20 Years of SPI Lasers
This year marks, not only 60 years since Theodore H. Maiman built the first ever laser…but also the 20th anniversary of SPI Lasers. Starting off as a ‘spin-out’ from the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre, the company has grown into one of the global market leaders in Pulsed and CW Fiber Lasers. We manufacture and sell thousands of lasers every year across the world, involved in countless applications from Additive Manufacturing to thick metal cutting…
…but it wasn’t always like that.
As a company we’re very proud of our history, from our humble beginnings…to where we are now. So to celebrate our 20 years, we thought we’d put together a look back through the SPI timeline!
2000: The Spin Out
On 11th February 2000, Southampton Photonics Incorporated was founded.
In May of that year £55million was raised to fund SPI Lasers, this was a record investment for a start up company!
We started out manufacturing in-fiber optical components and subsystems for telecommunications. Our in-fiber technology enabled optical networks to transport more bits, over more channels, with greater accuracy, at a lower cost.
The company’s products were split across three product lines; BragNet, GainNet and HydraNet.
BragNet (pictured below) was a high performance optical filter and interleaver, allowing systems to utilise more densely packed channels while maximising per-channel bandwidth.
2001 saw the dreaded telecoms crash, causing the whole sector to plunge into difficulty. To survive, we needed to refocus our business.
An opportunity came around for a business project looking to develop a single polarisation, single frequency, single mode 1kW laser, capable of being combined to form a single mode beam with 100kW of power!
SPI bid for, and won the contract!
So we set to work first developing the technology and were actually the first company to demonstrate 1kW of output power from a single mode optical fiber.
This was a huge turning point in the companies history. As due to SPI’s performance under this contract, other businesses and investors started taking an interest in SPI, not as a telecoms company…but as a supplier of high power fiber lasers!
2003: Our first trade show as SPI Lasers
After our focus turned to Fiber Lasers, one of the first exhibitions we attended as SPI Lasers was Photonics West. Held in San Jose, California the event attracted 13,250 attendees and 6,000 exhibiting companies. Photonics West is renowned as being one of the premium photonics technology events and is were the leading companies in photonics innovation share their new developments with the community.
So the event was a great opportunity to position ourselves as one of these innovators in the industry. We presented a paper entitled ‘Latest development of high power fiber lasers in SPI’ which can be read by clicking here!
And, 17 years on we are still attending Photonics West! Earlier this year we attended the event at The Moscone Center, San Francisco with our parent company TRUMPF. Nowadays the event attracts more than 20,000 attendees and over 1,300 exhibiting companies!
2004: Launch of CW
2004 saw the launch of SPI’s first industrial fiber lasers. The rack-mounted 20W 1µm CW lasers were the first industrial offerings using SPI’s Yb GTWave technology. Also offered at a 50W power level, these lasers had high modulation frequencies, fundamental mode beam quality and closed-loop power control and were ideally suited to printing and micro applications.
Today’s SPI CW fiber laser engines are 100x more powerful – an achievement made possible by laser diode pumps with 30x higher power, as well as several hundred years of engineering effort in finessing our core fiber technology and components.
2006: Launch of G2 (Pulsed Fiber Laser)
In 2006 SPI launched its first ns pulsed marking laser. Also leveraging GTWave fiber with a low photodarkening active core, the 12W G2 laser was the beginning of the product family that introduced SPI’s innovative PulseTune technology.
Allowing user control of pulse widths from 10ns to 200ns as well as pulse rates up to 250kHz, opened up improved processing capabilities at a time when the world was still not fully familiar with the potential of fiber lasers.
2008: Acquired by TRUMPF / Launch of G3
The 2008 G3 laser series was an evolution of the G2 laser that incorporated an advanced PulseTune controller within the laser chassis and provided an interface designed for compatibility with scanner controllers. It also improved the format of the isolating beam delivery optic and made a number of ‘under the hood’ technical improvements to make a stronger industrial offering.
The G3 laser found wide-spread use in marking applications, with significant deployments in consumer electronics marking and solar cell processing. In addition to operational improvements, the power range was extended to 40W.
On October 7th it was announced that SPI Lasers would become part of the TRUMPF Group, a German machine tool and laser manufacturing giant who are among the leading global manufacturing brands and the technological world market leader in industrial lasers.
The market for Fiber Lasers was still growing and TRUMPF were looking to expand their product range even further, with SPI focusing more on lower power Fiber Lasers this complimented TRUMPF’s own product offering. With this move TRUMPF didn’t just gain more products but also a worldwide distribution network, numerous patents and market leading expertise in the design and manufacture of Fiber Lasers.
Having that ability to exchange knowledge and experience between two global leaders in their own markets has been invaluable for both TRUMPF and SPI.
2011: Launch of G4 (Pulsed Fiber Laser)
Encompassing feedback from our partners on the successful G3.1 laser as well as our vision for the future, the G4 was SPI’s first laser platform designed from the ground up to support lean manufacturing principles and DfX.
This ongoing philosophy, now incorporated in SPI’s other product lines, allows SPI to offer lasers with high reliability and repeatability over large install bases, as well as the manufacturing flexibility to respond to surges in demand and changing application needs.
With output powers from 20W to in excess of 200W, pulse lengths from 3ns to 2us, pulse rates up to 4MHz and a range of beam quality options, the G4 laser platform continues to define the benchmark for flexibility and performance in marking, e-mobility, solar processing and micro applications.
2015: JK Lasers acquisition
In April of 2015, we completed the acquisition of JK Lasers, based in Rugby (UK), the reason behind this acquisition was to enhance our high power Fiber Laser portfolio.
With acquiring the JK Lasers site, we gained a wealth of knowledge and experience, especially in the higher power Fiber Laser market. As well as the extra 42,000 sq ft of floor space meaning we could increase our production outputs to meet demands.
SPI Lasers CEO (2015) Dr Christian Schmitz stated: “We are very excited about the prospects ahead as we blend the considerable talents and technology of SPI Lasers and JK Lasers. Our focus of course remains on putting our customers at the heart of everything we do, producing high quality, reliable and flexible Lasers designed to suit their needs.”
2016: Launch of PRISM & QUBE
In August of 2016, we announced to launch of a new generation of industrial high power CW fiber lasers for our redPOWER product line…PRISM & QUBE. Initial products ranged in power level from 500W to 6kW. These products replaced our long running redPOWER R4 products.
Dr. Thomas Fehn (CEO of SPI Lasers from 2015 – 2018) said: “As ever we remain committed to offering our customers the very best quality products, backed by market leading levels of service and support; as such I am thrilled to confirm the launch of our expanded CW redPOWER product range.”
2018: New Offices
In June of 2018, we opened a new service centre in in Wauconda, Illinois (USA), serving customers in North and South America. The centre provides a central location for service and support of our products, and being located close to Chicago airport enables efficient transport for all customers in the Americas. The service centre includes a splicing capability to enable replacement of laser modules & beam delivery cables. The facility also offers a full electronic test diagnostic and recalibration capability as well as local spares holding. Matt Shakespeare, Head of Service noted “Our new facility in the Americas is part of our strategy to work increasingly closely with our customers and follows on from the new Service Centre we opened in Seoul last year. We look forward to making further announcements of additional service facilities later this year.”
In November, we further increased our footprint in China by opening a new facility in Shenzhen. The facility acts as a sales and service centre for China as well as being fully equipped with an applications laboratory.
The applications facility came fully equipped with both a 2kW single mode and a 6kW CW Multi Mode laser source as well as a full suite of pulsed lasers. Allowing our fiber laser experts to fully support our Chinese customers with their application needs, fitting into our developing growth strategy of putting the customer at the heart of what we do.
Soon after in July at our Southampton HQ we expanded our manufacturing capacity by taking over ‘Unit 4’ at the Wellington Park site. This increased manufacturing space by approximately 40,000 sq ft (3,716m²).
The opening ceremony was performed by Dr. Christian Schmitz (CEO of Laser Technology at TRUMPF) and attended by SPI Lasers staff from across the UK, TRUMPF representatives and Southampton ORC members.
2019: Introducing variMODE
In November of 2019, we officially launched variMODE. variMODE is our latest product feature for our CW line available on the range of redPOWER QUBE lasers over 3kW, allowing users to switch between beam profiles in less than 40ms…
….but what does that really mean?
variMODE allows you to tailor your Fiber Laser system to optimise the beam characteristics (including spot size and beam profile), specific to your application, whether that be cutting, welding, piercing or additive manufacture.
variMODE is available within the redPOWER range as an option on all high power QUBE lasers, offering a dynamic switchable choice of laser beams from a 100µm delivery fiber, whilst maintaining spot size.
Based on an internal, all-in-fiber device that modifies the spatial modes in the delivery fiber, this innovative approach uniquely maintains beam delivery through the central core of the fiber, removing the need for complex and expensive additional optical components and ensuring maximum power is maintained across the beam profile regardless of the chosen mode.
2019: Where are we now?
In 2000, after failed planning permission prevented a move to Chilworth Science Park we eventually settled at Wellington Park, Hedge End. We started out with units 3, 5 and 6. Until the telecom crash in 2002, where we sublet out unit 6.
After the crash had recovered, we stopped the sublet on unit 6 and a few years later purchased unit 2 and in 2018 bought unit 4.
So now, we span across 5 of the 6 units on the Wellington Park site, with two manufacturing lines, a fiber tower, applications labs, R&D labs, offices and a new canteen.
Since the early days SPI has found trade shows a great way of interacting with customers, and to show the market what we have to offer. And while this attitude hasn’t changed in 20 years…it is safe to say we have come a long way in how we portray the message…
The first conference ever attended, was by Southampton Photonics Limited in February 1999; this was the Optical Fibre Communication (OFC) Conference in San Diego. OFC is the largest global conference and exhibition for optical communications and networking professionals; it has been running since 1975 in states across America.
Later the same year we attended the European Conference on Optical Communications (ECOC) in Nice. You can see photos from this below, you might even spot some familiar (young) faces! 2 years later, we attended the conference a second time, in Amsterdam in September 2001. To date, the ECOC Exhibition is the largest optical communications exhibition in Europe, held each September in a different European city.
Following on from our attendance of the Optical Fibre Communication (OFC) Conference in 1999, we returned each year for 4 more years. These took place in Baltimore in 2000, Anaheim in 2001 and 2002, then Atlanta in 2003. Once we refocused and launched as a Fiber Laser Supplier in 2003, we stopped attending conferences such as these and focused our attention purely on Photonic related exhibitions.
Over the last two decades, we’ve had an incredible journey of exhibition experiences. When looking back at the size of certain exhibitions halls and the stands we used, it shows how far we really have come! Take a look at how our stands have evolved over the years at our largest show on the calendar, Laser World of Photonics Shanghai:
Visit our Events page to see all our exhibitions for the year.
Below is an insight into some of our advertisements from the archives. These artworks were designed for our redPOWER CW Fiber Lasers.
The messaging in these pieces was designed to focus on the ‘power and control’ aspects of our fiber lasers, which allows the user the ability to perform high powered applications (such as thick metal cutting), with ease through our simple to use GUI and software.
Today the message also introduces the almost unlimited possibilities fiber lasers are capable of in terms of the applications they can create.
2020: What's Next?
While its good to look back, it is arguably more important to be looking forward. At SPI, we are very excited for the future in photonics with constant innovation in technology, expanding product ranges and new applications being discovered every year!
With the rise of E-Mobility and a greater need for battery processing in the automotive and other sectors, this provides many opportunities for fiber lasers. Check out our webinar on e-mobility applications here!
“It’s taken dedication and commitment to become a leader in the design and manufacture of some of the worlds finest fiber lasers, none of which would have been possible without being able to bring together some of the most creative and brightest minds in the business. Our ethos of encouraging sharing and learning has resulted in some fantastic developments and a lot of fun along the way.
I for one am looking forward to what developments the next twenty years will bring!”
– Mark Greenwood CEO for SPI Lasers
Want to get our latest news straight to your inbox? Click here to subscribe!
We hope you enjoyed this brief look back into our history as we look forward to beginning a new decade of innovation!
REGISTER FOR UPDATES
If you enjoyed reading this article, why not register for future articles?