Global laser equipment and component supplier Coherent puts innovation at the heart of all parts of its business. “Innovation is needed in order to not only maintain market share but to drive growth,” says Geoff Shannon, director of strategic marketing. Not only this, but innovation also allows Coherent to understand and respond to its customers’ needs and to remain at the forefront of the laser solutions market.

“Innovation can take many forms,” Shannon adds. “It can be a product innovation, it can be a cost innovation, it can be an application innovation.”

Market-driven innovation: SmartWeld+ and SmartCut+

When it comes to identifying areas for innovation, Coherent turns to the market first. It’s about gathering data from and about customers to develop insights and pinpoint opportunities.

“We’re really plugged into the markets that we serve in order to make sure that we keep ahead of what the market’s looking for and keep ahead of our competitors,” says Shannon. “We Hoover up information online and through multiple media sources and then we distil that down.

“It’s an iterative process, where we go through some external discussions, internal discussions, and once it gets greenlighted – and there’s obviously some gating processes to that – thereafter it becomes an execution exercise focused on engineering.”

It is by interacting with the dynamics of the market rather than remaining in the confines of a development lab that Coherent keeps its finger on the pulse. “In the lab environment it’s difficult to get the perspective of what the market really wants,” says Shannon.

This approach facilitated the development of the Coherent SmartWeld+ and SmartCut+ laser heads, launched in 2019. Shannon explains that the strategic marketing group identified interesting laser head products beginning to be developed by competitors. “We added a few more layers of functionality, where we saw some gaps and opportunities in the market with regard to how we can control the laser power dynamically,” he describes.

Coherent’s market insight allowed it to develop a component that responded to these opportunities and that had the flexibility to be used across markets and applications, from welding to drilling. “The SmartWeld+ has been able to provide access to applications which previously were not accessible,” says Shannon. This is part of expanding the laser toolbox for customers in the market, which is central to Coherent’s strategy.

Customer-centric innovation: StarCut Tube for tube cutting

The most useful market insights come from Coherent’s close relationships with its customers. “We’re very interested to understand our customers’ feedback, that’s really important to us. We want to understand what they think of our products, what they think they might need in the future,” Shannon explains. “And that’s a two-way street.”

For Coherent, the relationship takes the form of a partnership. When there is trust on both sides of the partnership, Shannon sees it as a win-win. Customers provide the insight that allows Coherent to develop the products and solutions they really need.

The 30-year evolution of the Coherent StarCut Tube product has been one such journey. Originally launched in the early 1990s, StarCut Tube is a tube-cutting system which dramatically increased the ease with which stents could be produced. “We were one of the originators in that area and throughout its lifecycle we’ve constantly upgraded and innovated,” says Shannon. The StarCut Tube now leads the North American and European markets. “That’s because we’ve always looked at what the customer wants,” he adds.

This has involved upgrading the lasers for greater reliability. Coherent has also developed the smallest footprint tube cutter on the market. “Square footage is equally as innovative as anything,” Shannon points out. “We reduced the footprint because that’s what our customers were asking for.”

“Another great innovation in that area is our ability to have multiple sources on one cutting workstation.” This means that a fibre laser can be used for lower-quality high-speed cutting and the femtosecond laser for high precision, in one component. “We’ve been able to keep that product as one of the most innovative on the market based on input from customers,” Shannon summarises.

Rigorous innovation: Picosecond laser marking

Coherent’s values set it apart from its competitors. “Very few companies have the strategic marketing group that we have, and I think that speaks a lot to how Coherent looks at product innovation,” says Shannon.

The rigour of the Coherent product launch process also marks it out. “Sometimes people are fishing for a market by putting out some data sheets which may not be fully backed up with a released product, and we don’t do that,” explains Shannon. The process ensures that products are ready and fit-for-market upon their release.

Product quality and durability is crucial when it comes to Coherent’s dark marking capability. Coherent has led the effort over the past couple of years to develop a way of marking medical devices that can withstand the aggressive cleaning, sterilisation and autoclaving processes these devices go through.

“We were able to use the picosecond laser to develop a process to enable these components to survive almost indefinitely in these very aggressive cleaning processes like the autoclave,” says Shannon, “so now the customer can really stand behind his products from a functionality perspective, he can work with his customers, perhaps he asks a premium for his component, perhaps his end customer gets some more ROI out of his components.

“We went through a very rigorous process to ensure that that product was production-ready.”

Future-facing innovation

Coherent has a grasp of market trends which allows it to note where the market is heading. Shannon identifies a number of emerging trends, starting with the user interface. “What’s gaining importance is how the user interacts with the product and making it so that it’s very simple to use, very intuitive,” he says.

Smart factories, digital factories and industry 4.0 are also being increasingly pursued, with data collection and connectivity at their heart and machine learning being leveraged to drive even more insight. “That’s all about understanding how the different components in the system are working,” says Shannon. This allows for more sophisticated process monitoring. Shannon emphasises that this kind of detailed trend insight cannot be gained in a lab environment – evidence of emerging patterns and behaviours can only be found in the market itself.