Could Industry 4.0 help bridge the workforce gap?

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As Electro Optics turns 50 in 2018, experts across industry and academia review the current state of the photonics industry and highlight what needs to happen for the field to prosper over the next five decades

Amy Eskilson, president and CEO of Inrad Optics, says that Industry 4.0, in addition to public-private partnerships, could help bridge the workforce gap

Over the last 25 years it has been fantastic to watch and participate in the ongoing commercialisation of optical technologies. When we aggregate just a few of the broadly deployed technologies enabled by photonics like smart phone cameras, optical communications, medical lasers for everything from cardiac ablation to tattoo removal, fibre lasers and high-power lasers for industrial applications, the cumulative impact is staggering. Most importantly, the industry is still young, and this is what is so exciting about the work we do every day.

At Inrad Optics we are focused on high barrier to entry and niche technologies well suited to our unique capabilities, specifically crystalline materials development, certain high precision optical components, complex optomechanical assemblies and optomechatronic subassemblies. We have found that there is an unmet need in the marketplace for companies willing to work collaboratively with their customers on multi-dimensional optical projects. This need is evident in all market sectors we serve, not just in the scientific R&D community.

We see requirements that demand collaboration in the defence, process control and metrology, and the laser systems sectors. Our bent crystals expertise for x-ray monochromator design is a great example of this type of collaboration. Here we work with key customers involved in plasma studies in the scientific R&D community, as well as process control and metrology customers developing commercial solutions in semiconductor wafer inspection and x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy systems (XPS).

One of the major challenges companies like Inrad Optics face is the availability of trained optical technicians, especially individuals at a more senior level. While there is much discussion of implementing European-type apprenticeship programmes in the United States, this effort is still developmental, and resource intensive for SMEs to implement. I believe that public-private partnerships are essential in bridging this workforce chasm.

Additionally, the continued evolution of cyber-physical systems, known as Industry 4.0, holds great promise to help bridge the workforce gap. Recent advances in laser-based ablative digital processing for shaping, polishing and assembling optics made of optical glasses and fused silica could offset the US scarcity of qualified technicians.

Looking longer term, full integration and deployment of the digital and optical worlds at the chip level will provide step changes in the areas of quantum computing, integrated photonics and lab-on-a-chip devices. All these advances will hopefully lead to lower cost quality of life improvements that can be accessed by communities the world over, especially in second and third world areas of the globe.