“Requirements for optical components are rapidly rising”

Initially, LASER COMPONENTS wanted to supply a young German laser industry with components from the USA. Today, the family-run company produces them itself with 270 employees in Germany and North America. CEO Patrick Paul talks about 40 years of corporate history, the future of photonics and the technological challenges of increasingly precise laser systems.

Congratulations on the company’s 40th anniversary, Mr. Paul! In 1982, your father began selling laser components from the USA. How did LASER COMPONENTS become a manufacturer?

Patrick Paul: At the time, an American supplier was looking to expand into Europe and wanted to produce components close to its European customers. Because of their close partnership, the company approached my father with its plans and got him involved. He coordinated the work to set up production facilities and got involved financially too through a limited company which he established specially for this purpose. The Americans provided the equipment and their know-how. My father got to know some experts, for example at the Laser Center Hanover (LZH), and began producing laser optical systems, essentially through learning by doing. Of course, there were problems at first. These included inadequate logistics and a lack of production and process know-how. But the team learned from their mistakes. Unfortunately, the American partner was unhappy with the pace of this learning process. It quickly withdrew from the company. My father however had recognized the benefits of producing components himself. He stuck with it and was soon in the black again. Because we’re a manufacturer and a distributor at the same time, we can give our customers expert advice, meet their special requirements and offer their development departments exactly the right components for a range of different solutions.

What do you think were important milestones in the first 40 years?

Paul: Because we and our range of products are changing all the time to meet the needs of the markets, I can’t think of any big milestones. Stabilizing our business and selecting the products and technologies we wanted to invest in was more of a continuous process. We never borrowed money for this—we paid for it from our cashflow. If I had to highlight something, I’d say establishing our production sites in Arizona and Montreal. We took this bold step in the middle of the dot-com crisis at the start of the new millennium. Banks and investors had lost a lot of money in the area of semiconductors and telecommunications lasers. Specialists, some of whom had some great ideas, were on the street looking for jobs. My father saw an opportunity here and used his financial reserves to set up a facility producing pulse laser diodes with a team of Canadian specialists and our photodiode production facility with a team from the USA. Fortunately, clean room equipment was available for a low price because so many factories had closed. But we did have to raise the cash for these investments alone. It was worth it. Both sites remain very successful to this day.

Your history also chronicles developments in technology: dielectric coatings from 1986, optical fibers from 1995 and soon after laser diodes, avalanche photodiodes and single photon counting detectors. What gives you ideas for product development?

Paul: In certain cases, we’ve put our own ideas into practice. We’ve also reacted to requests from customers or our research partners gave us ideas. Our sales people follow market developments closely and find out early on where there’s a gap between supply and demand or where customers are waiting for fresh ideas. Distributors sometimes also lose particularly successful product lines because the manufacturers take over distribution themselves. In such cases, we’ve discussed things with our customers, developed similar solutions to meet their particular needs and set up special production facilities for this. Customers often approach us and order products with precise specifications in the necessary quantities with clear price expectations. We then develop suitable solutions and manufacture them at our production facilities. Our broad know-how is beneficial here, for example when it comes to applying our coatings know-how in the field of laser optical systems to fiber optic cables. We have fiber fabrication and thin-film technology under one roof and use this as part of an iterative further development process for our products and processes. However, we’ve made a mess of many a development too because we were sometimes too fond of technology and didn’t involve our customers early enough. I make no secret of the fact that these were in part expensive and painful learning processes. There were happy endings here and there because years later there was new demand for them - but this was by no means always the case.

How do the increasing precision requirements of laser systems affect production and which measuring challenges must be solved today?

Paul: The requirements as regards optical components have been increasing dramatically for years. Lasers are constantly achieving new power records, process times are becoming ever shorter and the components installed in laser systems are being pushed further and further to the limits of what is technically possible. This means higher destruction thresholds, enormous precision and fewer and fewer aberrations. If I get my hands on older specifications, I sometimes rub my eyes. What was state of the art a decade ago is now virtually unsaleable. To keep up here, we invest large sums in our pool of measuring systems. These include white light interferometers, wedge and angle measuring devices and instruments for determining layer thicknesses. In certain cases, we work with the manufacturers of these systems and research institutions and develop them for specific measuring tasks at our optical production facilities. Each new segment that we get involved in brings new measuring challenges. And the necessary equipment is expensive. Many of the devices cost six-figure sums. This plays an increasingly important role when deciding which new products, we’ll develop and manufacture.

Microchip manufacturers and space researchers need precision-coated mirrors and optical systems. Which coating processes do you use now—and how do they differ from the coating methods used in the 1980s?

Paul: Coating technologies are now much more advanced. In the early days, we melted material using an electron beam and the material condensed on the optical components in the vacuum. There was virtually no process monitoring. Today’s processes are completely different. We use three technologies: for quick layer growth, we used the e-beam coating process already mentioned, albeit an updated version. For highly stressed, particularly low-scatter coatings on heat-sensitive substrates, we use the IAD (ion-assisted deposition) process, which is meticulously monitored during the coating process. And for high-precision, precisely reproducible coatings, IBS (ion beam sputtering) is the optimum solution because a very large number of process parameters can be set independently of one another. Each of these processes has its own advantages. We need them all in order to guarantee our customers the necessary precision, reproducible quality and, in some cases, just quick and inexpensive delivery. Especially as the applications are very different. A continuous wave (cw) laser needs optical systems which are completely different from those for an ultrashort pulse system. We’re learning all the time and we’re always keen to talk to our customers to optimize the coating processes for their particular applications. Sometimes we supply different optical systems which they can then test intensively before they opt for a particular solution.

Changing the subject: some photonics manufacturers are concerned about the transformation of the automotive industry. Does this transformation influence your strategic focus?

Paul: I do worry about certain things, but the further development of photonics and its markets is not one of them. New applications are emerging every day—whether it be in agriculture, robotics, rail travel, e-mobility with fuel cells and batteries or in autonomous driving, a highly innovative area. For example, our pulse laser diodes for LiDAR systems are certified and are already used in mass-produced products. If vehicles are to travel autonomously at night and in fog, during all seasons and in different traffic situations with left and right-hand traffic, comprehensive environmental sensors are needed. These include cameras, LiDAR and radar systems, infra-red technology—and naturally lightweight, high-performance solutions for on-board data transmission and processing which translate comprehensive sensor data into driving maneuvers in real time. All of this is driven by photonics. There are some reservations within the sector at the moment. But this is mainly due to the fact that companies need to switch to electric drive systems quickly and uncompromisingly as a result of political pressure. The resources available probably aren’t sufficient in order to drive both revolutions at the same time.

Final question: LASER COMPONENTS has a noticeably large number of female employees. Are there reasons why almost half of all employees in this country are women?

Paul: In Germany, there are almost equal numbers of men and women. Across the world, women account for more than 40 percent of employees. Many of our managers are women. Our process and product development departments are managed by women and there’s many female employees in our technical sales department too. This wasn’t a conscious decision on our part, and we have no gender quotas. But we’ve always checked applications unreservedly and made no distinction between applicants. If a person’s qualifications, professional experience, and CV are of interest to us, there are opportunities for everyone here. This also applies to the age of our employees too. We’re a diverse team—something which has contributed to our success for the past 40 years.