Driven by the speed of technology and bracketed by global trade, industrial laser manufacturer nLight Corp. of Vancouver is deepening its role as an anchor of Clark County’s cluster of high-tech employers.
On Friday, the company will kick off a late-afternoon ribbon-cutting ceremony to highlight the latest step in its growth: the opening of a new fiber laser factory in Vancouver. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, and other community leaders are expected to attend the ceremony.
The event arrives on the heels of the company’s recent announcement that it received about $25 million in investment funding. The company is using the money to pay for the new factory “and other production capacity which will more than double our business,” David Schaezler, chief financial officer, said in an email to The Columbian. NLight employs about 600 people, Schaezler said, with about 350 in the Vancouver-Portland metro area. “That’s about double the number of people we had five years ago,” he said.
The focus on nLight comes on the same day that President Obama seeks to drum up support for a controversial multinational trade proposal during a visit to Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.. The president has taken criticism for putting the spotlight on the sneaker giant, given the company’s history offshoring jobs.
Scott Keeney, CEO and president of nLight, said Friday his company’s development offers a counterpoint to those who may think U.S.-based manufacturing is only further receding. “This is a factory that is being built here in the U.S.,” Keeney said of nLight’s new plant. “It will add 100 jobs.” The factory also represents a connection to global trade, Keeney said, as the end-market for the products it makes is “substantially in China.”
“There’s innovation going on, and there’s manufacturing excellence and there’s an appropriate cost structure,” Keeney said. “I’m very bullish on the competitiveness of U.S. companies,” he added. “Frankly, I’m also bullish on opportunities in China.”
NLight develops and manufactures high-performance lasers for advanced materials processing, defense and medical uses. The company’s most recent product announcement was for nLIGHT alta, a next-generation family of industrial fiber lasers with power levels up to 3,000 watts.
The company showcased nLIGHT alta at the Laser World of Photonics China exhibition, according to a news release the company issued in March.
Schaezler, nLight’s chief financial officer, said construction of the new factory, to be celebrated Friday, started last year and will be completed this month. “We will be filling it with production equipment this year,” he said. Schaezler said the new factory is housed in 26,000 square feet of space. He said nLight has about 225,000 square feet of space worldwide, with about 145,000 square feet in the U.S. Most of the company’s domestic square footage is in Vancouver, with some located in Hillsboro, Ore.
Early in nLight’s history, Keeney said, the idea was that the company’s technology would improve in a manner similar to what was envisioned by Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, an observation made decades ago by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, basically says that computer processing speeds will increase at an exponential rate.
Fifteen years ago, when nLight was founded in Seattle, you’d use a blade or plasma torch to cut metal, Keeney said. As lasers have become more powerful, and as costs have become more favorable, he said, “you use lasers in ways you wouldn’t before.”
That includes deploying precision lasers to cut metal and to weld, Keeney said. “That opens up these markets that weren’t envisioned 15 years ago.”
NLight relocated to Clark County in 2002.
In 2013, it acquired Arbor Photonics Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich., for an undisclosed price. Keeney said he believes the company is now the largest Clark County-based technology business.
“We moved here to be in the semiconductor cluster,” he said. “That was a very good move. It’s a very strong cluster here.”