[Interview] – Meeting the newly promoted CTO of Skylark Lasers
In part one of this industry interview we talk to Ben Szutor the newly promoted CTO of Skylark Lasers about technology roadmaps, prioritising developments and the vision for the recently rebranded Skylark Lasers.
Hi Ben, tell me a bit about yourself, your background and what you do.
Currently I am the Chief Technology Officer at Skylark Lasers. I have a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering with specialisation in Fluid Dynamics from the University of Edinburgh and I completed my engineering doctorate at Heriot Watt University in 2022. That was an industrial PhD with my current company. I started with the company as a student and then I have developed through into my current role.
Excellent so quite a meteoric rise through the company in some senses.
Yes, which is only possible in a rapidly evolving company with the backing of an excellent team.
What are the challenges?
Well, there is a lot of learning involved in working for a small company as well as working for a high-tech Photonics company where you try to be a pioneer in your field. There is no given recipe as to how to build these lasers or what components to use, so you have to work with suppliers and different customers to define the product and its features. One of the main challenges is to keep up with the state-of-the-art, through industry discussions, scientific papers and generally it is important to be up to date with what the sector is up to. Identifying market niches and deciding on our competitive positioning are all based along the research we do. A second important aspect is based around people. We are an agile company here at Skylark, meaning that we don’t limit ourselves with job titles or prescribed tasks, everyone is encouraged to explore new ideas and fill in when necessary. For example, most recently as we have started shipping out a larger volume of lasers, all of us are involved in helping with packaging, labelling the lasers that go out of the door.
How do you select what developments you pursue?
The technology roadmap is a complex question, and it involves a lot of thinking, prioritising and team work. Ideas are usually first conceived from customer requirements or are purely based on brainstorming sessions. We circle ideas around and everyone can contribute to these ideas. The next step is to somehow evaluate these ideas, we like to do this numerically, assigning certain weighting to each opportunity, given considerations such as: how commercially viable something is, how easy it is to make? do we have the competencies to do it? how much it would cost or how long would it take? There are a lot of factors that play a part in the decision-making process and ultimately it is important to fit all of the smaller projects under a bigger programme or direction for the company. We strive to produce highly reliable and robust products, lasers with excellent properties on a small footprint, therefore it is generally an important consideration for us to put resources in activities that help our products become more efficient. At the end of the day we also explore lower TRL projects, and do fundamental research as much as we have capacity for.
There are quite a few interesting innovations going on and quite a lot that involve lasers so we had quite a few enquiries and discussions that involve LiDAR applications for time of flight measurements of wind speeds and weather forecasting. LiDAR is an interesting area that relies heavily on optical innovation, with wide-spread application areas in automotive, space and topography instrumentation.
We are quite focused on quantum technologies especially on quantum sensor development. Our lasers are inherently low-linewidth and with recent developments we are achieving more and more output power at specific atomic frequency lines. Quantum sensors have endless potential in positioning, navigation and timekeeping, enabling better accuracies and new features such as navigation in remote or hidden areas such as in tunnels or under water.
What is the vision for Skylark?
The company has just completed a full rebrand process, which is to show our commitment to transform our existing R&D functions into full-scale manufacturing. We shipped twice as many lasers to customers last year than the previous two years combined. We decided to use the tagline “Light you can trust” to demonstrate our key objective of supplying high-quality lasers based on our existing technology. Most recently we released two products in the ultraviolet wavelength range that generated a lot of interest from customers. Our 320 nm lasers were developed specifically for spectroscopy and lithography applications to offer an alternative to existing gas laser solutions. Our technology can deliver twice or three times the power, doing so at a smaller footprint, with a fraction of the electrical power required to run our lasers. Overall, providing a significant reduction in the cost of ownership of these products. These markets are huge covering both industrial and academic customers, with more than 100,000 gas lasers currently used. We have just begun this journey, supplying our products to major equipment manufacturers for testing and qualification.
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