The Laser Industry

The Laser Industry - High Tech or Low Tech?

Laser technology is normally without any hesitation regarded as a prime example of high technology. But what actually makes high technology? I think this question deserves some thought, since the application of reasonable criteria and standards can stimulate improvements (also in this case, I promise!), while simply taking over the slogans from marketing departments will normally not produce much insight.

A precise definition of "high tech" seems not to exist, but we may anyway discuss what a sensible meaning could be. Certainly, such a technology should be advanced compared to the average; for example, it should operate at the forefront of scientific knowledge, implement substantially novel ideas, use advanced methods of design and fabrication and/or novel materials, and finally achieve amazing performance which wasn't possible a while ago.

Let us now ask to which extent laser technology meets such criteria, and also to which extent this applies to the existing laser industry technology is an abstract thing, and what really happens does so in industry.

The first demonstration of a laser (optical maser) by T. H. Maiman occurred in 1960, i.e., relatively long ago, and the essential principles of lasers have been understood for several decades by now. The forefront of scientific knowledge is nevertheless often involved in laser technology not concerning entirely novel physical effects, but via the often still surprising interactions of actually known effects, which still allow for creative and powerful inventions. However, it is probably fair to say that only a minor percentage of people working in nowadays' laser industry have an education and experience which allows them to work at the forefront of scientific knowledge. So what is actually done is often based on what was already known many years ago. This leads to another important aspect:

Many universities are not able to provide high-level education on laser physics and technology, and education for engineers is often based on what their teachers learned twenty years ago. Anyway, a fast evolving field should involve a lot of continuing education, but how many laser companies actually enable their employees to obtain that? Learning on the job is certainly important, but how can one expect an R&D team to do creative development work at the forefront of scientific knowledge without ever caring about continuing education, e.g. by arranging a training course for the technical staff? It can hardly be sufficient to hire another engineer or physicist, be it an experienced one or a young newcomer, every few years.
Substantial performance improvements are obtained, e.g. concerning various types of high power lasers or ultrafast laser systems, and new materials (e.g. laser crystals) are introduced all the time. The bulk of the products, however, is quite a distance away from what is technologically possible based on the most advanced current knowledge. And of course, what matters is not only performance in terms of output power, but also stability, compactness, minimum number of parts, etc. and this also concerns cost of manufacturing, maintenance and repair. Good results are hard to obtain without a solid understanding of both laser physics and various engineering issues.

Advanced methods of design and fabrication exist, but are too often not used, probably again because the education required for that is not available in house. Some laser companies have experts who are able e.g. to do advanced cavity design with a powerful software, taking into account not only mode sizes, but also alignment sensitivity, reaction to thermal lensing, etc. But all too often product designs and the whole development are made by "trial and error", often trying to develop one design from another (also not perfect one) without being aware that certain performance aspects change when some details are modified. The consequences are well known: not only unsatisfactory performance figures, but also huge time delays, correspondingly delayed financial return, lost customer confidence, and poorly utilized laboratory infrastructure. Often enough, people simply resign ("that's life"), not even knowing that advanced design methods and improved methods of development exist which could eliminate many of these problems, cutting cost and risks at the same time.

So what happens on the ground is often not what should be characteristic for a high-tech industry. Huge potentials in terms of cost and performance are wasted. What is deadly needed is in particular a better education for many more laser engineers, including a serious amount of continuing education in every high-tech company, and may I say that? the support of high-level technical consultants in areas like product design, problem analysis e.g. with the use of modeling, and staff training not only for the secretary (for handling the new office software) but also for the technical personnel.