Ahead of the Innovation award that will be presented at Laser World of Photonics, Jessica Rowbury talks technology development with Dr Jonathan Blackburn of welding research and technology specialist, TWI
What are your views on the state of innovation in the European photonics industry?
I believe the majority of people and organisations view ‘photonics’ as a sector that provides technologies to underpin and enable applications in other fields. Photonics technologies are found in fields as varied as ICT, industrial manufacturing and life sciences, for example. Bringing together such a range of disparate technologies is difficult, but the European technology platform Photonics21 has done a tremendous job of bringing the sector together, and prioritising its research goals across national and international frameworks.
The level of photonics innovation in Europe has grown over the past decade, but this needs to be sustained, and arguably increased in certain areas, over a much longer period. A challenge here is persuading the public and governments that this is the case. Most photonics innovations are at least one-step removed from the public eye, which is difficult, as most governments and funding bodies are increasingly interested in funding challenge-led research that solves the issues facing society.
Why is it important for photonics companies/research institutes to innovate?
Photonics technologies are used to facilitate product and process innovations across a wide range of industry sectors. Ordinarily, there is a significant lag between the initial innovation in photonics technologies and the product/process being developed and becoming commercially available. A research and development eco-system that supports these innovations mature to become commercially relevant is critical for Europe moving forward.
Why is this important for the photonics industry as a whole?
Ultimately, photonics innovations enable advancements in how we live and experience life. For example, photonics-based manufacturing technologies are critical to the production of light-weight electric vehicles, and photonics-based sensing technologies will enable these vehicles to become autonomous.
What are the barriers to innovation in the photonics sector and what do you think the solutions are?
The UK’s Association of Industrial Laser Users (AILU) recently developed and launched its national strategy for laser processing. Several barriers to the adoption of lasers in manufacturing were highlighted – including skills shortage at technician and graduate/post-graduate level, access to finance and access to technology demonstration and evaluation facilities. I think these are the most relevant barriers to innovation in the photonics sector. Solutions need to start at a grassroots level, with more education in schools, more funding for apprenticeships and post-graduate research, as well as improved marketing of the sector to the public and governments.
Where do you see the most exciting innovations in the photonics industry, and how will this change in the next three to five years?
My role at TWI is focused on the application of lasers to manufacturing challenges, so does not begin to cover the broad range of activities under the photonics ‘banner’. Laser additive manufacturing and the use of photonics to enable autonomous electric vehicles are two areas I believe will see significant growth and success in the next three to five years.
Outside of manufacturing, and the three-to-five-year timescale, I’m incredibly keen to see how photon-based quantum computing will develop.