|IPG Photonics founder Valentin Gapontsev was an early pioneer in fiber lasers. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff Photo)|
Laser-like dedication at IPG Photonics
Industry leader carved out a niche and then didn’t stop innovating
By shooting laser light through hair-thin optical fiber, you can transmit gigabytes of data over global networks, slice through an inch of steel plate, or perform delicate plastic surgery.
IPG Photonics Corp. in Oxford leads the world in the manufacture of fiber lasers — a specialized technology that combines high power and exceptional precision.
The laser business has been good. IPG’s 2010 revenue rose 61 percent to $299 million, while net income of $53.9 million was 10 times higher than the year before. And IPG’s return on average equity improved from 2.2 percent in 2009 to 18.8 percent last year. In all, IPG was the state’s top-performing telecommunications company last year, a feat that earned it an overall third-place ranking in the Globe 100.
Last year’s performance vindicates founder Valentin P. Gapontsev’s fondness for fiber lasers. Gapontsev, a former professor at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, launched IPG in Moscow in 1990, at a time when few others were pursuing the technology. That gave IPG a lead it has never relinquished.
“Hundreds of companies, including the best companies in the US and Japan and Europe, tried to reproduce this,’’ said Gapontsev. “Nobody was successful.’’
In a traditional laser, light shines through a crystal or gas to generate a coherent laser beam. A fiber laser achieves the same result by using a thin, flexible optical fiber. As a result, the beam can be tightly focused and easily aimed at any point. This makes IPG’s fiber lasers ideal for precise tasks.
“They’ve done a phenomenal job of starting from small revenue to become one of the largest laser manufacturers in the world,’’ said Tom Hausken, director of photonics market research at Strategies Unlimited, an industry research firm in Mountain View, Calif.
Epilog Laser of Golden, Colo., makes machines that etch serial numbers onto metal parts. Sales director Mike Dean said the company had problems with traditional lasers. “They were cumbersome, expensive, and temperamental,’’ he said.
IPG’s fiber lasers have proven far more reliable. “They never break,’’ said Dean. “We love ’em.’’
Lincoln Electric Co. of Cleveland, a leading maker of arc welding equipment for heavy industry, formed a strategic alliance with IPG last year to build fiber laser welding and cutting devices.
Christopher Bailey, general manager of Lincoln Electric’s automation division, said the company considered a number of laser manufacturers, but concluded “nobody is at the level of IPG. They’re industry-leading, by far.’’
IPG has plants in Germany and Russia, as well as in Oxford. However, unlike many American manufacturers, Gapontsev wouldn’t think of outsourcing the key components of his lasers: IPG makes them all in-house.
“It’s extremely important to be a real leader,’’ Gapontsev said. “If you rely on outside supply, you’re not unique.’’
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.