With 2014 ending and 2015 starting, it is a good time to reflect on the year that has passed and look ahead to the year which is starting. Total worldwide laser revenue grew 6.5% in 2014 to $9.2 billion, which is a quite strong gain overall, despite the fact that prices of many laser types continue to drop.
There was not a single region or laser type which accounted for much of the gain (with the possible exception of fiber lasers, which had a great year), but rather 2014 was strong due to the lack of any significantly bad areas or segments. Europe recovered somewhat from a very weak 2013, and China, a large consumer of lasers, was relatively strong, as was most of the rest of Asia. If there was one region that was a bit weaker, it was North America, where decreased R&D budgets have taken a toll, but overall, even North America was respectable in 2014.
Not surprisingly, fiber lasers continued to make strong inroads into many segments, especially materials processing; however, maybe more surprising was that CO2 lasers were strong in 2014 as well. If fiber lasers were in fact impacting sales of other types of lasers, it would be on other solid state lasers, which only grew revenue by 4% in 2014. Revenue growth for Quantum Cascade lasers grew the fastest in 2014, but only because they are growing from such a small base. Their numbers are still relatively small.
Outside of the laser growth statistics, there were some important laser milestones in 2014. In the military area, the Navy declared in December that the 30KW fiber laser aboard the USS Ponce is fully operational and available for daily usage. It was estimated that each laser “shot” cost about $0.59, an amount exponentially lower than what it cost for a missile or other ordnance. This marks the first time that any U.S. military directed energy laser weapon has been declared to be fully deployed and operational.
In other military news, the U.S. Army is in the process of selecting a final technology for the Common Infrared Countermeasures program that will provide laser-based protection for small aircraft and helicopters. One of the two candidate systems uses quantum cascade lasers, which would be the first use of this type laser for this application. The winning system will receive an initial order for 1076 systems valued at more than $1.5 billion.
While the military use of lasers is impressive, there were many laser milestones elsewhere as well. Not only have BMW, Mercedes, and Audi all released cars in Europe with laser headlights (not allowed yet in the U.S.), but Audi entered a car into the 24 Hours of Le Mans race that also had laser headlights.
But roads aren’t the only things being illuminated by lasers. When Paul Allen’s Cinerama in Seattle reopened November 19th, 2014, showing “The Hunger Games” after receiving major renovations, it became the first commercial theater in the world to use laser light projection. Expect more laser theaters in 2015, including ones in Italy and China.
There were many more laser milestones that occurred in 2014, and 2015 looks to be an even bigger year for many new laser applications. Look for new innovations in medical, sensing, communications, and materials processing areas, in addition to others. Although lasers have been around for more than 50 years now, only in the last few years has the number of new and exciting laser applications really exploded. While 2014 was a great year for lasers, 2015 might be a better year still.