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Diode firms missing fiber-laser window

Market forecast suggests a 23 percent decline this year in sales of high-power diodes used to pump industrial laser systems, with fiber lasers the only bright spot.

Sales of high-power laser diodes for industrial machining systems are expected to fall by nearly one-quarter because of the global recession.

California-based market research company Strategies Unlimited makes the prediction in its latest report, "Fiber and Industrial Laser Market Review and Forecast "“ 2009".

Tom Hausken, director of photonics and compound semiconductors at the company, says that the market for diode pumps used in high-power systems for welding, cutting and drilling will drop from $180 million in 2008 to $140 million this year.

The fall in revenues is however less precipitous than the wider market for industrial laser systems, which is expected to drop 32 percent this year and will not recover to 2008 levels until 2013.

That is in part a result of the trend towards using high-power fiber lasers in place of bulkier, more complex and less energy-efficient designs such as carbon dioxide lasers or flashlamp-pumped systems.

But Hausken believes that makers of high-power diodes are missing out because of the dominance of a single fiber laser company "“ IPG Photonics:

"The best thing that could happen for JDSU and other aspiring suppliers of diodes for pumping fiber lasers is to help create a worthwhile competitor to IPG, that can buy large quantities of their diodes."

More than 30 companies supply fiber lasers, but Hausken says that the window of opportunity for diode companies is closing:

"Time is running out, because two of the leading contenders "“ Trumpf and Rofin-Sinar "“ will prefer to supply their diodes internally, not from merchant suppliers."

IPG fabricates its own diodes via an MBE process, making it - according to Hausken "“ the largest supplier of high-power diode lasers in the world, in terms of value.

"That said, with its economies of scale, [IPG] is working hard to reduce its price per watt dramatically."

Hausken says that although diode manufacturers like JDSU, Bookham, 3S Photonics and others are able to provide a good supply of pumps, they are clearly lacking a major growth customer right now.

"To get big volumes any time soon, you would have to sell some big lasers and know the end users," he added.

In a gloomy forecast for the industrial laser sector, Hausken predicts that the recession is so severe that every supplier will have to carefully choose the businesses in which it wants to continue competing.

He anticipates that the result will be fewer major players, and those that do remain will focus on fewer applications.

"For the next several years the business will appear less like a steady, growing, still-young market "“ and more like a cyclic one, more typical of mature capital markets."

The Strategies Unlimited Fiber Laser Market Review and Forecast "“ 2009 is available now via the company s web site.

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