As new entrants line up to challenge IPG, Oclaro is aiming to become the primary merchant supplier of power diodes for fiber laser systems.
Oclaro is to push the cost and performance of high-power laser diodes to new levels in a bid to secure a position as the leading merchant supplier of pump devices for the fast-growing fiber laser sector. The high-end active component maker is aiming to drive the merchant price of high-power single emitters to below $10 per watt, from the current level of between $12 and $15. According to Michael Atchley, senior manager for product marketing at the firm, that can be done largely through a combination of new chip designs for brighter and more efficient operation, and by reducing the size of emitter packages by 20%.
At the moment the fiber laser sector, estimated by Oclaro and others to be worth around $1.5 billion per year, remains dominated by IPG Photonics – particularly for high-power lasers in industrial materials processing applications like cutting and welding.
Although challengers are starting to emerge, IPG’s vertical integration - it produces high-power single emitters using a molecular beam epitaxy process at its laser fab in Oxford, Massachusetts – has been a key factor in maintaining that dominance, allowing the company more pricing flexibility and leaving little room for merchant suppliers needing a large market pull to manufacture the chips economically.
But as fiber lasers continue to gain traction, and the market for them grows at Oclaro’s estimate of 15-20% each year, there are some signs that the competition will also now grow. Traditional CO2 and solid-state laser companies Trumpf and Rofin-Sinar each has a subsidiary focused on the technology, while GSI’s JK Lasers has also entered the market and JDSU is working on a multi-kilowatt system with Amada.
Such is the complexity of high-end diode laser production that only a handful of companies are able to make devices that are suitable for the relentless environment of 24/7/365 manufacturing, as well as the kind of reliability normally associated with pump lasers used in optical communications.
Along with JDSU and IPG, Oclaro has a strong claim to be the leader in that technology, having initially developed products for communications. As with any high-end semiconductor application, volume demand is a key requirement for the component supplier, and only now does it appear to Oclaro that IPG’s competitors are ready to commit to the kinds of volume purchases that it needs.