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Growing Fiber Laser Sector Spurs Single-emitters

Fiber laser specialist and semiconductor fab owner IPG Photonics emerges as a laser manufacturer to be reckoned with as demand for its high-power systems hots up.

Makers of high-power single-emitter laser diodes are set to benefit from fast-growing demand for so-called fiber lasers that are used in industrial machining applications.

According to a new report from Strategies Unlimited, fiber lasers are rapidly penetrating the $2 billion industrial laser market, threatening to displace more conventional high-power laser systems and increase diode consumption.

Unlike conventional lasers, which rely on crystal rods or gas tubes, coupled with excitation sources such as flashlamps or diode laser bars and finely-tuned optics, a fiber laser system is very simple. The excitation medium is the fiber itself, which is doped with rare-earth elements like erbium and ytterbium, and this is pumped using a single laser diode emitter similar to those used in telecommunications applications.

Report author Tom Hausken expects the market for fiber lasers to grow at a compound rate of 35% per year to reach nearly $700 million by the end of the decade. The overall industrial laser sector is expected to grow at a compound rate of only 9% during the same period.

"[This] will expand diode consumption, through substitution of both lamp-pumped solid-state lasers and carbon dioxide lasers, as well as organic growth," Hausken said, pointing out that fiber lasers are also enabling some completely new applications in the medical and sensing markets.

Fiber lasers are very efficient, compact and cheaper to own in the long run, but the industrial materials processing customer base is a relatively conservative one and the technology has been regarded as potentially unreliable as it relies on a single excitation source.

That view now appears to have changed. Currently worth a little over $100 million in annual sales, the fiber laser sector is dominated by one company "“ IPG Photonics.

IPG builds new fab

Headquartered in Oxford, MA, the privately-owned firm, which was founded by Valentin Gapontsev in 1991, has a semiconductor wafer fab in Oxford where it manufactures 6-10 W single-emitter diodes using MBE.

IPG claims that it is now the world s biggest maker of diode lasers, measured in terms of megawatts of power deployed per year. It estimates total shipments equivalent to 1 MW in 2005.

The company is now planning a big ramp in diode production, and is building a second wafer fab to accommodate the increase.

IPG s own revenue has grown at a compound rate of 60% over the past three years and was just under $100 million in 2005, making it one of the top ten laser manufacturers worldwide according to Hausken. He reckons that the spectacular growth could see it break into the top five listing in 2006.

IPG shares this vertically-integrated structure with JDSU, which also manufactures fiber laser systems, but the Californian company only has a small market presence. What JDSU does have is a very healthy supply of highly-reliable telecom-grade single emitters that are ideal for fiber laser applications, which IPG initially used before deciding to create its own supply.

"JDSU and IPG are really the only ones with this structure in the fiber laser market today, although that may change," Hausken told Compoundsemiconductor.net. "One would expect the usual long-term trend towards stratification of the supply chain [and] outsourcing the supply of diodes. However, there is no hint that this is imminent."

The Strategies Unlimited fiber laser market review and forecast is available now via the company s web site.

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