Vancouver-based industrial laser manufacturer nLIGHT joined the lineup of presenting companies at the D.A. Davidson 18th Annual Technology Conference in New York on Wednesday, and CEO Scott Keeney delivered an address that touched on a number of topics but focused on the Chinese market.
China is one of nLIGHT’s biggest geographical market segments, and several audience members asked Keeney about the company’s recent experiences amidst the ongoing trade war. The first question was the most straightforward: Are things getting better or worse?
“I wish I knew, is the short answer,” Keeney replied.
Chinese market conditions have been challenging, he said, and the company doesn’t know what to expect in the coming months.
The trade war is one of the factors, Keeney said, though nLIGHT is relatively well-positioned to ride it out because the company already operates a second manufacturing facility in Shanghai through a subsidiary, enabling it to directly serve the Chinese market.
But that doesn’t mean nLIGHT is entirely unaffected by tariffs, Keeney said, and it’s been looking for ways to lessen the impact.
“The chip, for example, that we send to China — that’s certainly affected by tariffs,” he said.
The other big challenge has been the rise of more competitors in China, he said, particularly those selling low-power lasers. nLIGHT has increasingly focused its China operations on the high-power end of the market, Keeney said, where the company faces fewer competitors due to the higher technical skill needed to build reliable lasers.
“As you go up in power, it gets much more difficult,” he said. “Everything gets harder.”
Keeney also consistently emphasized nLIGHT’s efforts to focus on growth outside of the Chinese market, particularly in the industrial sector. The market for industrial cutting tools is the most well-established, he said, but nLIGHT’s adjustable-power Corona lasers have created new opportunities.
There’s also a market for industrial welding lasers, he said, though that market has seen slower growth because those lasers often have to be paired with a host of other systems that need to be developed separately, such as robots and software. But Keeney said he expects that increased automation among industrial customers will fuel a continued demand for welding lasers.
Aerospace and defense is another major market segment, he said, and one that is seeing consistent growth due to research into directed energy weapons such as lasers that could be used to target drone swarms.