09 Jul 2013
Project boosted by £1.1 million grant from regional fund could create 57 new jobs.
The UK subsidiary of industrial laser specialist Rofin-Sinar has won government backing for a £5 million project to develop a high-power ultrafast laser for applications including glass cutting.
Vince Cable, the UK coalition government’s business secretary, announced on a visit to Hull, where the company is based, that Rofin would receive £1.1 million to support both the laser development and relocation to a new factory.
The government money comes from the UK’s Regional Development Fund, which is designed to aid economic growth and job creation outside of London. It is hoped that the public-private investment will eventually result in nearly 60 new jobs.
Ken Lipton, the managing director of Rofin in the UK, told optics.org:
“The grant is for developing a high power (more than 100 W ) ultrafast green picosecond laser for glass processing, amongst other applications.”
He explained that £650,000 of the grant would support the purchase of a new factory in Bridgehead, near to Hull’s Humber Bridge. “This will take two years to complete and we intend to move the whole operation to the new facility,” Lipton added.
The managing director says that the new jobs will partly be created as a result of enabling Rofin to expand its existing business, but will also be partly dependent on successful commercialization of the new picosecond laser.
The timescale for that job creation is between one and five years, with the expectation that around 80% of the posts will comprise skilled and semi-skilled assembly staff. The development should see around 12 new employees involved in research, laser production engineering and test roles.
Ultrafast market momentum
Having been on the fringes of industrial deployment until recent years, ultrafast lasers are now seen as an important growth area for the technology, particularly in applications requiring high precision and involving materials that are sensitive to heat.
The primary application area is glass processing, for example cutting the specialist glass used in smart phone and tablet computer touch screens. That offers laser makers a potentially very large market, and at the LASER World of Photonics trade show held in Munich in May it was evident that many are targeting it.
Among more than 30 companies to be offering ultrafast lasers at the event were leading laser firms including Trumpf, Coherent and Newport – with the latter two having recently acquired Lumera and High Q Laser respectively.
According to Mark Douglass, an industrial technology analyst at Longbow Research, the current size of the market for ultrafast lasers is not well defined, though industry sources estimate it to be between $200 million and $300 million and growing at double-digit rates.
Douglass agrees that mobile device production is seen as the biggest target market, with cutting of Corning’s “Gorilla” glass attracting the most attention. Newport is said to believe that this application alone could support the production of perhaps a thousand lasers, and be worth $200 million.
Beyond glass processing, medical device production is also expected to provide a significant market for ultrafast lasers, with particular interest in manufacturing components based on polymer materials that are not suited to conventional laser technology.
At the Munich laser show, Trumpf was keenly showing off its “TruMicro5050” femtosecond industrial laser, which is said to be highly suited to processing very heat-sensitive biomaterials, like nitinol.
For Rofin-Sinar, whose sales growth has in recent years been eclipsed by that of IPG Photonics with its fiber lasers, the ultrafast space could offer an opportunity to regain some ground. However, as with fiber lasers, the ultrafast landscape is becoming increasingly competitive.