Southampton spin-out celebrates 20 years of innovation

One of the world’s leading fibre laser designers and manufacturers – Southampton spin-out company SPI Lasers – is celebrating 20 years of innovation. 

Founded in 2000, as a direct result of pioneering research in Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), the company now sells products in more than 150 countries around the globe, employs 300 employees, and has an annual turnover of about £70million. 

We talk to Professor Michalis Zervas – one of the founder members of SPI Lasers – about how the successful spin-out was created, what it has achieved over the last two decades and what the future holds: 

How was SPI Lasers born? 

SPI Lasers – originally known as Southampton Photonics Inc – was created to exploit Southampton’s long and prestigious history of producing world-leading research on fibre amplifiers, based on rare-earth ion-doped silica fibres, advanced optical filters and fibre Bragg grating technology, to cater for the ever-increasing demands on bandwidth and speed by the telecommunications industry. 

However, following the dotcom crash in the early 2000s, we decided to refocus our business on the much more stable sector of design and production of fibre lasers for material processing and manufacturing, and over the past 20 years this has proven to be very successful. Building on our experience with these fibre optical components and sub-systems for the telecommunications industry, we quickly established ourselves as a global leader in the design and manufacture of industrial fibre lasers. We have manufactured and deployed more than 50,000 laser units from our facilities in Southampton and Rugby that are used in the manufacturing of a myriad of everyday devices including mobile phones, laptops, batteries, automotive components and medical devices such as pacemakers and prosthetics. 

In 2008, the company was acquired by German machine tool and disc laser specialist TRUMPF GmbH for £27.8m – one of the world’s largest laser system manufacturers. This has provided the company with extra financial stability and access to a much wider market intelligence. 

What has made the company so successful? 

Our success in this technology-intensive industry has derived from our ability to take the ORC’s pioneering research, through product design and development, to full commercialisation. The very strong connection we have with the University of Southampton, and in particular the ORC, was very, very important to our early success. I know other companies starting out at the same time as us, didn’t survive, as they didn’t have access to the expertise which we did at the University. Being able to tap into the University’s vast expertise, as and when we require it, has been absolutely crucial in enabling us to, not only survive, but thrive. 

In the field of advanced technology products, you always have to be ahead of the game, otherwise other companies can very quickly catch up with you or copy you. No matter how big or how experienced your company is, you cannot afford to have all the expertise you need under one roof. We have the advantage of being closely affiliated with the University, giving us direct access to a wide range of advanced technology research and allows us to stay at the forefront of the field. We know exactly what the latest developments are and the potential relevance to our products, so we can react very, very quickly. If it wasn’t for that vital, ongoing partnership with the ORC, I don’t think the company would be where it is today. 

What has been your role with SPI Lasers? 

When the SPI Lasers was first launched, I worked for it full time as I was an expert in fibre Bragg gratings and fibre amplifiers. For the first five years, I was Technical Director of the fibre Bragg grating technology, and then was Chief Scientist for a further 10 years. Now I have a consultant role with the company, have a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Advanced Fibre Laser Technologies for Future Manufacturing (supported by SPI Lasers), and am the Director of the Advanced Laser Laboratory (a facility jointly-run by SPI Lasers and the ORC, and fully paid-for by SPI Lasers). In the Advanced Laser Laboratory, we are exploring the next generation of technology that can be used in SPI Lasers’ products. This embedded laboratory is a very efficient way of working with  industry as it enables the company to have direct access to the technology, allows the company to define the scope of research to a large extent, and facilitates the transfer of technology back to the company. 

Do you still collaborate with the ORC? 

Our relationship with the ORC is still very strong, not only through the Advanced Laser Laboratory, but also through the placements that we offer and the PhD studentships that we provide. We frequently support researchers with commercial off-the-shelf devices to facilitate their work, and we also support the ORC and other University of Southampton research groups when they apply for funding from various Research Councils. 

At SPI Lasers, all of our products have been based on fundamental inventions from the ORC – we have taken the ORC’s ground-breaking research and translated it into successful industrial products. Also, many of the company’s employees have been trained at the ORC, providing a continuous stream of fresh knowledge and updated expertise. 

This ongoing relationship between SPI Lasers and the University is vital for the company’s future success. 

The Future Photonics Hub, based at the ORC, explores photonic integration across all major technology platforms. How has this been useful to SPI Lasers? 

We have a strong connection with the Future Photonics Hub, which has provided us with the basis for a broader interaction with other companies and research groups in the photonics field. The Hub has supported us with some of the projects we are running, by helping us to understand the wider requirements of manufacturing photonics. 

You have also had access to the ORC’s multi-million pound cleanroom complex, as well as other dedicated facilities. How have these helped in SPI Lasers’ success? 

Access to these facilities has been extremely important to our development and success. For example, the company is now using a new fibre fabrication technology and wouldn’t have been able to assess its potential effectiveness in the market, if it wasn’t for these facilities. We were able to ask the ORC to carry out specific tests and prove the effectiveness of this new technology which was then transferred into the company’s fabrication facilities. Having £120m cleanroom facilities located right next door to us cannot be underestimated. Not many companies have that capability. 

What is the future for SPI Lasers? 

That’s a difficult question, but I think the future could be developing smarter ways of generating light, distributing light and shaping light. We already have evidence that shaping light in a smart way produces a much better processing result. By delivering these smart ways of shaping light, we can potentially do things faster, cheaper and to a better quality, which can affect the market penetration of new products. 

We have recently published a paper that reveals the first results of using shaped light on cutting and welding, and believe that this new technology will revolutionise industries such as the additive manufacturing – 3D printing – business.

A future manufacturing research hub