Photonics in France: encouraging international growth

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To mark Electro Optics turning 50 in 2018, experts across industry and academia have commented on the photonics industry. In this article, Herve Floch, general director of the French competitiveness cluster Alpha-RLH, details how French firms can succeed in Europe and further afield



How is Alpha-RLH raising awareness and supporting growth in the photonics sector?

As a result of last year’s merger between two competitiveness clusters, the Route des Lasers and Elopsys in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, we have considerably strengthened the support we can bring our cluster members who are on the path to growth. Our aggregate skills in photonics, lasers, microwave and digital technologies are allowing Alpha-RLH to prioritise strategic innovations, which we see are key to stimulating economic development and creating jobs.

Innovation programmes we are spearheading to accelerate the use of photonics include SAPHyR, a project to improve the aerospace industry’s understanding of photonics and thereby lower the risks they perceive in adopting these technologies. X-ray or proton therapy is another exciting development. Photonics will drastically impact the size and cost of equipment used to generate secondary x-ray beams by making use of a primary laser source for both diagnostics and therapeutic treatments. This will provide both doctor and patient access to equipment that today is considerably out of reach.

On the international front, Alpha-RLH is heightening its activities by exploring new opportunities for its cluster members in China and the US, with plans to have representation in Japan by 2019. We continue to help companies find new customers and new partners, as well as export products.

What should governments be doing to ensure photonics in Europe remains strong? 

It is paramount that the French government maintains the level of interest and support it has already given the photonics industry. Having political support at both national and regional levels and access to the right level of financing on a long-term basis are required; this is the German model. 

To optimise the full potential of photonics requires stability. For example, our ROI in Japan will not occur within the first year of activity. Due to the business culture of the country, it will take several years. However, there is progress. The French government has significantly opened its eyes in support of photonics technologies. It has made competitiveness clusters a national policy, accompanying innovation for economic development and growth. It has sent clear signals in support of R&D and technological innovation by transferring powers to the regional authorities, allowing autonomous management of resources and a regrouping of the ecosystem.

Although the photonics industry has received positive signals from the government, more resources are always welcome. Photonics is a domain where we need to raise the curiosity of investors and increase their understanding of how photonics will enable future developments in digital, materials and robotics industries.

Photonics is a young, vibrant and thriving industry, currently estimated at €520 billion, globally. This is up from €480 billion in 2012, with expected growth to reach €650 billion by 2020. As a key enabling technology, photonics continues to make inroads in transforming and reshaping many traditional industries; semiconductors, aerospace, automotive, construction, agro-food and medical devices are all areas where lasers and sensors are having a strong impact on production, efficiency and sustainable development.

There are strong indications for future growth for photonics technologies in consumer electronics, smart buildings, smart homes and cities, lighting, energy production, energy efficiency applications and communications, as well as materials.