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Oclaro points its laser diodes at new markets

Yves LeMaitre has experienced much over the course of the last decade working in the optical components industry. He has been CEO of a start-up during the optical boom, lived through acquisitions, and has undertaken business development in telecom and non-telecom markets.


“To succeed in any market ... you need to be the best at something, to have that sustainable differentiator”

 Yves LeMaitre, Oclaro




Now LeMaitre is executive vice president at Oclaro, managing the company’s advanced photonics solutions (APS) arm. The APS division is tasked with developing non-telecom opportunities based on Oclaro’s high-power laser diode portfolio, and accounts for 10%-15% of the company’s revenues

“The goal is not to create a separate business,” says LeMaitre. “Our goal is to use the infrastructure and the technologies we have, find those niche markets that need these technologies and grow off them.”

Recently Oclaro opened a design centre in Tucson, Arizona that adds packing expertise to its existing high-power laser diode chip business. The company bolstered its laser diode product line in June 2009 when Oclaro gained the Newport Spectra Physics division in a business swap. “We became the largest merchant vendor for high-power laser diodes,” says LeMaitre.

The products include single laser chips, laser arrays and stacked arrays that deliver hundred of watts of output power. “We had all that fundamental chip technology,” says LeMaitre. “What we have been less good at is packaging those chips - managing the thermals as well as coupling that raw chip output power into fibre.”

The new design centre is focussed on packaging which typically must be tailored for each product.


Laser diodes

There are three laser types that use laser diodes, either directly or as ‘pumps’:

  • Solid-state laser, known as diode-pumped solid-state (DPSS) lasers.
  • Fibre laser, where the fibre is the medium that amplifies light.
  • Direct diode laser - here the semiconductor diode itself generates the light.

All three types use laser diodes that operate in the 800-980nm range. Oclaro has much experience in gallium arsenide pump-diode designs for telecom that operate at 920nm wavelengths and above.

Laser diode designs for non-telecom applications are also gallium arsenide-based but operate at 800nm and above. They are also scaled-up designs, says LeMaitre: “If you can get 1W on a single mode fibre for telecom, you can get 10W on a multi-mode fibre.”  Combining the lasers in an array allows 100-200W outputs. And by stacking the arrays while inserting cooling between the layers, several hundreds of watts of output power are possible.

The lasers are typically sold as packaged and cooled designs, rather than as raw chips. The laser beam can be collimated to precisely deliver the light, or the beam may be coupled when fibre is the preferred delivery medium.

“The laser beam is used to heat, to weld, to burn, to mark and to engrave,” says LeMaitre. “That beam may be coming directly from the laser [diode], or from another medium that is pumped by the laser [diode].”  Such designs require specialist packaging, says LeMaitre, and this is what Oclaro secured when it acquired the Spectra Physics division.



Laser diodes are used in four main markets which Oclaro values at US$800 million a year.

One is the mature, industrial market. Here lasers are used for manufacturing tasks such as metal welding and metal cutting, marking and welding of plastics, and scribing semiconductor wafers.

Another is high-quality printing where the lasers are used to mark large printing plates. This, says LeMaitre, is a small specialist market.

Health care is a growing market for lasers which are used for surgery, although the largest segment is now skin and hair treatment.

The final main market is consumer where vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs) are used. The VCSELs have output powers in the tens or hundreds of milliwatts only and are used in computer mouse interfaces and for cursor navigation in smartphones.

“These are simple applications that use lasers because they provide reliable, high-quality optical control of the device,” says LeMaitre. “We are talking tens of millions of [VCSEL] devices [a year] that we are shipping right now for these types of applications.”

Oclaro is a supplier of VCSELs for Light Peak, Intel’s high-speed optical cable technology to link electronic devices.  “There will be adoptions of the initial Light Peak starting the end of this year or early next year, and we are starting to ramp up production for that,” says LeMaitre. “In the meantime, there are many alternative [designs] happening – the market is extremely active – and we are talking to a lot of players.” Oclaro sells the laser chips for such interface designs; it does not sell optical engines or the cables.

Is Oclaro pursuing optical engines for datacom applications, linking large switch and IP router systems? “We are actively looking at that but we haven’t made any public announcements,” he says.


Market status

LeMaitre has been at Oclaro since 2008 when Avanex merged with Bookham (to become Oclaro). Before that, he was CEO at optical component start-up, LightConnect.

How does the industry now compare with that of a decade ago?

“At that time [of the downturn] the feeling was that it was going to be tough for maybe a year or two but that by 2002 or 2003 the market would be back to normal,” says LeMaitre. “Certainly no-one expected the downturn would last five years.” Since then, nearly all of the start-ups have been acquired or have exited; Oclaro itself is the result of the merger of some 15 companies.

“People were talking about the need for consolidation, well, it has happened,” he says.  Oclaro’s main market – optical components for metro and long haul transmission – now has some four main players. “The consolidation has allowed these companies, including Oclaro, to reach a level of profitability which has not been possible until the last two years,” says LeMaitre.

Demand for bandwidth has continued even with the recent economic downturn, and this has helped the financial performance of the optical component companies.

“The need for bandwidth has still sustained some reasonable level of investment even in the dark times,” he says. “The market is not as sexy as it was in those [boom] days but it is much more healthy; a sign of the industry maturing.”

Industry maturity also brings corporate stability which LeMaitre says provides a healthy backdrop when developing new business opportunities.  

The industrial, healthcare and printing markets require greater customisation than optical components for telecom, he says, whereas the consumer market is the opposite, being characterised by vastly greater unit volumes.

“To succeed in any market – this is true for this market and for the telecom market – you need to be the best at something, to have that sustainable differentiator,” says LeMaitre. For Oclaro, its differentiator is its semiconductor laser chip expertise. “If you don’t have a sustainable differentiator, it just doesn’t work.” 

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