Electro Optics turns 50 in 2018. To mark the occasion, 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.
Dr Tom Pearsall, founder of the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC), argues that industry associations must be agile to stay relevant
Photonics is often characterised as an enabling and pervasive technology. Actually, it is much more than that. Photonics is a strategic and structuring technology, leading and creating critical industrial applications. An important example that illustrates this principle is the laser. Following its discovery over 50 years ago, the laser was referred to affectionately as ‘a solution looking for a problem’. The laser is in fact leading the way to new paradigms for manufacturing, surgery, communications, and opening avenues to new fundamental scientific research in chemistry and physics about the very nature of the world we live in.
In our lifetimes, photonics has created new forms of lighting, telecommunications, manufacturing, and medicine. European scientists, engineers and innovators have been leading the development of photonics since its creation by Albert Einstein and his Nobel Prize-winning work on the photoelectric effect. For 15 years, the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) has been dedicated to the task of building solidarity and synergy among organisations that are committed to advancing discovery, innovation and commercialisation of photonics technologies.
A truly independent association
EPIC, of course, is not alone. There are numerous photonics associations in Europe; many of these have been created following the encouragement of the European technology platform Photonics21. Typically, these associations are funded by local or national governments, and assure a liaison between the region that they represent and sources of funding and subventions for research and development. Such organisations have a natural responsibility to represent and defend the priorities of the regional or national governments that provide their funding.
Because EPIC accepts no direct funding from any public authority, and is financed mainly through membership, it remains independent and free to represent the best interest of its industry members. Rather than trying to provide a link between the photonics industry and public authorities, EPIC builds links between its members by providing services that they ask for and that will benefit them most. Examples include exploratory missions around the world, focused meetings with decision makers, and reports to stay abreast of market and technology trends.
Today, with more than 350 industry members, several thousand individuals benefit from membership in EPIC, making it one of the larger photonics associations focused on innovation and industrial implementation.
Keeping agile to stay relevant
EPIC is agile, recreating itself and sharing its products, knowledge and structures. Like any robust technology, photonics is constantly changing and re-inventing itself. When we founded EPIC 15 years ago, important member needs were to help build the industrial-scale manufacture of LED lighting, and to respond to the needs of optical fibre communications companies, whose principal market was devastated by the dot-com implosion of 2001-2002. The synergy between the laser-assisted manufacturing industry and optical fibre amplifiers led to the development of fibre lasers for manufacturing. One of EPIC’s first workshops addressed this topic.
Today, LED lighting is a commodity, and optical communications innovation takes place at the system and software levels. However, laser-assisted manufacturing is still an area of significant innovation at the photonics level, as diode lasers are steadily replacing gas and solid state lasers in many applications.
The best response to change is agility, and we try to pay attention every day to innovations that will lead to changes, both disruptive and evolutionary. With employees located in six different countries, and 120 visits to leading companies each year, we listen to what industry has to say. Market and technology reports have proved to be an important tool in bringing discipline to this effort. We were able to keep our members informed about the timing and the tipping points related to the transformation of LED lighting from a high-growth, technology-driven market to a high-volume, low-margin commodity market.
What is happening next?
On the road ahead, we can see some areas where transformative change may be happening: in biophotonics, both for imaging and treatment; in 3D and additive printing; and in the industrial manufacture of photonic integrated circuits.
The manufacture of photonic integrated circuits (PICs) is an area of important evolutionary and disruptive change. One key breakthrough is the building-block concept of creating functionality by using a standard set of components: laser, modulator, coupler, amplifier, detector and waveguide. An OEM can design and receive functioning PICs, without having to learn the underlying materials and device technologies. A foundry with basic device capability can manufacture the chip without having to learn about the application. This is a mature idea, and its application to PICs is an example of evolutionary innovation. At the same time, the creation of a reduced set of components and processes could lead to the design and manufacture of specialised equipment that is optimised for PIC fabrication. This would be disruptive innovation that could implement PIC manufacture on the same scale as that for electronic integrated circuits. EPIC is providing initiatives to support this development through focused workshops, market studies and through its participation in several projects.
In addition to founding EPIC in 2003, Tom Pearsall has made major contributions to fibre-optic telecommunications and silicon photonics. A graduate of Cornell University, he worked in research at Bell Labs for over a decade. In 1990, Pearsall was named Boeing-Johnson Chair and Professor at the University of Washington. From 1998 to 2002, he directed research on planar photonic crystals at Corning in Fontainebleau, France. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a Fellow of the IEEE.