FEATURE

The future for photonics

Warren Clark speaks to leading industry figures about the year ahead for the photonics industry

2009 was the toughest year photonics has experienced since the telecoms crash at the turn of the millennium. This time, though, the exposure was firmly in the industrial sector, which has so long been the area in which photonics was thought to have the most potential.

At the time of writing, the economy appeared to be in a fragile state of recovery, though the pace and stability of any upturn was still very much open to debate. So, what does this mean for the photonics industry?

Applications

There is still potential in what one would consider more traditional areas for lasers, such as materials processing, according to Sinclair Vass, senior commercial director for EMEA at JDSU. ‘An area that is fast-growing is micro materials processing,’ he says. ‘This includes drilling of tiny holes in printed circuit boards or chip substrates, scribing and dicing of semiconductor wafers, and various scribing or drilling applications in photovoltaics. It is an area of strong interest for JDSU and our acquisition of Lightwave Electronics has given us a great foothold in this market segment.’

Lawrie Gloster, managing director at UK-based Laser Quantum, says: ‘We have a lot of prospects in the aerospace market for next year. It is an industry that does not appear to have been so affected by the recession, and part of this is due to the long gestational periods of any project in that sector, so effectively the funding has bridged the downturn. We have also seen growth in industrial Raman applications, which are particularly suited to our small, compact, reliable lasers.’

Eugene Arthurs, chief executive of SPIE, adds: ‘Industrial processing lasers will see a recovery largely dependent on how activity picks up in the global automotive and construction sectors. Applications in the solar photovoltaic energy sector should provide some cushion for laser suppliers.’

Indeed, photovoltaics, alongside biomedical applications, is one of a few areas where there appears to be real potential for photonics in the immediate future. ‘At the macro level for photonics, solar energy will resume growth, with China well-positioned to build on its market-leading position,’ says Arthurs.

On the biomedical front, Arthurs says: ‘New optical techniques for diagnosis include the recent introduction of Fourier transform optical coherence tomography in intracoronary imaging in interventional cardiology. The technology is moving rapidly to clinical use in Europe and Japan, and is predicted to become the FDA standard evaluation tool for all future stent procedures.

‘Back at the macro level, personalised medicine, using genomic and molecular data to better target the delivery of healthcare, is benefitting from therapeutic discoveries in biotechnology, medical devices to deliver those therapies, diagnostic tools, and bioinformatics. As the complexities of the genome are unravelled, we will see more extraordinary progress towards economic genome readers. The community needs to think more about the complete picture for medical technology in which photonics plays a key enabling role. Healthcare economics and social factors can dominate the acceptance and usage of even lifesaving technologies. Factoring these realities in early to help guide the technological and commercial directions will be increasingly important.

‘Biophotonics research continues to spread throughout the world. Investments by Singapore, and the growing interest and investment in other parts of Asia, should lead to faster progress in realising the promise of photonics in healthcare.’

JDSU’s Vass adds: ‘In biomedical, solid-state lasers are gaining ground over gas lasers, but we expect both to co-exist for some time.’

Gloster says: ‘For us, biomedical applications include flow cytometry, cell sorting and DNA sequencing. There are a lot of medical techniques being developed that involve photonics, some of which have evolved as a result of military needs. For example, in the field, there are major advantages to being able to carry out quick blood analysis on a casualty, as medical teams can learn a lot from haematology, and the first hour is critical in picking up the most valuable information.

‘Within biotechnology, there is a more general drive to increase preventative diagnostics through DNA analysis, whereby one can learn a lot about susceptibility to certain medical conditions – and guard against them. A lot of growth in biotechnology has been driven by Obama stimulus funding, so our business has mainly been in the US.’

Arthurs picks out other sectors that may see growth, including defence, semiconductors and remote sensing. ‘The outlook for the defence sector is somewhat muted,’ he warns, ‘but advances in imaging, UAVs, and laser weapons may mean smaller cutbacks for photonics. When Maiman showed that a laser could work, a torrent of invention followed. Test firings of the National Ignition Facility in 2010, 50 years after the operation of the first laser, could lead to an explosion of innovation in laser driven inertial fusion.

‘Semiconductor companies that have been able to hold on, and can scale up now, are seeing opportunity. Samsung’s ambitious plans for growth and its role in driving lithography technology will help re-energise the stream of creativity that has extended the run of Moore’s law. Recovery will allow ASML, Zeiss SMT, Cymer and others to continue the move to establish the viability of EUV lithography.’

UK company Pro-Lite is heavily involved in supplying equipment for the test and measurement of light, and is benefiting from the environmentally-driven move towards more efficient solid-state lighting. Robert Yeo, a partner at Pro-Lite, believes the wider photonics industry can profit from this need for high-quality, energy-efficient lighting solutions. ‘In the UK, we carry out some advanced research and development into the next generation phosphors and nano-particles that are used to improve the efficiency and colour rendering performance of the high brightness white LEDs that form the basis of next generation solid-state lighting products,’ he says. ‘The UK also benefits from start-up and other SME activity in the luminaire manufacturing market – a luminaire is the light fitting that contains the LEDs. All of this is recognised by the UK government and its Photonics and Plastic Electronics KTN and the recently formed Ultra Efficient Lighting Working Group, headed up by Dr Gareth Jones of Enfis.’

Indeed, Pro-Lite has become involved in running training courses in collaboration with the UK Photonics Cluster to educate engineers in how to test solid-state lighting and optimise it for its application, and Yeo believes there is plenty of market potential for all those involved in the supply of test and measurement equipment for lighting.

‘We are seeing considerable interest in our newly developed near-field goniophotometers. Until now, anyone wishing to test the useful light output of their light fittings in order to generate so-called standard “photometric” data had to rely upon the services of contract test laboratories. This was because the equipment required was bulky and expensive and required a very large dark room. Our near-field goniophotometer is an example of a new breed of products that is affordable, and only requires a small dark room.’

Technology

There are plenty of ways in which photonics technology is evolving, and this in turn will open up more markets. JDSU’s Vass says: ‘A lot of our business is in telecommunications, and we are able to port a lot of our knowledge gained there over to the industrial laser side of the company. In particular, this knowledge has helped us achieve higher pumping diode powers, which enable our customers to build fibre lasers, even up into the kW range. These fibre lasers are expected to see significant growth as they are entering the large metal processing market, an area currently dominated by kW CO2 and lamp-pumped solid-state lasers. The fibre lasers offer easy integration and flexibility through fibre delivery combined with improved reliability and running cost. The excellent beam quality of the kW fibre laser also enables new processes, which significantly enhance productivity.’ Laser Quantum’s Gloster adds: ‘Our core business is in CW DPSS lasers, and to this end, we are widening our portfolio of products to include more wavelengths, lower noise and higher power options. This will help broaden the range of applications we can address, in particular in the industrial market (as opposed to research).’

Geography

‘Europe is still leading development of emerging technologies such as high-power lasers, fibre lasers for industrial applications, and advanced optical detectors,’ says SPIE’s Arthurs. ‘Germany sees a growing market for lasers in smart cars and in LEDs.’

JDSU’s Vass adds: ‘We expect to do more business in China and the Far East – particularly when it comes to outsourcing the packaging and back-end functions of our own products. North America and Europe will remain our strongest markets from a revenue perspective. Asia is a tough market to crack as there are several incumbent suppliers, and there are often import/export restrictions that have to be overcome.’

For a positive outlook on the year ahead, the last word goes to Laser Quantum’s Gloster. ‘In general, we are anticipating growth next year – by as much as 30 per cent for our own company,’ he says. ‘In fact, if you strip out the automotive industry and other manufacturing applications, the photonics industry has fared reasonably well in this recession.’