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Fiber laser industry: It started in the Soviet Union and flourished in China

Views:0     Author:hu     Publish Time: 2021-09-09      Origin:dapeng

This is an industry story, but let me talk about simple scientific common sense first.


The laser is one of the major scientific and technological inventions in the 20th century. Its English name is "Laser". In 1964, Qian Xuesen suggested that it be named "Laser" in Chinese. The scientific principle of laser "stimulated emission" was proposed by Einstein in 1917. It is actually quite simple and can be understood by high school physics knowledge.


Einstein pointed out that a particle at a high energy level E2, when a photon with a frequency of V = (E2-E1)/h is incident (h is Planck's constant), the particle will quickly transition from the energy level E2 with a certain probability At the energy level E1, a photon with the same frequency, phase, polarization state and propagation direction as the external photon is radiated at the same time, which is called stimulated radiation.


Can you see that it's amazing? One photon turns into another exactly the same. What will the two photons do next? That's right, these two went to find other particles and fired again, and they became four. This process is like a nuclear explosion chain reaction. The number of photons increases rapidly, which is equivalent to the amplification of the original light signal. "Laser" is actually the abbreviation of Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.


This is another Nobel Prize-level theoretical achievement proposed by Einstein, but it was not until 1960, 5 years after his death, that the laser was made. Why is it taking so long? Because of the "stimulated absorption" proposed in Einstein's paper at the same time. The photon may hit a particle of E1 energy level, turn it into E2 energy level, disappear by itself, and the so-called chain reaction is gone.


In general materials, there are more stimulated absorption particles than stimulated radiation particles (lower energy level E1 is more than high energy level E2), so the light passing intensity will not be amplified but will decrease. To produce laser light, the key condition is "population inversion", where there are more high-level particles than low-level particles. But this is actually not that difficult. Looking back at the 1930s, physicists were able to do it.


One year after the United States made lasers in 1960, China immediately led by Academician Wang Daheng to make China's first laser in 1961 (Wang Lao died in 2011 and was just selected as one of the 100 pioneers of reform). It's just that in the 1930s, scientists didn't know enough about optical theory and technology, and they didn't expect to do it. There were many other major discoveries. This makes the laser invention process somewhat bizarre. It was the "Maser" (microwave amplifier) that came out first before the "Laser" was made.


Charles Towns, a physicist at Columbia University in the United States, used radar during World War II. After the war, the US Navy wanted to create a powerful beam, and Towns took the task. In 1954, Towns finally made the Maser. Although it was amplified by microwaves, it prepared the way for the invention of Laser. In 1958, Towns and his colleague and brother-in-law Arthur Xiaoluo discovered that when the light emitted by a neon light bulb is applied to a rare earth crystal, the crystal will emit bright and strong light that always gathers together.


In 1960, Mayman of the Hughes Laboratory in the United States made the world's first laser, using a high-intensity flash tube to excite rubies. The key here is to have an "optical resonant cavity". The magnification of the light through the crystal is not too high, but if the mirrors are attached to the two ends and the magnification continues, it will be great. If a mirror is coated with less silver and leaks a part of the light, it will be the familiar laser with excellent unidirectionality. Xiao Luo's contribution is to introduce this technique that optical researchers are already familiar with into the laser field. Towns won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964, and Xiao Luo won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1981. It may be that there were not enough places in 1964.


In 1964, two Soviet physicists, Nikolai Basov and Alexander Prokhorov, won the Nobel Prize at the same time because of the laser and Towns. That year, Soviet physicists were also very powerful. The semiconductor laser proposed by Basov developed a later artifact: fiber laser.


Like the team of Basov, Prokhorov and Towns, in 1955 they also came up with a "Maser", an ammonia molecular beam microwave exciter, and naturally they thought of lasers. Basov’s contribution is that he published a paper in 1958 and proposed the idea of using semiconductors to make lasers (the theoretical description of "particle number inversion" in semiconductors). In 1961, he published the "carrier injection" PN junction. In 1963, he created a PN junction semiconductor laser (the Americans first created it according to the principle he proposed).


Semiconductor lasers are not as well-known as the ruby lasers that appear in textbooks, but experts clearly understand the theoretical significance of semiconductor lasers and have greater potential. Therefore, the Nobel Prize of the three people was given to two Soviet Unions and one American.


There are many advantages of semiconductor lasers: electrons directly become photons, and the electro-optical conversion efficiency is as high as 50%, which is much higher than other types of lasers; the service life is more than 100,000 hours, which is much longer than other types; semiconductors can also modulate the output , Other types can't do it; small size, light weight, high cost performance, semiconductors are cheaper than rubies and other materials.


In fact, it is not difficult to understand the advantages of semiconductor lasers. Although most people may not pay attention, LED (Light Emitting Diode) lamps have been seen by everyone. The principle of LED light emission is that when the carriers recombine in the PN junction, the excess energy is released with light, and the current is directly turned into light, instead of heating the filament like an incandescent bulb. Therefore, LED lamps have a bunch of advantages over traditional bulbs, such as multiple colors, adjustable light intensity, long life, and low cost, which are similar to the advantages of semiconductor lasers mentioned above. Semiconductor laser can be understood as the principle of LED light emission, coupled with the amplification effect of the optical resonant cavity, and this resonant cavity does not need to be newly built, it is available inside the semiconductor.


Laser is a rare technology that can be used immediately as soon as it is invented. It was used for surgery in 1961. Because the characteristics of the laser are too prominent, the uniformity of all photons is particularly good. When facing one direction, the energy acts on one point, which can be millions of times dazzling than the sun. A laser with a higher power can be used for cutting and processing. There are many applications for cutting, welding, measuring, and marking, and it is used in countless industries such as communications, industrial processing, medical treatment, and cosmetology, constantly replacing traditional crafts.


Now let’s talk about fiber lasers. In 2017, global industrial laser sales were US$2 billion, of which 48% were fiber lasers. The key figure of the fiber laser is the Russian Valentin Gapontsev (Valentin Gapontsev).


Born in 1939, Gapenchev is a senior scientist in the field of laser material physics, the head of the Radio Engineering and Electronic Science Research Laboratory of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and he is of authentic Soviet technical background. The Soviet Union and the Russians after the disintegration seem to be difficult to run businesses, but Gapenchev will do! Gapenchev founded IPG Photonics in 1990 and was listed on the Nasdaq (IPGP) in 2006. In 2017, the revenue was 1.4 billion US dollars and the current market value is 6 billion US dollars. It is the most well-known fiber laser company in the industry. Gapenchev holds nearly half of IPG's shares and is a billionaire, although he is still the chairman and CEO of the company's board of directors at the age of 79.


In 2009, Gapenchev received the Arthur Scholo Award from the American Laser Association, which is the industry's recognition of his academic achievements. In 2010, Gapenchev won the Russian National Science and Technology Award, which is the highest honor for science and technology in Russia. In fact, Gapenchev is dual citizenship of Russia and the United States. IPG is headquartered in Massachusetts, and its manufacturing plants are in the United States, Germany, Russia and Italy. But Gapenchev's winning of this award is justified, and the establishment and development of the company has a deep relationship with the Soviet Union and Russia.


What is the fiber laser that made Gapenchev honour and make a fortune? Before fiber lasers, the industrial lasers used for material processing on the market were mainly gas lasers and crystal lasers. Gas laser, the typical representative is CO2 laser. The representative of crystal laser is YAG laser, YAG refers to yttrium aluminum garnet with neodymium or ytterbium added.

Laser marking is the use of laser to mark exquisite patterns and text on metal or non-metal materials. The CO2 laser machine uses CO2 as the working material to generate laser radiation, and the auxiliary gases nitrogen and helium are also charged into the discharge tube. When a high voltage is applied to the electrode, a glow discharge is generated in the discharge tube, which causes the gas molecules to release laser light, and the energy is amplified to form a laser beam. When marking, the galvanometer is controlled by a computer, and the laser beam path is changed to realize automatic marking. The CO2 laser machine is large in size, complex in structure, and difficult to maintain.


The YAG laser needs to use a krypton or xenon tube as a "pump lamp" to emit light to illuminate the Nd: YAG crystal to produce laser light. The emission spectrum of the pump lamp is a broadband continuous spectrum, only a few spectral peaks are absorbed by Nd ions, and most of the unabsorbed spectral energy is converted into heat energy, so the energy utilization rate is low.


Although CO2 and YAG lasers have various shortcomings, the high-power lasers produced are still very useful in the industry. There are often such examples in the industry. The old generation of products cultivates the market, the process is switched, and then the new generation of products achieves efficiency improvements. Fiber lasers are used to improve efficiency.


As mentioned earlier, semiconductor lasers have many advantages, but why did they not develop at the beginning? Because it has a fatal weakness: the quality of the laser light emitted is not good. The output beam of crystal lasers is of high quality and has high temporal and spatial coherence. It claims to emit a laser beam to the moon with a spot of only 2 kilometers. The spectral linewidth and beam divergence angle of semiconductor lasers are several orders of magnitude higher than that of crystal lasers, and the main functions are not sufficient, so the bunch of advantages are of little significance.


One way is to use the semiconductor laser as the pump of the crystal laser and combine the advantages of the two. The light source emitted by the semiconductor laser, after being "optimized" by the crystal laser, forms a high-quality light beam and then emits it. However, this solution also has problems. The bulk crystal absorbs high-energy photons with short wavelengths and converts them into low-energy photons with longer wavelengths. There is always a part of the energy that is converted into heat in a non-radiative transition. If this part of the heat energy cannot be dissipated in the massive crystal, it will be fatal, and it will be burned in a while, so the problem of heat dissipation is very important.


If the bulk crystal can be made into a slender strip, the heat dissipation area will be very large and the problem can be solved. This is actually the appearance of an optical fiber. Someone made a glass laser in 1964. The crystal used optical fiber, although the light source was not a semiconductor laser. However, the optical fiber itself did not develop at that time, and the defects were large, and it was difficult for the light source to focus on the optical fiber, so there was no progress on this route for more than 20 years.


By the 1980s, semiconductor lasers as pumps have made great progress, and optical fibers have also made great progress with the great development of network communications, and the technical conditions of fiber lasers have gradually matured. In 1987, the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom and Bell Laboratories in the United States proved the feasibility of erbium-doped fiber amplifiers and achieved key scientific breakthroughs. But the industrial breakthrough was achieved after many years of insisting on IPG founded by Gapenchev in 1990. Fiber lasers are very high-end high-tech, involving multiple disciplines. The power of the semiconductor laser as a pump must be increased, and the amplification performance of the fiber must be continuously improved. The trick to improving the optical fiber is to add various rare earth elements to it. IPG is a typical high-tech enterprise in western countries. R&D is not simple, and the product profit rate is as high as 50% to 60%.


Fiber lasers have a series of advantages of semiconductor lasers, as well as the advantages of high beam quality of crystal lasers. From an industrial point of view, the advantages of fiber lasers are clear at a glance compared to CO2 lasers and YAG lasers, and the advantages are so big that there is nothing comparable. Fiber lasers have absolutely ideal beam quality, super high conversion efficiency of semiconductor lasers, and completely maintenance-free like optical fibers and LED lights, high stability, and small size. It is really a perfect product.


Of course, new high-tech products have one disadvantage: expensive. For IPG, this is not a problem. For lasers with so many advantages, it is natural to sell them at high prices. Even high-cost companies can develop.


At this time, we finally have to talk about China. In the aforementioned scientific development of lasers and fiber lasers, it seems that China has nothing to do. But if the products are expensive and the industrial development needs to reduce the cost, that is China's specialty.


In fact, the main market of IPG is in China. IPG is engaged in industrial lasers. China's industrial output value is the highest in the world, and of course the demand is also the largest. Although IPG started in Europe and the United States, its market share in China is getting higher and higher. By the second quarter of 2018, 49% of IPG's sales depended on the Chinese market.


For consumer or industrial applications, fiber lasers cannot be used directly, and need to be made into various "laser marking machines" and "laser cutting machines". Leading manufacturers like Han's Laser in China produce marking machines and cutting machines. The fiber laser produced by IPG, Han's Laser bought into a processing machine, is a match made in heaven. Even if the fiber laser component is expensive, the other cost of the machine produced by Han's is cheap, and the product that the end customer sees is an upgraded product with good performance and an acceptable price. Therefore, the Chinese market has helped IPG a lot, and the whole machine has amortized its cost, and the application of fiber lasers has prospered, and the entire industry chain has developed in a rolling fashion.


But IPG complains a lot about the Chinese market. This is also the norm for European and American technology companies, who love and hate the Chinese market and have mixed emotions.


IPG's five-year stock price trend


Judging from the trend of IPG's stock price, by the beginning of 2018, it has more than tripled from 2014, and it feels like a big bull stock. But in 2018, it fell by 50%, which is quite miserable. why is that? Did Han's Laser have a double heart for IPG and built a fiber laser on its own? No, Han's has always supported IPG. In 2018, IPG's performance also continued to grow.


The IPG spokesperson said in the second quarter performance briefing on July 31, 2018 (transferred from the Huatai Machinery Research Team):


The reporter asked: Good morning. In China, especially in the process of Rayco’s attempt to go public, have you seen any changes in the competitive environment?


IPG spokesperson: Relatively speaking, we do not believe that Raycus has a future. From the perspective of product quality and competition without the help of outsourcing, Raycus has very limited opportunities, and the ablation market is crazy. For Chinese companies like Raycus, they destroyed the market. They lowered the price and then lowered it, operating within a small profit margin, and they actually undermined the market price. Every year, (including this year), their prices drop by almost 50% or more, which is really crazy. We don't understand how they work, it's incredible.


This is real. The marking market before this was healthy, but they destroyed the market. Although the output is increasing, the price has actually been destroyed. Even the major players in China have no profit at all in the marking market. They are trying to destroy all suppliers, of course, we have a better chance. Our manufacturing costs are much cheaper than "we think their manufacturing costs". But prices are falling, which is a major problem. Production is increasing, but the increase in income is actually problematic, which affects the final income of low-end products.


We have worked very hard this year to reduce product costs. Similarly, starting next year, we will launch a new generation of high-power fiber lasers, which are more efficient, more perfect, and lower in cost than existing production lines. From the point of view of manufacturing costs, we are again down by 20% to 30%, and support the same high profitability even when the average selling price drops, but it will affect revenue. The Chinese actually destroyed the market.


The IPG spokesperson was obviously very upset, but he still showed confidence in IPG and believed that the cost was okay. Raycus mentioned here is a fiber laser company founded by a few returned doctors in Wuhan. In fact, there are still several Chinese companies that do fiber lasers, such as Chuangxin and Jept in Shenzhen.

Raycus represents the annoying tendency of many Chinese technology companies: although there are not many originals, it can also tinker with high-tech products with high technical content. Then in China's special R&D environment, these Chinese companies are keen to reduce costs frantically in order to gain a competitive advantage.


Unlike what the IPG spokesperson claimed, Chinese companies can indeed drastically reduce costs while guaranteeing a certain profit, without killing the market. The actual effect is to promote the application quickly. In fact, the popularity of industrial lasers depends on China's fierce cost reduction and application promotion. Countries such as India and Vietnam with a certain scale of manufacturing application demand have also used low-cost industrial laser equipment made in China, and they are quite recognized for Raycus's products. Samsung's factory in Vietnam uses a lot of Chinese company's machines.


The choice of Chinese companies is understandable. Instead of investing in original research and development with unknown results, it is better to reduce costs that can be achieved. The market appreciates high-performance products, but low-cost products will eventually occupy the main market. Chinese IT Internet companies will burn money to occupy the market and squeeze out their opponents, but manufacturing companies will still guarantee profits. It's just that under competition, this profit rate will not be too high, and sometimes it seems that the high-tech industry is not high in style.


Because of the good relationship between Han's Laser and IPG to make money, it is willing to support IPG. As a major customer, you can also enjoy preferential prices. The main competitor of Han's Laser is the Huagong Company in Wuhan, and Raycus relies on the Huazhong Laser and other companies in Wuhan to promote the market. When competing products using Raycus's domestic fiber lasers came out, Han's and IPG cut prices together in an attempt to squeeze their opponents.


However, this kind of measured enterprise is also unable to resist the entire technological environment.


In 2010, IPG can sell a 20-watt fiber laser for more than 150,000 yuan. Now Raycus’s offer is 8,800, and IPG can’t compete. In the end, Han's Laser got it on itself. It is said that the trick is very simple. Ask a domestic manufacturer to ask for a few fiber lasers to use, let the open interface definition, find some people to copy the success, and then I stopped buying.


Chinese companies can reduce costs frantically because the large-scale industrial chain is complete. For example, optical lenses cost 10,000 for German ones and 1,000 for domestic ones. Parts such as cylinder guides are domestically produced, and there are few core parts that are not domestically produced. With the promotion of localization, the cost has dropped rapidly. In 2015, a 3-watt ultraviolet laser sold for 90,000, and now 20,000 has been released. Moreover, China's large number of R&D personnel has turned industry competition into a competition to quickly meet customer needs.


When Han's Laser competed with South Korean EO in Vietnam, products with the same configuration were more than 100,000 cheaper, because the parts of IPG were cheap, and a large number of young engineers were sent to Samsung's Vietnam factory for day and night debugging. There are few Korean engineers sent by EO and their hair is gray, which is really hard to fight. The automatic laser equipment of the American company takes half a year, and the Chinese company directly quotes 30%, and the construction period is one month. And in the United States, old engineers who are about to retire do it. No one will do it after they retire.


A large number of companies in the consumer electronics industry are located in Shenzhen and Dongguan, and it is easy for companies from Wuhan to send people over. When the product is launched, there is a certain problem, but it can be improved immediately on the spot, and it will be very stable after a while. In this way, industrial lasers have become a standard application in the consumer electronics industry, and the price has changed, and it has spread to other industries.


In the R&D environment of China, industrial laser equipment is not difficult to manufacture. A few people dared to open a company to find various manufacturers to purchase various parts and assemble them, and sell standard equipment such as marking machines. In the 1990s, they sold 300,000 yuan each, and now they are 20,000 yuan each (that is, the IPG spokesperson said it destroyed the market. s things). Although this kind of company doesn't do much research and development, but doing a good job in popularizing applications can also help upstream manufacturers expand the market. This phenomenon is relatively rare in foreign countries. China's efforts to reduce the cost of industrial machinery are too great.


In fact, when the Indians and Vietnamese see these machines, they really have to think about it. Most of them will be the same as the knowledgeable Chinese, and they think there is nothing difficult to do with this kind of thing. But the Indians and Vietnamese would not make these machines, it is really unprofitable. The Chinese do it themselves with a 10% profit margin. India and Vietnam have to produce locally, and there are no supporting facilities, even the simplest sheet metal. And there must be a sufficient amount of cost reduction. India and Vietnam do not have any conditions for their own production, so it is most cost-effective to find a Chinese company to buy it.


Even if the government subsidizes to do this kind of industry, there must be a certain profit margin to do it, otherwise long-term subsidies are not the answer. Therefore, things that seem simple and easy, on the contrary, will not be done.


In fact, there is another way to set up factories in China's low-cost environment: rub costs. For example, Guangbo Company (named Guangbo) used to have its production line in the United States, but later transferred its low-power production line to Shenzhen. This company is not saying that it has any R&D advantages, but that the cost of production in Shenzhen is low, and its competitiveness in the international arena has been enhanced. The boss is a Chinese American, so he can understand the cost reduction. Why is it a "rubbing cost", because there is no technical contribution to China. However, we can still see the difference in style between American companies and Chinese companies.


According to the understanding of high-tech companies in the United States, customers should respect the technical products given by the company. The industry is technology-driven. Customers should not be anxious. They have to wait for technology companies to make more and more powerful products, and sales have to wait for the technical staff to grow up. R&D, the pace of work is slow, and no one can be found after get off work. However, Chinese companies have a different understanding. Although it is a high-tech industry, fiber lasers can be regarded as authentic high-tech products, but they just become sales companies. When the customer has a demand, the sales will come after it, and the technical staff will have to go to the customer's site to troubleshoot. Sales come first, and technology obeys sales tasks. Although American companies like Guangbo have come to cut costs, they still don’t have the right pace. Sometimes orders come but they are out of stock.


Why doesn't IPG come to China to open factories to reduce costs? Half of its business is in China, and the Chinese market has made it possible. It is normal thinking to open a production plant in China.


But I really didn't dare to come, because the risk of being copied was unbearable, so I only opened a sales and technical support company in Beijing. IPG also has some technical advantages, such as a good share of high-power devices above 2000 watts. But this can’t say how safe it is. Companies such as Ruike are already making high-power equipment. They already have 10,000 watts, but they are not stable yet. There is no essential difficulty that can’t be done. The sharp drop in IPG's stock price is understandable.


In the market facing IPG, industrial laser equipment is replacing traditional processing equipment, and fiber lasers are replacing traditional lasers. The entire industry looks bright. However, Chinese companies have already occupied the low-power market, and the cost has fallen beyond comprehension. The semiconductor laser technology handed down from the former Soviet Union has developed into a fiber laser because of China's huge demand and cost reduction promotion. No one knows what this market will become in the future.


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Dapeng laser specializing in R&D, manufacturing laser marking, cutting and welding machines, we also provides Laser sources and spare parts to the laser machine manufacturers in China and surrounding countries.
 

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