Feel the burn
In 2018 nLIGHT became the first tech company to go public in the greater Portland area in since Cascade Microtech in 2004.
What do they do?
They make lasers which end up in industry, being used to cut everything from two-inch thick steel to the thighs of designer jeans. A company video shows a laser rapidly biting perfect holes in the steel that makes a bicycle chain ring. The lasers are finely tuned enough they are used instead of scalpels in prostate surgery, and can be used to trim the edges of cell phone screens.
NLIGHT's co-founder and the VP of Device Engineering Mark DeVito showed the Business Tribune around the Vancouver plant. In a corridor full of young people busy at their lockers as they changed shifts, DeVito retrieved a wireless keyboard from a cupboard and pulled up a video on one of the many monitors scattered around the building.
The video explained how they make their lasers from scratch. They start with three-inch diameter "wafers" made of gallium arsenide or indium phosphide, put them in a machine full of gases which metalizes them, and then cut them into little squares with a diamond tool.
Lasers are odd in that passing electricity through these wafers causes photons to go crazy and multiply. They shoot out of the end of their mirrored chamber in a super bright of light that can be focused into the beam we know from gun scopes and cat toys.
At nLIGHT they mount multiple lasers together and, using mirrors and lenses, focus them into one very bright laser. Then they take these and combine them in even bigger groups until they cut through hard materials. Each chip might have 15 to 18 watts going into it, but the end product can be a high-power fiber laser of 12 kilowatts.
The company doesn't design the tools that cut parts for cellphones or garden decorations. As DeVito says, they leave that to the tool makers. "We don't interact with the application. We deal with OEM manufacturers or system manufacturers. It's someone else's job to get FDA approval or get it approved to go on the Apple production line."
NLIGHT has done defense and government work. They've supplied a navigation laser for the Mars rover that was recently decommissioned, and have another going up on a satellite to more accurately measure polar ice caps.
The laser world has boomed since 2015 as power has increased and
different industries have integrated them into the production processes.
Cutting metal — especially for construction — was always time consuming because so much trimming and polishing was necessary, but lasers leave a clean cut and save time. The basic smart phone has between 20 and 30 laser processes, from cutting, drilling, welding and packaging the product.
Electric vehicles depend on lasers for making the assembly for their rechargeable batteries so that they fit perfectly in the trunk.
DeVito thinks LIDAR, which is the laser radar used to guide cars now, will be less marketable than using lasers to survey land and measure buildings in construction.
"Automating how quickly you can characterize the shape of a building is more important than everybody sitting back sipping a martini while they drive."
NLIGHT competes with IPG Photonics of Mississippi and Trumpf of Germany in the burgeoning market. DeVito stresses that the company is vertically integrated and does not make a high volume of product. It takes about five hours to make five wafers, and nLIGHT only has two of the made-in-Germany Aixtron machines that do this.
But having control of multiple parts of the process means they can experiment and change direction to suit the market. Most lasers are made to cut one thing. nLIGHT's big new product is the Corona, whose laser beam can be changed into dozens of widths and intensities, making it the Swiss army knife of lasers. It can go from cutting silk to steel without expensive and time-consuming changing of the tool.
In one room, with yellow lighting to keep extra ultraviolet exposure out of the development process, half a dozen people in bunny suits stand around. Much of the work is about loading and unloading little discs into machines. DeVito says they train people right out of high school.
"They need to have very good dexterity because they're touching very expensive materials. They need to be very disciplined and do things the same way every time."
So, would they take someone who is a very good at applying makeup, or a skilled barista?
"Yes, but they'd have to give up on the makeup," he half-jokes. "It's a clean-room environment."
Having said that, the company is always looking to automate processes.
"Automation means a person can run multiple machines, as opposed to being attached to a machine," is how DeVito defines it.
They want to be able to manufacture nearer to where they sell. They have had a production facility in Shanghai since 2004. They chose it, DeVito says, not for low- cost labor but to be near the growing Chinese market, where lasers are used in manufacturing and construction.
"China buys lasers, they're building cities so fast."
Other jobs in the company are for skilled engineers with experience in the Silicon Forest, or graduate degrees from top science universities.
He's understandably bullish about the future of lasers.
"How lasers are being used to process materials is in its infancy — metals, plastics, clothing, diamonds. Yes we're starting to use them to cut diamonds. Any type of material processing, people are asking 'How can I use a laser to cut that?' It's quick, repetitive, and can be tailored to match (materials). And cost structure is getting to where it can be used for the simplest things."
Can a laser cut down a tree?
"Oh yeah … But getting that type of power out into the field....It's hard to beat that gas-powered chainsaw. But if they were making trees in a factory..."
DeVito on Keeney
nLIGHT's DeVito started at Varian Associates, one of the first high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, founded in 1948, then he worked at Spectra Diode Labs (SDL) which went public in 1995.
DeVito and CEO Scott Keeney met in July 1998 and formed nLIGHT. It was venture-funded in July 2000 in the dot-com boom, as a telecommunications play. (Lasers are used to boost the signal in fiber optic cables, and nLIGHT was going to take on that market.) After the dot com crash in 2000, they changed direction to industrial lasers.
The Chinese market served them well in the Great Recession, but it was a struggle until 2018, when their IPO brought in waves of cash.
In the dot com times there was cash, but with an inexperienced team it was hard to execute.
"Going public now, we have the mature, capable team to be strategic with. It's the first time in my career I've had a strategic team with funding." DeVito, who has grandchildren, says he can't wait to see what's next.
Of Keeney, he says,
"Scott's one of the most innovative executive men I've ever met. He's a unique, exceptional businessman, and made exceptional usage of his Harvard MBA." He says Keeney is gifted at understanding talent and technology. "He not only understands technology but sees value propositions quickly."
"Scott is very humble, he doesn't like a lot of hoopla. He just wants to work with teams and technology and make things happen. He's very business and tech savvy without having a serious science background. He's a brilliant man who learns the technology quickly.
He adds, "He's amazingly involved at all levels of the company. He's a people person and really enjoys getting to know people. Any time we have celebrations, he interacts at all levels, and he's an easygoing person. He expects to be the best laser company in the world but he doesn't want to do it without getting to know everybody along the way."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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