Credit crunch resistance at Photonics West?

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With visitor and exhibitor numbers matching those of last year, there were no visible signs of an industry in crisis at last month's Photonics West, as Warren Clark reports.

The official visitor figures revealed that 2009 was just as attractive an event as the 2008 exhibition and conference. More than 17,000 visitors attended Photonics West this year, suggesting that whatever financial concerns there are in the wider economy, it was nothing that a good dose of photonics innovation couldn't fix.

It would have been no great surprise to see a few empty booths here and there, with companies deciding that they could not afford the space or spare the staff. The San Jose Convention Center, along with two large marquees at the back of the main hall, was full to bursting though - and there was still a waiting list.

Talking to exhibitors revealed that, while they were impressed (not to say relieved) at the aisles full of potential customers, they were all remaining 'cautious' for 2009. For this year, just about everyone had given up on pursuing any semiconductor-related business, but for positive signs, one need look no further than the life science and medical sector, and indeed the defence market. In both cases, funding is largely controlled by governments, and that funding is often set several years in advance. Projects being undertaken now would have been agreed a few years ago, and photonics has a key role to play in both of these sectors.

At an 'Industry Perspectives' session held during the conference, a number of high-level executives from the industry's leading names discussed the tough economic times being experienced - and how photonics businesses would cope.

Robert Edmund, CEO and chair of Edmund Optics, said: 'Technology will bring us out of recession.' Referring to the high visitor numbers at Photonics West, he also later added: 'This week has lifted my mood.'

Randy Heyler, senior director of strategic marketing at Newport, said: 'Many of us will be forced to try things and experiment with business partnerships that we may never have considered before.'

Stuart Schoenmann, president and CEO of CVI Melles Griot, said: 'Photonics is well placed to tackle the problems of an ageing population through biomedical developments. We also help enable miniaturisation, which creates benefits for many industries.'

As the discussion opened out, the panel suggested that there may be a pattern of 'mergers rather than acquisitions', mainly due to the lack of capital funds available, and that competition had put an end to the 'old days' of collaboration among technologists.

In all, both as far as the panel discussion was concerned and also in terms of the mood of the whole event, the feelings were a mixture of caution and resilience, but were very far from defeatist.