LASERS. Brightest Light Sources from a Little Country You Probably Don’t Know

 

Laser industry is the pride and joy of the Lithuanian economy

Ask a Lithuanian what makes him or her proud about their country, and you will see confusion, grasping for straws, like “most beautiful girls in the world”, “our basketball team”, “lovely nature”, “rye bread”, and then, if you are in luck, their eyes will light up and you’ll get an answer you did not and could not expect: lasers. Lasers? Yep. In Lithuania, they are a source of a considerable pride and are often presented as a success story and a role model for high-tech industries. How did it happen that a small country without obvious reasons to succeed in a knowledge-intense field of lasers and laser applications has become a player equal with the laser industry giants from the USA, Germany, France and other developed countries?

Early bird catches the worm

Historical answer to this question is, as usual, a timely start. Back in 1962, right after the first demonstration of a laser by Theodore Maiman and in the very heat of technology race between the Soviet Union and the US, several smart youngsters were sent from Vilnius University to Moscow State University to study laser physics. After getting their degrees with the best people in the field, they came back to Vilnius with ambitions of starting up the laser research there. Their efforts were a success, and in the next couple of decades, the scientific research on laser technology and laser applications flourished, precipitating in tens of defended PhD theses and new laser laboratories established. With the money from the Soviet military-industrial complex, the labs also became small-scale producers of lasers and laser components.

Learn to swim or drown

With the restitution of independence in the early 1990s, and the severe economic turmoil that followed, the research money vanished faster than you could say ‘laser’. Educated people with families to take care of had no option, but to look for the opportunities to set up business and try to make their way in the murky waters of emerging market economy. Although many people moved away from their previous areas of expertise becoming successful managers of companies having nothing to do with lasers, some talented engineers felt that it would be a shame to let all the effort put in the laser development go to waste. They took their expertise (and some equipment) from the state-run institutes and set up first laser companies. Standa was founded in 1987 as a cooperative (Gorbachev era euphemism for a private company) and Eksma – in 1992. Light Conversion, currently the biggest laser manufacturer in the country, started their activities as an independent business in 1994.

From a garage to the Wembley stadium

The start of the Lithuanian laser business is almost anecdotal. The story goes that in the days when a glass of beer in Sweden cost more than a monthly salary of a teacher in Lithuania, the engineers of Light Conversion and Eksma used to put a newly-assembled laser in a travel bag and embark on a bus going to the other side of Europe to perform the installation. Next to the instrument, they would pack a hearty peace of smoked bacon and some bread, enough to survive in the ‘capitalist jungle’. When something went amiss during the installation, they would find some scrap metal in the customer’s lab, and go to the machine shop of the university. Using whatever tools where available (and some strong language), they would repair whatever was broken, and bring the laser back to life. Miraculously, it worked: gradually, the Western scientific community started to be impressed with the results obtained using the equipment that came from behind the iron curtain. They began to respect the people who brought this equipment to them, and who got seriously pissed-off when referred to as Russians.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, things started to look up. The customers who bought the first equipment, returned for more; the PhD students, who used it for their graduate work, became professors and wanted the tried-and-tested solutions for their own labs. With Lithuania joining the EU, the country stopped being so mysterious that potential overseas customers would be scared. Not only the major flagships, Eksma, Ekspla, Light Conversion and Standa grew in their number of employees, they were also joined by a number of smaller companies producing custom laser and optical components, coatings and specific laser applications. The beginnings of a versatile, self-sustaining laser cluster started to show.

In the meantime, the researchers in academia, who endured the years of hardships and financial strangling, managed to secure several substantial grants from Lithuanian government, NATO and EU partnership programmes. The labs at Vilnius University and the Institute of Physics started to look more like labs and less like scrapyards. Another boost came with EU structural funds. The students, who saw that laser departments were the ones where you could find some serious action, chose the labs for their undergraduate (and graduate) work. Contrary to the Western countries, where the most gifted kids chose MBA and law, physics and engineering in Lithuania somehow retained the image of ‘serious stuff’ and the numbers of pupils admitted to physics programmes exceed 150 people a year to this day. And some of them are seriously smart. Perhaps the same stubborn peasant mentality that did not allow their fathers to give up lasers, kept the interest of the children focused on the hardcore fields of physics and engineering.

Too good to be true

In the past decade or so, the laser industry in Lithuania has been exhibiting the results that are virtually too good to be true. The revenues grew from 13 M€ in 2004 to 80 M€ in 2015. Even in 2009, a disastrous year for Lithuanian economy, which plummeted by 15 %, the laser sector saw a healthy growth of 4 %. The number of employees which was 200 in 2003, climbed to 740 in 2016.

Lithuania is a small country with open economy and has virtually no tradable natural resources worth mentioning. The common sad joke goes that the only useful things in Lithuania that one can dig from the ground are potatoes, but even those are scarce. For such a country, producing goods that can be exported, in order to balance the foreign trade, is vital. Laser industry shows exemplary behaviour in this regard, with over 90 % of production sold abroad. The major markets for Lithuanian laser products are Western European Countries, North America, Japan and China.

Many factors came together just right to help the country’s laser industry to catch the wave. Continuous efforts of laser researchers in keeping up the studies at Vilnius University at a proper level, helped along by successful lobbying with the Government, ensured a steady influx of young people, whose work was the main ingredient of the growth. Just as importantly, all the companies realised the importance of continuous R&D efforts. Moreover, all of them made an effort to form something very close to an industrial cluster: an intertwined network of companies with almost no internal competition, all working in different aspects of laser physics. In fact, the head hunting at the neighbouring companies remains something that you just don’t do in Lithuanian laser industry. The entire industry still bears some resemblance to a family, with a yearly reunion taking place at the end of summer in a lakeside bungalow park about 60 km away from Vilnius, where a significant fraction of the people working in the industry gather to talk science and business, and later play football, volleyball, share a barbecued steak and a glass of beer, and sing a hearty, if sometimes a bit off-key, campfire song.

From inside, all these companies are similar: everywhere you will find R&D engineers in their ‘sandboxes’, cluttered with instruments and half-finished ‘projects’, production engineers in lab coats with a serious attitude to work, service guys with jeans, three day stubble and jet lagged faces and friendly administration staff helping to keep it all ticking. Everyone seems happy in this environment, a mixture of chaos (R&D) and order (production).

Will it stay like this? It may. Then again, it may not. Competition is harsh as everywhere. But as long as engineering and research remains at the heart of the companies, and the focus stays on making the things people want to buy, rather the numbers in the financial reports, all should be well.

 

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The magazine JŪRA has been published since 1935.
International business magazine JŪRA MOPE SEA has been
published since 1999.

ISSN 1392-7825

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