a number of strange things," said Kearsley. "For example, we supplied two copper lasers and a dye laser for the Pink Floyd 'Division Bell' world tour a few years ago. We had staff on the road with them for the whole tour - exhausting but great fun. We've also done some work with the US Air Force on the 'Star Wars' operation and supplied lasers for the 'Guide Star' programme ahead of that project even being declassified. But while custom solutions make good stories they are not, commercially speaking, good business."

Kearsley is determined that the company should continue growing - it doubled in size last year, turning over between £3.5 m and £4 m - and strengthen its focus on industrial and imaging markets. "We do not want to remain a company of 35," he said. He believes that the key to its success is, and will continue to be, people. "We have a very bright team who enjoy working on new challenges. And we make sure that we work closely with our customers, attempting to understand their needs and helping them to develop their applications."

Oxford Lasers www.oxfordlasers.com

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