nLight setting sights on growth in the coming years

Vancouver company wins contract to develop lasers for the U.S. military

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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nLight

• Product: Fiber lasers and components.

Headquarters: 5408 N.E. 88th St.

Founded: 2000 in Seattle, moved to Clark County in 2002.

Employees: 820 (450 in Vancouver and Hillsboro, Ore., locations in Europe and Asia).

2016 revenues: $100 million.

For many, the idea of American warships and Humvees being equipped with lasers sounds like science fiction.

For one Vancouver company, it’s a goal.

nLight, an industrial laser manufacturer at 5408 N.E. 88th St., announced this month it won a $1.93 million contract to research and help develop new components for military-grade lasers. The contract was awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the U.S. military.

nLight representatives say the technology, called “directed energy,” channels intense light particles into lasers for an array of military applications. The biggest examples would be defending military aircraft from rockets or shooting down enemy drones.

“It’s a pretty big new application area,” said nLight CEO Scott Keeney in a recent interview.

High-powered lasers have seemed like a fringe technology for years, labeled as too expensive and impractical for military use. But the technology is evolving, attracting more investment and driving down costs.

While nLight’s products have mainly been used for precision manufacturing, it stands to gain from any new applications. And it hopes its expertise can be a part of the U.S. military’s future.

“The market for high-powered directed energy lasers for laser weapons systems is projected to grow rapidly during the next decade,” the company said after it received the contract. “Products developed as part of (this) program will further nLight’s position as a leading laser manufacturer for this growing market.”

Bright ideas

“Defense contractor” probably isn’t the first association that comes to mind when discussing nLight. In fact, when it was founded in 2000, the company worked mainly in telecommunications. Its laser technology helped pulse data through fiber optic cables.

A few years later, telecommunications bubbled and then burst. nLight had to find other avenues. Its core business today is selling lasers and similar components for manufacturing everything from cars to smartphones.

The private company’s revenue has grown 30 percent year-over-year, reaching $100 million, and Keeney expects to add up to 300 jobs in Vancouver by 2023.

“We’ve been growing jobs here quickly. Ramped up significantly this year,” Keeney said.

The entire industry is growing. According to independent researcher Allen Nogee, who runs Laser Markets Research, sales of industrial lasers jumped 75 percent from 2006 to 2016, from $5.9 billion to $10.3 billion.

That number encompasses a wide range of laser types. The market for fiber lasers, nLight’s specialty, grew from $102 million to $1.7 billion — nearly 1,600 percent.

Nogee, who has followed the industry for 20 years, said lasers are growing the same way most technology does, and uses television sets as an example.

“There was tube television, then LCD televisions, now we’re going to OLED,” he said. “Flatter, cheaper, less power (consumption). That same type of thing has happened in the laser industry over the last 20 to 30 years.”

nLight’s own research says the cost per watt of laser power has dropped 1,000 percent since 1985.

Directed energy

The directed energy technology nLight will develop has already been documented.

“It’s been around for awhile, but it hasn’t been implemented in any significant way,” Keeney said. “They’re just starting to get really serious about it.”

In a segment that aired on CNN over the summer, a now-decommissioned warship called the U.S.S. Ponce showed the technology off with a long, white, telescope-looking device on its deck. It traced an unmanned aerial vehicle in the sky before it fired a beam of photons at its wing, sending it to the water.

From a military perspective, the weaponry is lauded for saving money on ammunition and its ability to strike at the speed of light.

Most of developing a functional laser weapon will be contracted to bigger companies, such as defense and aerospace conglomerate Lockheed Martin. nLight, however, is in charge of the technology that defines it.

“The core engine — all those electrons are converted into photons by us,” Keeney said. “They make sure the photons gets on the drone in the right way.”

It won’t be the first foray into the military for nLight. The company’s laser technologies have already been used for air-to-air missile navigation, as well as protective technology for Chinook helicopters.

nLight’s success with this latest defense contract depends on how well it can make its technology faster, smaller and more powerful. Keeney said he was confident, however, because of the quality of the staff based in Vancouver.

Two years ago at a trade show in San Francisco, nLight engineers presented a hair-thin fiber that could generate 155 watts of light. That was a world record for brightness for size — until they broke it this year with 200 watts, he said.

Next year they plan to reach 230 watts.