Thursday, December 15, 2011

Is the U.S. wired Internet infrastructure weak? Revisited.

It’s time to weigh in on a pet peeve of mine. The topic is the state of high-speed Internet in the U.S., in a December 4 essay in the New York Times. My peeve is that once again the U.S. wireline infrastructure is portrayed as somehow way behind, whereas a reasonable analysis presents a very different picture. For a large country, the U.S. actually has a very strong and affordable infrastructure.

It’s the author has a point. There is a digital divide in the U.S. and in the world. It’s increasingly important to treat broadband access as a necessary service for all citizens. National averages overlook that large groups people are left out.

The problem is how the point gets twisted along the way. The way the author explains it is like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I've complained in this blog before (here and here) and I can't let this one go too.

For example, the U.S. is portrayed as 12th in the OECD economies. That's per capita. Iceland is number 5. It has 110,000 people. You get the idea. The OECD aggregates across the whole U.S., while smaller countries will almost certainly show up in the wings of the distribution. We should compare tiny Iceland with, say, a successful regional provider in the U.S., not the entire U.S. In fact, larger countries like Germany and France are passing us up. That is important. Let's say it.

The author points out that even Portugal and Russia are upgrading to optical fiber. That’s because their infrastructures were so bad in the first place. The U.S. is rewiring with fiber, but it’s a big country, DSL is working pretty well, and someone has to pay for upgrading to fiber. A too-rapid deployment would recreate something on the scale of the Telecom Bubble of the late 1990s. We know how that turned out.

Broadband is also portrayed as a monopoly, yet residential users can choose from the wireline provider, cable provider, and even wireless providers. Competition is good, but we’ve come a long way.

The author says the providers should sell access to their networks to competitors, to reduce prices. But the problem is that everyone wants the high-end customers. There’s a reason that underserved neighborhoods are underserved. There’s less profit there.

Having worked in telecom policy in Washington, it is an ongoing process to improve broadband access to underserved groups. It’s messy, because there is the FCC and Congress, 50 state regulators, municipal governments, and the courts. And it’s “inside baseball”; pretty boring stuff if you’re not a lawyer.

The author is right, we should be striving for broader broadband access.I guess it’s just something about how she said it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Top 10 laser suppliers: some tight races but a good year for all

Now that 2011 is coming to a close we can estimate who are the leading laser suppliers for the year. Once again it looks like Trumpf and Coherent are neck and neck for Number 1, with over $800 million each. Rofin and Cymer are in a close race for 3rd and 4th places, with nearly $600 million each.  IPG will roll in 5th, but this year with over $450 million in fiber laser sales. IPG's 2011 revenues would have put it at #1 as recently as 2009.

These players are familiar names. Cymer dropped out of the short list in the recession, but is back again. The order changes depending on the exposure of companies to different sectors. Trumpf and Rofin are highly exposed to heavy manufacturing, while Coherent is more diversified. Cymer is basically a one-product company.

I can't really know how the year will end up, of course. But three quarters are finished, and so far it looks like the fourth quarter is behaving as expected. Only the floods in Thailand have created surprises, but that's confined to telecom components, hard drive manufacturers, and the like.

I also can't really know what Trumpf is up to. And a lot of revenues for a company like Rofin-Sinar are really system sales, revenues that would not be counted if it were a company like Trumpf or Newport.

And then there are the telecom transceiver manufacturers. Finisar, JDS Uniphase, Oclaro, and others are all very strong in that segment, and Finisar is closing in on $800 million itself. With the companies above, and a couple others, that rounds out a list of the top 10.

It's also interesting that the Top 10 make up over 50% of all laser sales worldwide.

But I don't want to give too much away. There will be more on 2011 and 2012 at January's Laser Focus World Marketplace Seminar and our upcoming market report.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Is U.S. manufacturing growing or shrinking?

Here’s a little known fact: U.S. manufacturing has actually been growing as an economic output in the U.S. for at least 60 years. Here’s another: China is now the largest manufacturing nation. So there you are: U.S. manufacturing has been growing, but China is now #1.

If you don’t believe me, here are two charts, published in the New York Times (Sept. 11, 2011). The chart on the right shows overall output, growing steadily over decades with only brief setbacks. Whether the trend will continue upward, or represents the end of an era, depends on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.

We’re used to hearing that U.S. manufacturing is declining, but the chart on the left shows that it’s only declining as a share of overall economic output. Other sectors are simply growing more quickly. The U.S. is producing more output in information-intensive industries (such as finance) and less in labor-intensive industries (such as manufacturing). Even the manufacturing tends to be more information-intensive. The U.S. is strong in things like jet engines and pharmaceuticals, whereas for sneakers you think of Asia.

There are issues, to be sure. Most importantly, growth in output does not necessarily mean growth in jobs, and a country needs jobs for its people. Also, China’s manufacturing output is growing much faster than the U.S. Much of that was done by making the pie bigger, but some was done by taking share from other countries. The gains in share are not just in sneakers, but in things like laptop computers (Lenovo) and telecom switches (Huawei).

This is obviously a complex topic--just ask anyone at your next cocktail party or Occupy Wall Street event. And to be precise, manufacturing output did decline during the down years of recessions, when the whole economy slowed.

Just the same, it might cheer some of you as we enter the winter to know that U.S. manufacturing has been growing for nearly all of the last 60 years, and more.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Kodak exits opto and ends an era

It seems like the end of an era: Kodak is selling its CCD operations and its image sensor patents. It had been making CCDs since 1975, one of the early companies to make them, but waited until 1989 to sell them externally. Kodak had a number of firsts, including the first megapixel sensor, in 1986.

Then CMOS image sensors took off.CMOS sensors were conceived early on, but the lithography was too poor at the time. Omnivision and others brought it to life in the 1990s. Kodak tried several times to break into that product line, but it never worked out. Kodak teamed with Motorola in 1997 on CMOS image sensors. In 2004 it acquired National Semiconductor’s CMOS image sensor operation, for about $10 million in cash. Kodak even had deals with IBM and TSMC to manufacture the sensors, and some clever technology. But it wasn't enough.  

In our 1997 market report, we estimated that Kodak was the leading producer of image sensors outside of Japan, with $38 million in sales and under 6% market share. By the time of our 2009 market report, the image sensor market had grown 10X, but Kodak’s sales were stuck for years at about $80 million. Then in April it sold hundreds of patents and patent applications to Omnivision, for $65 million. And now it’s selling the CCD facility and its 200 employees to  Platinum Equity, a private equity firm.

In a way, kicking out the CCD business has little in common with the rest of Kodak’s problems. The operation being sold still makes high performance CCDs for high-end professional and scientific applications--some of it is really amazing stuff. And over the years a lot of companies have handed off their image sensor operations. For example, Pixel Devices International was sold to Agilent, which became Avago, who sold the image sensor operation to Micron, which spun it off as Aptina. And of course, Kodak is still huge into imaging, and that's photonics too.

It’s just the business getting older, but Kodak had been a classic example of a U.S. company deep into optoelectronics--that is, the actual making of the chips. No more.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Those lousy laser company margins

Ever really looked at the margins earned by laser companies? And then looked at margins for companies like Cisco or Google? It's enough to make you weep.

Industrial laser company margins are modest but steady. The net profit margins for the industrial laser companies aren't too bad. Since 2006, gross margins on annual sales for Coherent, IPG Photonics, Newport, and Rofin are mainly in the 40-50% range. Operating margins range from single digits to 30-some percent. The net profit margins are mostly single digits to low teens (Coherent, Newport, and Rofin), while IPG is running lately at about 23%. Trumpf, which sells much more in machine tools than it does merchant lasers, used to have about 9-10% net profit margin, but suffered in the downturn and has recovered in the last fiscal year to 6.7%.

All in all, that's decent It's the telecom component suppliers that are really hurting.

Telecom supplier margins been mostly underwater until only recently. For Finisar, JDS Uniphase, Oclaro, and Opnext, the gross margins are lower, but it's the operating margins and net profit margins that are in the tank. Like, pretty much negative values for annual revenues since 2006. There's some improvement in the last year or so, with positive operating and net profit margins.

Now I know that these numbers are fraught with "yes, buts." These companies are generating cash flow, but their official, GAAP, unadulterated income statements show losses. And a company like JDSU is in multiple businesses. I'm lumping everything together.

Meanwhile, the customers reap the benefits. Now look at the customers. Cisco has gross margins in the 60% range, and net profit margins around 15-20%. That's net. EMC's net margin is running 12% this year. Juniper is 13%. The carriers aren't doing too badly either. AT&T is consistently in the teens and Verizon is in the single digits. And get this: Google's net margin is a running a whopping 27%!

So we know who is getting the margins. It's not the components companies. Nor is it Alcatel-Lucent or Ciena, who have had consistently negative margins too. It's the router and storage companies like Cisco and EMC, and the equipment users like Google and AT&T.

The component suppliers may finally be in positive territory for good. I hope so. It's not right that the customers get margins while the components companies don't.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The $12.3B LED market: TVs today, lighting coming fast

Our new report on the LED market is out, and here's the scoop: LED revenues are on track to peak at $16.2 billion in 2014, thanks to sales into TV backlights. It will briefly dip as that segment saturates and prices erode, then lighting will pull it back up again.

Early applications in high-brightness LEDs were in vehicles, traffic signals, and signs, in the 1990s. Then in the 2000s, LEDs replaced cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) in mobile appliances, such as mobile phones. As that segment satruated and prices declined, LEDs replaced CCFLs for larger screen TVs. It was just in time. The overall LED market more than doubled from 2009 to 2010, to $11.2 billion. It should reach $12.3 billion in 2011.

Meanwhile, LEDs are already being used in lighting, but mostly in niche applications like architectural lighting and so forth. But growth going forward will be at 33%. The first big wave will be for replacement bulbs. These are now in Safeway stores for less than $10, but for that price you don't get much. A bulb that gives off the equivalent of a 60W incandescent would be more interesting, at that price. Then adoption could really take off.

Another wave will come with commercial and industrial luminaires. Luminaires are fixed light sources, with the LEDs built in (you have the replacement bulbs for the standard fixtures). There are already some sales of commercial-industrial luminaires, but when the business case is more compelling, that will take off. By business case I mean the life cycle cost, including labor to replace it.

Yet another wave will be in residential luminaires. Strong adoption there takes even longer, since individual homeowners don't strictly rationalize their lighting life cycle costs and anyway, the labor to replace bulbs is free. So, the old fixtures stay in place for a long time.

But I digress--the new report actually talks about all the segments, high-power and low-power LEDs, different wavelengths, different regions, prices, market share--all that good stuff. Oh, and if you are interested in the markets for the electronic drivers, GaN material, lighting, and other topics, we have reports on them too.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

More on the fiscal year effect

I got several questions about my chart a couple weeks ago that showed two different curves for the laser market depending on when you count your fiscal year. I'm taking some space here to explain it a little better.  The chart is below, and shows the quarterly results of representative laser suppliers aggregated over two different 12-months cycles: January to December and the same data for July to June.

The first question is: why does it matter? For one thing, if your company reports revenues on a year from--say--July 1 to June 30, your results will look very different than your competitor that reports from January 1 to December 31. Every company I know of reports their quarterly numbers quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year, of course. For what that's worth, that quarterly information becomes a common denominator. But the quarterly nuances are lost in the annual reports.

For example, TRUMPF had a rousing year ending June 30, with about 50% growth measured in both dollars or euros. That's fantastic, but keep in mind that TRUMPF doesn't report quarterly numbers. It doesn't have to report numbers at all, since it's a private company. The very good fiscal year followed two years of declines. Most companies reporting on calendar years only had one down year: 2009. So, TRUMPF looked like it was doing worse than everybody for two years, and now it looks like it outperformed. In fact, it's about the same--it just reports on different calendar.

The other question is: how can it make that much difference? In this recession, the four worst quarters all fell in 2009. So any company reporting on the calendar year saw a really bad 2009 and only upward results after that. TRUMPF simply split the bad quarters, spreading the bad quarters over two fiscal years.

There is one more nuance to this. People are most familiar and emotional about the metrics that they know best, not necessarily the ones that I have to use. For example, salespeople often speak of orders and pricing for sales that haven't happened yet, since that is where they are working with their customers. But those orders and pricing may be unrepresentative of orders earlier this year.

Another example is that people rejoice over recent good news and panic over recent bad news--even if it is stripped of its context. Part of my job is to put the context back.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Next Cool Things in lasers--in cars

Just when you think you’ve thought of everything, there appears a new application for lasers in cars, this one from BMW: laser headlights. An application like this could mean millions of high-power diode lasers per year, which is a lot for that technology, and would amounts to the “Next Big Thing” if it catches on.

BMW says that the diode lasers would be more efficient than LED headlights, offering greater overall brightness. LED headlights are just now penetrating models made by Audi, Cadillac, Mitsubishi, and Toyota. The laser output has to be converted through use of a phosphor, of course, as it is with LED headlights. Laser sources could also allow for more refined projection onto the road.

Ten years to one million cars? BMW plans to introduce the laser headlights in a small number of vehicles in 2014. That’s 3 years away. My model for the introduction of features in cars suggests that 7 years after that the feature might reach 1 million cars, if it’s popular or required in some way. (That's because they first appear in luxury models, as options, and spread, which takes time.) In 10 years that might amount to sales of 2 million headlights (both sides) of, say, 10W each. Take your pick what the price should be. Be forewarned that carmakers are big, steady customers when you can get them, with long product cycles, but they are notoriously hard on their suppliers.

Laser spark plugs. For years there has been talk of laser spark plugs, another intriguing application. Using lasers to ignite internal combustion can enable a more uniform, greener, more stable combustion. With all the talk about hybrid cars and electric cars, going to a newfangled technology like laser spark plugs sounds expensive and, well, still half-baked. But imagine the market: millions of cars with lasers that never used them before. And after all, the conventional spark plug was patented by Robert Bosch and Nikola Tesla. Isn’t it time to improve on it?

The most recent buzz on this was in 2009, when Ford announced a collaboration with GSI and the University of Liverpool called LASIIC (Laser Ignition for IC Engines). More recently, work at Toyota and elsewhere was presented at CLEO 2011. 

It's cool stuff, but considering that it's years from introduction as a product, if ever, and adding 10 years to that, we have a good 15-20 years before laser spak plugs could be a million-unit phenomenon.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mid-Year Laser Market Update--2011 is a new peak

I just aggregated numbers from the public companies making and buying lasers, slicing and dicing for acquisitions and all that and guess what? The final 2010 numbers beat the previous peak of 2008, and 2011 is almost certain to beat that. The market would have to drop by 1/3 for Q3 and Q4 to go downward from 2010.

Moreover, 2011 may amount to a 5-year CAGR of about 6%, which isn't bad for a $7 billion industry. Depending on where you start counting, that's a growth rate a bit above overall economic growth. So in that way, 2011 is looking pretty good. In the figure below, you can see that it was a V-shaped recession, with only one down year.

It depends where you start your fiscal year. You get a very different look if you group the quarters by fiscal years from July-June, instead of calendar years of January-December. The figure below shows what you get in the shifted calendar. The market looks like it's just recovering in 2011 after a U-shaped two-year recession. And what growth in the last 12 months! About 40% over the previous 12.

The last figure shows the aggregated company data by quarter. Here it is clear that it was V-shaped at that scale.
This is company data, not the full market. I emphasize that this is just public data, and heavily weighted toward industrial lasers and telecom components. The missing revenues are heavily in medical lasers, R&D, instruments, and optical storage.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Summer read: Euro report on photonics

Looking for some good summer reading last week at the beach in Santa Barbara, I read through the final report on the economic impact of photonics in Europe. Okay, I did no such thing, but being a recovering policy wonk in Washington DC, I did look through. Here's the lowdown for those of you who won't read it themselves.

First, the motivation and impact of the report. The fundamental motive was to justify to the European Commission its own spending on photonics projects. The many EC agencies fight for money just like everyone else, and the interest in the report actually came from the Commission, but working with Photonics21. It so happens that it benefits the photonics community too, by putting a stake in the ground. And one thing it is, is thorough. It will be hard for someone to prove it wrong.

The impact: 10% of the economy, or is it 100%? The researchers did some nice work, looking at the impact of photonics on jobs and national product. One major finding is that photonics technologies impact about 10% of the European economy, generated by a Euro photonics market of nearly 60 billion euros (21% of the world market) and employing 290,000 people.

I can't help but note here that an enabling technology like photonics can be said to underpin the entire economy in one way or the other. Who doesn't use a display or long-haul fiber optics somewhere in their work? It's like clean water or electricity, the value is so fundamental. But that claim, while true, becomes immediately useless and the report came up with a more useful number.

There is a lot in the report about leverage and improving competitiveness. For example, advances in LEDs and solar cells will have a large impact on Europe at many levels, from photonics jobs to national energy policies. When you work everything out, the most leverage is not necessarily where you might think it is. And there is also a lot on improving European competitiveness, like trying to narrow the Valley of Death of commercialization, help small businesses, stuff like that.

My view is that the real value of photonics to Europe is in high-value systems, not so much the components. The report notes that Europe has gaps in volume manufacturing in such key photonics products as displays and image sensors. I may be wrong, but this seems to be a particularly European lament. Not that American companies aren't crying about manufacturing moving to China, but it's not seen here as an existential problem for the photonics industry. After all, Apple is beating the pants off competitors and keeping the margin. Yet, it assembles its products in Asia. As do many photonics companies.

Europe's real strength in photonics, as in the U.S., comes from using photonics in high value applications, like laser-based machine tools, ophthalmic diagnostic and treatment systems, military systems, advanced sensors, telecom and datacom systems, and semiconductor lithography. These all require very deep knowledge of photonics, but many times use components sourced from other countries (sometimes through a subsidiary).

This is a very deep topic, one that I will return to in a future post. For one thing, it raises a question: when companies are global and commoditized, who captures the value of photonics? Stockholders? Customers? The report looks at two: job-holders and the regional economy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

LED drivers--a $2 billion photonics market

With all of us opto folks going gaga over the $10+ billion LED market, stop and consider that the LED driver IC market is a sweet $2 billion, and growing at 12% compounded annually. And I'm going to say it: drivers is a photonics market too.

OK, I said it. Electronics is photonics too. I'm stretching things a bit, since the suppliers of LED driver ICs are companies like Texas Instruments, Maxim, Analog Devices, and Macroblock who don't know or care about photons. They do know a lot about hand-crafted analog circuit designs and specialty fab processes that enable circuits tolerant to high-voltages--the kind that drive long LED strings in display backlights.

But good LED design optimizes the entire circuit for efficiency, reliability, LED uniformity, and many other specs. We call the circuit--minus the LEDs themselves--the driver. It may include zero, one, or multiple ICs for the purpose.

Opto people, like myself, tend to think that there is nothing interesting in the system apart from the quantum mechanics of electron-hole recombination and fancy MOCVD epitaxial growth.  But when product designers take the electronics for granted, system performance is notoriously terrible, and that's bad for the whole LED industry. Likewise, electronics designers tend to take the LED for granted, but LEDs are requiring surprisingly novel and sophisticated circuits.  The only way to achieve widespread LED lighting is if electronics designers innovate enough to meet cost and performance goals.  Fortunately, there are those out there who can. Look for example at companies like Exclara, iWatt, Luxera, and Lynk Labs, to name a few.

The boundary between electronics and photonics is also fuzzy for lightwave transceivers. The laser and detector in a transceiver are typically very cheap, so much of the value is in the electronics: driver and receiver, clock recovery, and so on inside the module, not to mention all the higher level routing and control elsewhere on the board.

In imaging, it is even more dramatic. The detector array is sophisticated, but the image processing electronics takes it further, correcting optical limitations and even adjusting focus after the fact. The point is not that the electronics helps the optics, but that optical science actually resides in the electronics, often on the same chip as the sensor array.

I'll get back to the LED driver market again, but for now, remember: Electronics can be photonics too.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Munich Part 2--Consolidation?

A question that comes up at every big industry event is, when is the laser industry going to consolidate? It came up in my conversations at Laser Munich last week, and it came up in the CEO Roundtable (for a full video, click here). This time, I posed the question to the CEOs: is there really an argument for consolidation, or is it just code for "let's get these lifestyle companies out of our way so my big company can keep growing."

Their answers were interesting, and were supported in many other discussions I had last week.

Stuart Schoenmann of CVI Melles Griot made the argument that consolidation across products produces economies of scale that can enable things you cannot do with smaller companies. Larger scale frees up management to make more optimal and strategic choices, whether it is where it is putting its R & D money or whether to outsource or not.

Ulrich Simon of Carl Zeiss Microimaging argued for consolidation in the vertical direction to own core technologies,: providing advantages that cannot be gained in a more stratified supply chain. Trumpf has often made that argument.IPG has gone that route, too.

David Marks of Qioptiq acknowleged that the industry needs to continue to support small companies, in part for the innovation that they bring. As much as start-ups must seem like spoilers,VCs have funded a lot of innovation that never paid them a penny in return, and the people and IP often wind up in the big companies. There is a lot less of that nowadays, but it still happens.

John Ambroseo of Coherent closed with a rousing argument that the real competition is not other laser companies, but all the other technologies out there--mechanical drills and shears, other medical treatments, other types of sensors. Without consolidation, the laser industry spends inefficiently on redundant R&D, distracting the industry from bigger opportunities.

I've always maintained that consolidation means different things to different people. To me, consolidation is only meaningful in specific market segments. It's when a few competitors have most of the market share. (Consolidation is the process. Concentration is the result.) This can happen when companies consolidate internally, by exiting product lines, but it's often hard to know this from outside. The laser industry is highly fragmented into hundreds of niches. It turns a big laser company into what I call a "confederation of business units. They do gain advantages in scale, to be sure, but it is also more complex to manage. It's hard to manage such big, sprawling companies. It's also hard to grow when you are already a big dog.

Not mentioned was that some segments seem to favor consolidation more than others. This leads into another topic that came up at Laser Munich: is it too late for a company trying to make it big in fiber lasers? I'll address that in a later post.

For other thoughts on consolidation, see:
Fragmentation depends on your point of view
Consolidation, Part 2--Is Oclaro consolidation or redistribution?
Consolidation in the laser market, Part 1--How much is there?

Tom Hausken
Strategies Unlimited

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Laser Munich Part 1--German mood lifts all

You can tell that Germany is doing well these days just from going to Laser Munich. And not just Germany. Everyone from Coherent, IPG, and JDSU are all smiles these days. In fact, everyone I met at Laser Munich this week was in a great mood.Of course, it helps that the beer starts flowing in the booths at 5:00 sharp. Even better!

The German economy didn't fare as poorly in the financial crisis as other major countries, and it recovered better and more quickly.German unemployment is now the lowest since reunification 20 years ago. This recovery has lifted German companies, most notably Trumpf and Rofin-Sinar, but many others too.(Read about it from David Belforte, here.)Laser sales are back to 2008 levels.The good cheer came out in the CEO Roundtable: what did photonics companies do right that they fared so well in the recession?

My standard answers are:
2.Semiconductors and electronics (think iPads and smartphones)
3.The jobless recovery--buying new laser systems instead of hiring workers.
4.Did I mention China?
5.Oh and yes, this time photonics companies reacted quickly.

These factors affect some companies more than others,but enough is happening that it gets spread around. That said, there was the usual grumbling that there are too many competitors. More on that in a later post.

The Munich venue is great, but what if it were somewhere else? Stuart Schoenmann of CVI Melles Griot kept it real in the CEO Roundtable when he gave his respects to Japan.The Japanese economy was hit with not one, but two crises: first the financial crisis and now the tsunami/nuclear crisis.The latter didn't take much production out of service, but it did upset the supply chain. Moreover, the Japanese stock market has never recovered to the peak of 1990, not even close.And that was 21 years ago.

And it's not just Japan that has been hit. I don't know about you, but every company I know was cut to the bone.More on that in a later post too.

But that's somewhere else. Here, it felt like a "normal" show. No fads. No gossip. Just a good mood and good beer.

Tom Hausken

Friday, May 6, 2011

A big optics/vision opportunity: service robots

Looking for a new opportunity in optics and vision systems?   Check out this new  market report on vision for service robots from my colleagues at Vision Systems Design.  This is a market set to take off.  To give you an idea, with industrial robot unit sales in the tens of thousands per year, service robots could potentially sell in the millions.

Most robots today are not the futuristic kind we remember from the Jetsons or the somewhat creepy Actroid kind commercialized in Japan..  An industrial robots today is basically just factory automation with an articulating arm that makes it seem like a robot. 

A service robot is more like the more futuristic version--mobile, uncontained, and diverse--but not trying to act human, like some insecure, fawning android.  More precisely, it operates semi- or fully-autonomously to perform service functions, excluding manufacturing.  An industrial robot can be a service robot too, if it meets this definition. 

Examples of service robots include: UAVs, explosive or hazard disposal, automating cow milking, driver assistance, inspection and maintenance of hard-to-reach places, medical rehabilitation, surgery, and scientific exploration.  The UAV is the biggest market opportunity, becuase of the sophistication involved.  There are many smaller, fast growing segments.

This is a big deal for photonics because most service robots requrie machine vision of some kind.  This means the use of structured light (like what is used in the Microsoft Kinect), time-of-flight (like what is used in virtual keyboards), LIDAR, and so forth.  This has to be fused with other technologies, like GPS, radar, sonar, and inertial guidance.  For more sophisticated robots, simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) is critical to build maps of unknown environments or to update maps within known environments, while at the same time keeping track of the current location of the robot.

The technology is still emerging and remains to be worked out.  That means lots of hardware and software, and pretty deep stuff.  Imagine that the system doesn't necessarily need to "see" things the way we do--it just has to get the information it needs from its sensors.

For more information on the report, click here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Webcast on Mid-IR laser market

Come see our webcast on the market for lasers operating in the mid-infrared range.  Well, actually only my part is about the market.  The other part will be presented by the esteemed Jeff Hecht about mid-IR laser technologies and trends.  The webcast is Wednesday, April 20, and archived for those who are away on Spring vacation.

The figure below shows our market forecast for all mid-IR lasers under 1 kilowatt.  I qualified it a bit because big honking kilowatt CO2 lasers comprise a large part of the market.    I should also say here that we defined the range for our market report from about 1.8 microns to about 15 microns. 

The growth in the figure comes partly from the recovery from the recession, and partly from new growth in military and sensing applications.  The new growth is the result of a fortunate convergence of new demands (e.g., for environmental monitoring) and new technology solutions (e.g., GaSb diode lasers, quantum cascade lasers, and new fiber and solid-state lasers). 

By the way, we counted over 50 companies making mid-IR lasers of some kind, and most of them are headquartered in North America.  None has a significant market share across multiple segments.

The webcast will be produced thanks to the sponsors, ILX Lightwave and IPG Photonics.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The capex derivative for ICs (Part III)

Last week, I reviewed how solar charts can point up and up, yet the sales of lasers into solar fab tools can languish because they go as the derivative, not directly with sales. In this post, I will show how the same thing happens in semiconductor chips. And for that matter, in any capital equipment business.

The shipments of the end product made from semiconductor fab tools tend to go up and up (the Great Recession notwithstanding) because the world keeps getting bigger.  The installed base of tools tracks that trend.  (The installed base and chip revenues don't completely march in step, since installed equipment can sit idle, or chip prices can fluctuate.)  But the shipments of new tools tracks the 1st derivative of the installed base--you only ship new tools to add capacity or upgrade dated equipment.  The laser sales track this trend--the 1st derivative.  (It's actually the 2nd derivative of the revenues generated by the electronics, but that's not important here.)

That's shown in the figure below, using actual data for the semiconductor industry over the last several years. The installed base (in units of 10 million 200-mm equivalent wafer starts per month--got that?) ramps up and up. The current recession was an exception, when so many companies closed fabs that the installed base actually declined. But that's rare.

Source: SEMI

While the end product shipments grew and grew, the capex spending itself oscillated dramatically during that time.  While the capex business is a sizable business of its own, it isn't really growing so much as it's cyclic. Let that be a lesson.

Of course, we could make similar charts for displays, data storage, and any capital equipment business you like.

The important thing to remember is that the equipment shipments don't scale with the production, they go as the derivative. That's how component sales can languish even as forecasts for a downstream product go up and up.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The 2nd Derivative Capex Paradox Update

Jay Liebowitz recently commented on my Second Derivative Paradox where I explain how capital equipment markets can gyrate wildly even though the end-use product grows steadily.  Among other things, he points out that equipment sales can surge even when there is excess capacity because companies need to retool for new products.  This can happen because of the steady progress of technology: smaller via holes or more thin-film solar modules.  It can also happen if certain lines are specially qualified and others aren't. 

I can add that the inefficiencies of capitalism play in the equipment makers' favor: the churn in end-product manufacturers moves the manufacturing from company to company, creating shortage in new places and surplus in others.  So, even though a manufacturer has excess overall capacity, it may have to tool up a new line because that line has different requirements than its other ones.   

I am re-running the earlier posts below if you haven't seen them or can't link to them.  They are here and here.  I didn't update the solar numbers since my point is more conceptual.


How could equipment sales in an exponentially-growing market be anything but upward? It happens all the time. Welcome to the 2nd-Derivative Paradox. That's my name for the trap that one can fall into when it comes to capital equipment markets. Solar is a great example. It's hard to explain the paradox, though, so bear with me.

Start with installed capacity. If you are a power generator, you think in terms of the cumulative installed generating capacity in the world. This is what the users actually use. The figure shows three scenarios how that might play out, and they all look pretty much the same in this chart. Nice, steep slopes. Note how they all start at the same point and end up at the same point.

Then look at panel shipments. But the solar panel industry isn't interested in what's already out there. It needs to ship new panels every year. The shipments amount to a 1st derivative: the new capacity that's added to the infrastructure every year. Now the differences in the scenarios show through, as shown in the second figure. But the scenarios all show steep upward growth. What's to worry about?

Now look at panel manufacturing equipment. The solar manufacturing equipment industry, and that includes lasers--isn't even interested in solar shipments, but the need for more manufacturing capacity to make the panels. You only need more equipment when you are shipping more panels than before. That amounts to a 2nd derivative of the cumulative generating capacity, and can give wildly different results. New equipment is shipped in all three scenarios, but in the "sustaining" scenario the equipment shipments are flat year after year, while in the "slowing" scenario they start out strong, but then decline. Ouch.

Other traps. Of course we would all like to live in the "growing" scenario. The trouble is, strong positive exponential growth doesn't last indefinitely, no matter what they say. And that's not even considering some ups and downs along the way, like this year. A slight shift in the solar panel shipments wreaks total havoc for equipment shipments.

Other things that juice equipment sales. The same trap exists in other industries, too. But there are other details to consider. First, there is usually some churn in suppliers. Machines also get obsolete. And there is also the early obsolescence forced by things like Moore's Law. These all have to be considered.

Watch that 2nd derivative. Don't get me wrong. I love solar. I had a summer job at TI testing solar cells back in the Jimmy Carter era. We all believe it's going to be a great thing in coming decades. But it's not enough that the cumulative generating capacity will be on a steep upward slope for years to come, because when it comes to manufacturing equipment, it's the 2nd derivative that counts.

Some real numbers.  What happens when we plug in some numbers that may be more or less what we expect the solar market to be?

I’ve done that in this figure. The first thing to notice is that the cumulative generating capacity—the top curve and what the power companies think about—goes up all through the forecast.

The next thing you notice is that the new module shipments—that’s the middle curve—takes a dip in 2009. This isn’t too surprising, given the recession, tight credit, and low oil prices. The dip isn’t too big and it’s in record territory again by 2011.

But what is really interesting is the bottom curve. That’s the new factory capacity that’s needed to make the modules each year. This correlates directly to lasers sold for making cells. That curve actually goes to zero, even negative, for a couple of years. And even in the recovery it only hangs around the 2008 level through 2013. In other words, the laser sales will not rocket upwards like the module sales through 2013.

Of course, there are some problems with this simple chart. The new factory capacity (laser sales) probably don’t go negative. That would mean companies were taking equipment out of commission. While I have heard of this happening in 2009, it’s not widespread. Companies want to be ready for the recovery. And, there are always new suppliers, and old suppliers expanding and upgrading equipment. That raises sales above zero.

On the other hand, there is also inventory in the supply chain and used equipment for sale. That pushes the recovery further into the future.

To a first approximation, the chart is a good model, and a good example of what I call the "second derivative paradox." At least it’s better than looking at the other two curves and assuming something similar.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Mind the export regulations and help LEOMA change them

It may be a flat economy, but export regulations still matter. Rocky Mountain Instrument and BAE Systems both found out the hard way last year. And meanwhile, the trade group LEOMA is pushing the U.S. government toward more relaxed regulations.

First, what happened to RMI--Rocky Mountain Instrument? In 2008 it had over $15 million in revenues and 150 employees (here's a photo for proof). But it was raided in 2007 for ITAR violations, filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and in June of last year, the Colorado-based company was slapped with a $1 million criminal fine. It pleaded guilty to selling ITAR-controlled prisms and data to such places as China, Russia, Turkey, and South Korea without a State Department license.

At the time of the raid, RMI waved off the accusations. Something about a disgruntled employee and that the investigation didn't involve RMI Lasers but rather a supplier. But RMI pleaded guilty in a plea deal in June. It's said that RMI cooperated throughout the investigation, and its web site is now very explicit about export regulations.

RMI certainly isn't alone. A recent violation by none other than BAE Systems led to a $400 million criminal fine. And in fact an article in Military and Aerospace Electronics points out some common mistakes that can get companies into some nasty trouble, such as:

* Misclassifying or changing classifications in the ITAR list
* Improper access to IT files for ITAR products
* Lack of licensing for non-citizens working on ITAR products
* Monitoring only hardware, while not complying on services as well

Entirely apart from this, the trade group LEOMA is working to steer the Commerce Department toward more reasonable restrictions. The administration wants to "build higher fences around fewer items" using a tiered system. The thing is, its proposed tiers include a lot of lasers that are already made and sold outside of the U.S. LEOMA wants to be sure that U.S. companies don't face unnecessary barriers to doing business for run-of-the-mill commercial applications.

It's tedious but important stuff. LEOMA is asking for support in its effort. Please contact Breck Hitz at to contribute.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New LED market data for SIL 2011

We have some new market numbers for the LED world: HB-LEDs passed into the double-digit billion dollar territory in 2010, while LED luminaires will reach $8.4 billion by 2014. These numbers will be discussed at the Strategies in Light event in Santa Clara next week.

The LEDs market number is up significantly from last year, due to the stronger than expected growth in LED backlights for LCD displays. And by the way, China is coming on strong in both the demand for and supply of LEDs.

In LED luminaires, the largest segment is in consumer portables: flashlights, worklamps, and so forth. The transition to LEDs in that segment is almost complete, which is very rapid for a new technology. The strongest growth in luminaires is in residential lighting, but starting from a small base.

What’s driving this? Heightened awareness of energy efficiency, phasing out incandescent bulbs, and fiscal stimuli certainly helped.

Oh and yes, China is now both the largest end market and the largest supplier of LED luminaires. Sound familiar?

SIL 2011 is next week and it looks like it will break attendance records once again. It’s going on Tuesday through Thursday at the Santa Clara Convention Center. The conference will feature 66 speakers spanning two main sessions, an investors forum, and workshops and tutorials. There will also be presentations in the Lighting Pavilion each day on the show floor.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How many MOCVD reactors is too many?

We took a look recently at the bubble in sales of MOCVD reactors for LED production. We set out to sort out who wins and who loses. It turned out more complicated than we first thought.

There have never been so many orders in the history of MOCVD. Just to give you an idea of the scale, in January there was a rumor that Golden Concord Holdings in Hong Kong wants to purchase 500 reactors as part of a new $2.5 billion investment in LEDs. Several companies have orders to buy over 100 reactors each. Aixtron and Veeco are working like crazy to deliver them.

But it’s too many. The figure below compares what we think the world needs to meet near-term LED production to what the world seems to be asking for. Since then, Barclays Capital raised its estimate of MOCVD shipments for 2011 to 900, from 800. While we may disagree about what actually may be delivered, much less what is actually brought into production, this much is sure: there is a big mismatch. Our question is: who wins and who loses?

I suggest that you read the full article in LEDs Magazine for the whole story. In the meantime, suffice it to say that there will be a lot of winners: end-users of LEDs, China, and the MOCVD reactor vendors, to name a few. Lower-tier LED suppliers may feel the most pressure. And yes, a few investors may get stuck with expensive paperweights.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Warm weather and a good mood at Photonics West

The mood at Photonics West reminded me of a team when it’s winning its games. The mood was good and no one wanted to spend too much time second guessing what they are doing. Whatever they are doing, it’s working.

This is no surprise, really, given that photonics markets were all up in 2010 over 2009 (see the annual Laser Focus market article--more on the other markets in future posts). Just showing up is an accomplishment, two years after the recession hit.

This is in sharp contrast to this time 2009, when it still wasn’t clear how deep and how long the recession would go. While the recession itself wasn’t the fault of the photonics industry, the stock market was nervous. Company executives had to go over and over their businesses and make corrections. All the while hoping for a few big wins.

If you listen carefully, there were whispers that not everyone is better off than last year. Especially among the smaller, private companies, and among venture financed companies that might be running out of time for a successful exit. And while some said that credit and investment has thawed, others said that the money is going elsewhere. It depends who you are.

But that's for another day. The event broke its record with over 19,000 attendees, split approximately evenly among conference attendees, show attendees, and exhibitors. Even the weather was unseasonably warm.

No one is second guessing the move to San Francisco anymore either. SPIE is happy with the San Francisco location and has no plans to return to San Jose.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Un-Trends in Photonics Markets

In the last post I ruminated on the best market trends of the decade in photonics. This time we examine that trends that weren't: the Un-Trends.

The decline of optical storage. Remember laser disks that were as big as vinyl records? Remember when CDs were displacing magnetic tapes? Remember CDs? The business of optical storage has been hit by a triple whammy: falling sales as downloads increase and falling prices due to commoditization. The iPad is the next big thing and--surprise!--there's no DVD player there. Not now, not ever. The future for optical storage is now in mass storage. And there's a chance that lasers will be needed to take magnetic storage a little further. Stay tuned.

The long winter of telecom components. The telecom components business never really recovered from the boom of the late 90s. Or shall we say it's back to the business it always was. Components. There are some successes, and stock prices are back to "normal," but overall it's nothing to brag about. Companies struggled through the decade to fill their fabs, move production to China, and just stay open. It's better now, but somehow it feels like there wasn't closure.

The elusive photonic integrated circuit. Twenty years ago it was called the OEIC, the optoelectronic integrated circuit. That was Bell Labs. In the 90s, Japanese companies pushed PLCs, photonic lightwave circuits. Now there are photonic integrated circuits (PICs) and the likes of Infinera and Luxtera. And of course there's the mother-of-all-quests: Intel's search for the silicon laser. (A 2006 article asks: lasers integrated into CMOS by 2010?) It's all nice work, and we're happy for Infinera--it's done a remarkable job. But the classical idea of the uber-circuit that will integrate smoothly with silicon--it's soooo 20th century. Get over it. What works is very piecemeal: some hybrid pick-and-place here, monolithic integration of a modulator there, and even then the economics can be questionable. The problem is that these approaches work best when you have high volumes, but high volume products are already commoditized in Asian factories. The real successes are much less dramatic. Think optical mouse, not 100G.

Optical computing is dead, long live optics in computing! I mean here the type of optical computing where the processor is all-optical. I worked on a project about this in the 1990s, with Japan, and there's still a little funding in it. The closest thing to it nowadays may be the all-optical telecom switch. (The name "switch" doesn't do it justice. They are pretty complex.) The optical processor is a nice idea ("it travels at the speed of light!") but it turns out that electronics is really really good, and really really cheap. Oh, and it's way easy to program. Now if you are talking about "optics in computing", that's another thing. There are optics everywhere inside a computer: the display, the mouse, the camera, the DVD player, maybe even a fiber cable someday (one can hope).

The death of CRTs, photographic film, and fax machines. The triumph of flat displays means the death of CRTs. What a great technology. Tubes are still preferred in various niches in electronics (take apart your microwave oven if you don't believe me). But I'm glad to see them go. Ever tried to carry a big CRT? (You can still buy one. Check Amazon.) Photographic film is still around too, although the last Kodachrome processor closed after Kodak stopped supporting the chemicals needed to develop it (see photos from the last roll here). It's hard to miss film, especially in the dentist's office or the hospital x-ray lab. And fax machines will still be around for faxing legal and medical documents, and for receiving wacky advertisements (does that ever sell anything?).

There's more, but isn't 5 enough?

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Decade's 5 Best Market Trends in Photonics

Well, it'over: the decade-that-could-not-be-named (2001-2010). Time for a list of the Decade's 5 Best Market Trends in Photonics:

The triumph of flat displays. Remember the see-through iMacs? Don't CRTs look soooo 20th century now? And how about the touch screens for smart phones? They don't just make a nicer phone. They transform how we live. This is #1 because of the sheer size of the display industry, and its impact on everything else.

Cellphone cameras relaunch the image sensor market. The first cameraphone showed up in 2000, in Japan. There are now over 1 billion mobile phone handsets shipped every year, and most have cameras. That volume drives lots of other applications. And the quality! Again, transformative, and billions in new photonics revenue.

The Green Revolution: LEDs and solar. High-brightness LEDs are all about taking an old technology and improving the brightness to do some new things--a marketing VP's dream. This decade saw LEDs in mobile phones and TV backlights, but the talk now is about LED lighting taking over the world. And how about that solar market! Many investors have lost money in solar companies, but they keep coming. Somehow, we all want to be part of it. (I was too, back that was back in the 1970s.)

Molecular imaging and all other thing biophotonic. The average person on the street doesn't know it, but photonics is making a huge impact in biomedicine, from diagnostics to therapy. Optical molecular imaging is my favorite because of the promise it brings in finally solving some difficult and costly medical challenges. But there is also mid-IR spectroscopy, ultrafast surgery, OCT, and many more.

IPG and the fiber laser. Several companies had fiber laser products in the 1990s, but IPG Photonics gets credit for making it a big name in materials processing today, and the 5th largest maker of non-diode lasers. Ha! No one is laughing now. The fiber laser is one of the laser types you would design if you could pick only one, and if you had the materials you have today. The diode laser is the other.

There you have it. Next time if I get to it, the Decade's 5 Un-Trends in Photonics.