Keeping it real – Innovation only works when it addresses real needs

Posted on 19 Dec 2008 by The Manufacturer

Les Lockwood, CEO at Powerlase, discusses customer-driven application innovation as a key to successful laser product development.

Healthy business growth in highly competitive markets with small profit margins requires a great deal of innovation, research and development. In many cases, success depends on a company’s ability to adapt to changes in existing markets, while looking for ways to cater for and branch out into new areas and to seek and create markets of the future.

The technology manufacturing industry is highly competitive, but offers a great deal of scope for product and application innovation. Having a cutting edge technology is the first step, but a crucial second is identifying the strengths of this technology and where it can be implemented to improve or refine existing manufacturing processes. A company producing manufacturing technology is not only in competition with others producing competing equipment, but also with existing legacy manufacturing techniques.

The research and development process of laser innovation is a multi-step procedure. Powerlase was created with the development of a high power diode-pumped solid state (DPSS) laser range. However, while the lasers were, and remain, a class-leader, the applications for which they were designed were not scheduled for adoption within high volume manufacturing facilities until 2012.

Green Laser

The original intention was to use the lasers for a technique known as Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography (EUVL), a revolutionary process for semiconductor manufacturing. Still in the experimental stage, EUVL was not ready for mass-adoption by the industry. As a result, Powerlase first sought out, then entered into collaboration projects with world leading academics and research institutes across the world to develop a workable EUVL solution that industry truly needed.

Although being the market leader in one sector can be highly profitable, healthy growth and a solid business pipeline requires a company to address new and emerging sectors.

For Powerlase, one emerging market was the display screen manufacturing sector. Over the last ten years there have been major developments in the display market, taking the mainstream consumer away from older cathode ray tube (CRT) displays, to the modern day plasma display panels (PDPs).

When PDPs were first introduced, they had limited take up amongst consumers due to their exclusivity and high price tag. Manufacturers soon began to seek new ways to reduce production costs and thus offer PDPs at a price more attractive to the mass market, while still protecting margins.

Powerlase saw this as an opportunity to enter the PDP market and use laser systems to revolutionise the manufacturing process. Working with potential customers and partners in Korea, a laser-based technique was developed for patterning the thin-films on glass substrates used for PDP screens, in a process known as Rapid Laser Patterning (RLP). The RLP technique proved highly successful in penetrating the Korean PDP marketplace. As a result of this innovative approach, RLP has become the default choice for PDP production.

Regardless of market maturity, it’s essential that market leaders adapt to changing market conditions. By working closely with manufacturers and plotting market trends, Powerlase has been able to move in step with the rapidly changing display market. A new green laser is being developed with a 400 Watt output, ideally suited to organic light emitting diode (OLED) screen production. OLED screens have been tipped to be ‘the next big thing’ in consumer display electronics, due to low energy consumption, thinner design and the wide-angle view that matches the quality of PDP or LCD screens.

Another sector seeing the benefits of laser technology is the solar cell market. In this instance, the laser is used in an edge deletion technique to remove the thin-film coating on solar cells. This is a vital process that ensures the casing of the solar panel does not touch the solar cell glass and prevents it from short circuiting. Edge deletion using lasers could replace a legacy technique; sand blasting. This is a very different technology, so the challenge here is to highlight the benefits of laser edge deletion over sand blasting. By using a fibre delivery system, lasers can emit a square beam. Having this square target area allows thin film removal to be completed more effectively than with a round beam, increasing the speed of the removal and streamlining the process.

In order to be successful in a highly competitive manufacturing industry sector, Powerlase has combined a rich mix of customer-driven application innovation, with the development of a broad portfolio of products for use across a range of markets. World-class customer collaboration programmes enrich the process of innovating, not just for the sake of innovation, but for real world opportunities in real world markets.

By Les Lockwood, CEO of Powerlase. For more information on laser innovation visit the company’s website