Having just finished all the forecasts and estimations of the recently released report,The Worldwide Market for Lasers 2015, this is the time I step back and look at last year’s laser market in retrospect. It is quite common for industry analysts (myself included) to attempt to “fit” a market they are investigating over other markets which have proceeded it. This is a part of normal human experience - mapping the unknown to what they do know. Unfortunately, what I have found from my experience in technology, 30+ years actually, is that no technology really duplicates another in evolution, no matter how much they may appear similar at first glance.
Take the wireless technologies Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Ultra Wideband, and cellular. These technologies all pass data, but at different rates, different ranges, and with different backers. The initial 802.11 wireless LAN standard released in 1997 actually supported optical in addition to radio. When Bluetooth was originally conceived by Ericsson in 1994, it was intended to be a wireless alternative to RS-232 data cables. Eventually, Bluetooth became the de facto way to connect headphones and speakers to our portable devices, and Wi-Fi became the way we connect to the internet when cellular is too costly or not available, but even that isn’t always the case. Apple’s new iWatch contains both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Put your phone outside of Bluetooth range, and your Apple watch will continue on with Wi-Fi if the watch and the phone are both on the same network. Just a few years ago, the idea of including Wi-Fi in a watch would have been unheard of. Other technologies like Zigbee and ultrawideband compete in this segment as well, so don’t rule any of them out in the future.
The point here is that often many different technologies are competing for the same applications, and which one is winning the race often changes over time. This is true in wireless, but it is also very true with lasers. For wireless, it’s about range, data rate, and battery life. For lasers, it’s about wavelength, power, efficiency, cost, maintenance, and sometimes beam quality, brightness, and stability.
In just the last few years, there have been incredible laser advancements in one way or another of just about every laser type, and these changes have kept the laser market very dynamic and interesting. Fiber lasers now cover more wavelengths at both ends of the spectrum, quantum cascade lasers are becoming less expensive and more powerful, CO2 lasers require much less maintenance, and diode lasers are becoming more powerful at higher brightness levels. All of this means that picking the best laser for the application is no longer as easy as it once was. It also means that many laser applications that were once cost prohibitive are now becoming viable, and ones that were once very expensive are becoming much cheaper. For example, lab-grade spectroscopy once requiring $100K in equipment can now be performed for several thousands of dollars; consumer spectroscopy, never before available, can now be performed with a several hundred dollar sensor and a smartphone.
While this is a very exciting time for those purchasing laser products, it has to be a very scary time for those companies producing and selling lasers and laser systems. They need to always be looking over their shoulders and anticipating the next technological advancements. For the rest of us, the laser market remains an exciting and interesting one to watch for its many twists and turns.