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Photonics – The next wave of Innovation

  • Despite the fact that laser technology has evolved continuously since its conception, two periods of innovation stand out. During the 1970s and 1980s, researchers achieved significant advances in basic laser physics and many applications were restricted to scientific, laboratory, and R&D environments. Laser devices have fully migrated from the lab to the commercial realm in the last three decades, as they have been developed to improve performance, robustness, and dependability. Many novel laser uses arose at this time, including surgery, lithography, and welding, enabling breakthroughs in industries ranging from healthcare to electronics to industrial manufacture.

    In his ground breaking article "The quantum theory of radiation," published in 1917, Einstein established the ground work for laser technology. The first extensively commercialized lasers appeared in the 1960s, after years of development, and were utilized for a variety of applications ranging from science to surgery. Since then, lasers' unique capacity to create a narrow, focused beam of light has enabled a variety of different applications, such as barcode scanning, DNA sequencing, and semiconductor chip production. The NASA rover Curiosity utilized laser-enabled technology to blast rocks on Mars, allowing scientists to examine compounds in the resultant vapors in one of the most unique applications.

    As the basic technology matured, a slew of low-cost competitors flooded the market. As a result, the average sales price for lasers used in high-volume end products, such as telecom transmission, marking and engraving, and bio sensing, has been under pressure. However, the industry may be on the verge of a new era of innovation, with lasers increasingly combining with optics and sensors to enable even more advanced applications. These integrated devices, many of which are currently in development in a variety of industries, have the potential to not only resurrect the laser business, but also to become the primary source of value. We looked at recent advancements across laser end markets to help photonics industry stakeholders estimate the potential ahead. The optics and sensor industries were then examined in depth, with a focus on the unique possibilities that such technologies may give when paired with lasers. Owners, operators, and board members in the industry have recognized these benefits and are fast expanding their companies' technical capabilities through mergers, acquisitions, and strategic partnerships. Investors are also paying attention.

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