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Guiding light - predictions for the future of photonics

As Electro Optics celebrates its 250th issue, and to tie in with Photonics West in San Francisco, we ask industry experts what the future holds for photonics

Dr Eugene Arthurs, CEO of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics and organiser of Photonics West

Where will be the main growth areas in photonics over the next five or 10 years?

There is this virtuous cycle type behaviour where we keep making higher resolution displays and cameras, now 8K domestic UHD TVs with 33.2 megapixels popping up before 4K is established, and 3.7 megapixels already in many mobile phones. There will be a lot of energy to develop content for these, and even with all sorts of clever compression, delivery of what will soon be a modest 4K 50GB movie file is going to drive upgrades for the photonic internet.

Storage and processing of information is going to require much deeper photonic penetration of the data centres, or they will melt! In 10 years we may or may not have optical computers; we certainly will have photonics integrated into chips.

Mobile devices and wearable devices will incorporate photonics, whether as sensors or displays. We already see the exciting adaptation of smartphones (a term I find objectionable for these photonics devices) as medical diagnostics. This is very exciting for development in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

Use of solar energy will grow significantly in the 10-year period, though of course we may see a detour from the optimistic roadmap because of the drop in costs of some types of fossil energy. Pacing will to some extent be determined by the progress in storage, for which one option is solar to hydrogen. Increasing use of photonics in the energy sector, for sensors of all kinds, is significant and growing but dwarfed by the numbers for solar. However if your product happens to be photonic equipment for more productive fracking, I suspect that growth management may be your challenge!

Lighting is a pretty sure bet. Beyond the transition of general lighting to solid state, there will be opportunities to develop and exploit more sophisticated lighting for human enhancement. We are seeing the tip of a very big iceberg of how the spectrum and intensity of light affects humans. And of course there’s the intriguing progress of Li-Fi.

In medical photonics I see strong growth of photonic diagnostics and more penetration of therapy. Use of femtosecond lasers for precise surgery with minimal thermal damage is growing, OCT is moving beyond the eye, and, of course, for the research community, there are the challenges of understanding the brain and how we might put optogenetics to work.

Are the visitors to Photonics West indicators of how the photonics industry is changing?

Yes, I think they are. Photonics West attendance numbers continue to grow, continuing a decade-long trend and pre-registration counts are stronger than ever. One shift is the recognition by senior executives that Photonics West is the strongest B2B event in the industry; this category of attendees grew 36 per cent last year.

Another shift in the last five years is that attendance from Asia has nearly doubled and attendance from Europe is up more than 50 per cent. This indicates the growing international nature of the business, as we attract not only researchers, but also management from the top photonics R&D organisations on the planet.

A third shift is the addition of systems companies to the core photonics mix at Photonics West, for example, system providers like Trumpf, Coherent, Newport and Rofin-Sinar. Also, companies enabled by photonics like Apple, Samsung, Toshiba, and Google are sending more people than ever.

Finally, many companies expanded their exhibition space, and we sold out with a longer waiting list than ever before. This indicates not only that Photonics West delivers business success, but also photonics industry confidence is high. This optimism has also been revealed by ongoing SPIE exhibitor surveys, which predict strong revenue growth in the next 12 months.

What do you think the industry should be targeting for long-term growth?

I think our industry has paid penalties for being unrecognised, fragmented and technically complex. Some executives believe that unless there is consolidation we are doomed to be what we have been. My head tends to agree with them, my heart not so. The character of the industry I love would change and there may be less of the creative, innovative energy that is so stimulating.

A lot of the fault of being unrecognised lies with ourselves of course, as we tend to enjoy talking geek with geeks. Communicating with key decision makers in government, holders of purse strings, and with the financial community seems difficult, maybe boring. Communication requires the recipient to understand. For such a technically smart community to be so poor at picking up on eyes glazing over is a constant surprise to me. We looked recently at how stock prices in our industry had been going. It seems obvious that companies that were performing well, growing and profitable, meeting or beating all the financial benchmarks, were not seeing the increases in stock price typical of companies of comparable size and performance in more easily understood sectors. Some in the financial community apply a ‘discount’, a risk compensation if you will, because they cannot evaluate the market and prospects for an electro-optic company. This hurts investment in our industry. So we need to get much better at describing our markets and communicating the exciting potential. Maybe investors will look on us more benignly as they sour on the next social media miracle that isn’t. However it is up to us to help ourselves.

I see real progress in tackling some of these issues with the ongoing National Photonics Initiative in the US and have hope for the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies. I emphasise the last part as it is too frequently abbreviated away! At SPIE we have already put a lot of effort into market quantification and analysis, and we will continue to improve and refine our data. We want the financial community to gain the confidence we have in a photonics-shaped future.

Hervé Floch, general manager of the Route des Lasers competitiveness cluster, located in Bordeaux, France

The French Route des Lasers cluster will exhibit technology from eight SMEs at Photonics West and BIOS. Among these will be Argolight, which has developed a simple and reliable solution to calibrate fluorescence-based optical microscopes. This technology could make calibrating microscopes much easier in order to give higher quality data, especially for super resolution imaging, which is becoming used to a greater extent in areas like neuroscience. The 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the inventors of super resolution microscopy, which overcomes the resolution limits of optical microscopy and allows scientists to image at the nanoscale. At this level of resolution, exchange of information between synapses in the brain and other molecular interactions inside cells can be imaged. One of the very first developments made in this area was made in Bordeaux in a laboratory named LP2N – the Laboratoire Photonique Numérique et Nanosciences.

Photonics is everywhere, from communication and healthcare, to materials processing for the factories of the future, to lighting and photovoltaics, and to consumer products like smart phones and other internet devices. I’m sure that photonics in the 21st century will revolutionise healthcare and provide new ways of detecting, treating and preventing diseases. In manufacturing, laser processing will become a prerequisite for high-volume, environmentally-friendly and low-cost production. This is true in particular in the aerospace domain, where manufacturers are starting to make use of laser processing for machining composite materials, or for non-destructive treatment and control of these materials.

Another growth area for photonics is in helping overcome the limitations of electronics in computers. Hopefully, the 21st century will offer the possibility to have the first generation of quantum computers. The concept is quite well understood theoretically. Although US-company D-Wave has already sold Google the first commercial quantum computer system, priced at US $10 million, there is still a long way to go to harness the technology and have commercialised consumer products.

Another start-up of particular note that’s part of the Route des Lasers cluster is Poietis, which was officially created in November 2014 (see Tom Eddershaw’s article on page 26). The company is developing a 3D printing machine making use of a laser source to reproduce living tissue. The goal is to print skin that could be sold to cosmetics companies for testing their products, instead of using animal skin. In the future, Poietis also plans to extend the technology to be able to print organs. At the moment, the technology fabricates skin by projecting layers of cells onto a substrate using a shockwave created by a laser. The cells then bind together and further layers of epidermal cells are deposited, creating living epidermal tissue. Photonics is at the core of this development.

Competitiveness clusters are a really successful way to foster new technology and encourage growth in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and the French national policy surrounding these clusters has helped encourage investment in innovative SMEs. Young companies first have to concentrate on commercialising their existing products, and it’s more difficult for them to invest in R&D, which is time and resource consuming. These clusters are one way to encourage small companies to work together through networks and consortiums in collaborative projects, and then get funding for the technology that comes out of such collaborations. Strong support from regional government facilitates SMEs to invest in more R&D and to export their products. Companies that are members of a competitiveness cluster are able to grow faster than other SMEs. The main goal in the latest version of the policy – phase 3.0 – is to encourage companies that were previously involved in R&D projects with low technology readiness levels (TRLs) to commercialise their products – to move to high TRLs.

The Route des Lasers cluster currently has 131 members including 94 businesses, mainly SME-sized, and membership is growing. One of the big success stories for photonics in the Bordeaux region has been the Laser Mégajoule project, which initiated the Route des Lasers and has created around 8,000 direct and indirect jobs since it was decided to locate the facility in Aquitaine in 1995. The Laser Mégajoule project has dramatically impacted the photonics industry in the Bordeaux region. Over 12 years we’ve been able to develop highly qualified jobs indirectly thanks to Laser Mégajoule, and there have been 25 start-up companies created from the Route des Lasers initiative. As many as 30 high-tech companies have relocated to our industrial parks.

In 2014, Route des Lasers signed a partnership agreement with the Aerospace Valley competitiveness cluster, and, early this year, it will sign cooperation agreements with the French Île de France Photonics competitiveness cluster, along with the French tech hub in the USA.

In addition to Argolight, Route des Lasers will be accompanying cluster members exhibiting technologies at Photonics West and BIOS from: Alphanov, specialists in laser source and system engineering; ISP System, a precision engineering company for complex systems, in particular in medical devices; Eolite Systems, which develops fibre optic technologies; Imagine Optics, a provider of Shack-Hartmann wavefront sensors; Nethis, makers of industrial vision instruments; ultrafast laser manufacturer, Amplitude Systèmes; and Azur Light Systems, which produces fibre-based technology laser sources. Azur Light Systems (ALS) is actively seeking collaborations with system integrators in biomedical analysis and industrial laser systems to replace argon lasers, which are big, expensive and complex to operate, with fibre lasers at new wavelengths (visible and infrared).

Tim Stokes, managing director, Hamamatsu Photonics UK

The photonics industry is, in many ways, where electronics was 50 years ago and I see photonics developing along similar lines. Now electronics appears everywhere, and, in the same way, embedded sensors will be integrated into all sorts of things that we’ll be able to buy in the future. The market for smart optical sensors is set to expand rapidly over the next few years. Such sensors will be found in smart phones or in other portable or wearable devices, and will read out huge amounts of data about our environment. For example, spectrometric and infrared sensing can be used to give chemical analysis of the food we eat, allowing consumers to check for nutritional content of food in supermarkets or restaurants.

Automotive and healthcare are two markets that are expected to grow in the coming years. In the automotive sector, most new vehicles now have at least one image sensor onboard and high-end cars incorporate infrared cameras for things like pedestrian detection. Sensors and electronics have already become the single most expensive part of manufacturing a new car, and the number of sensors in vehicles will only increase.

Head-up displays and dashboard controls that operate via gesture recognition are both under development for drivers. In addition, the UK is investing in autonomously operated vehicles akin to Google’s driverless car, with a number of UK universities working on the technology.

In the healthcare sector, personalised medicine will become more important in the future and more personalised diagnostic instruments based on photonics will be required to assess which pharmaceutical will be effective for a particular patient. Smart optical sensors for monitoring health are also likely to find their way into the home and it might be the case in the future that your smart phone or TV can decide whether you are unwell and need to see a doctor or just feeling under the weather. Blood screening and other diagnostic tests have also become much faster thanks to photonics and samples can now be analysed in minutes rather than having to wait for results from a pathology lab.

Hamamatsu has the technology and capabilities to tap into a lot of these markets. The company is also looking to collaborate actively with organisations throughout Europe as photonic devices become more mainstream. Two years ago Hamamatsu founded its European Innovation centre, headed by CMOS imaging industry expert Professor Peter Seitz, to engage with commercial and academic organisations, and provide advice to government institutions.

One area where our industry can try to foster growth in the UK is in the ‘public’ awareness of photonics. Call this education if you will, but unless the future generation of scientists and engineers have some idea of what photonics actually is, there is less chance to educate our next generation of students in opto-electronics, be this in the actual science of light or the applied technology of photonics.

The International Year of Light (IYL) is a great opportunity to reach beyond our traditional audience to show the world at large what photonics is. Hamamatsu will work to engage with the UK Institute of Physics (IoP) and Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) in outreach programmes as part of the IYL. We consider this to be a way in which our company, as a leader in the photonics industry, can play our part to increase the awareness of photonics.

Professor Reinhart Poprawe, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT, and Hans-Dieter Hoffmann, leader of the Laser and Optics competence area at Fraunhofer ILT

Where will be the main growth areas in photonics over the next five or 10 years?

Poprawe: There has been a steep increase in demand for additive manufacturing (AM), especially for working with metals. At the moment, AM serves niche applications such as manufacturing medical implants or tooling for injection moulds. This is a rather specialised area. For series production, applications are on the horizon, firstly in order to produce expensive parts in aeronautics among other areas, where it makes sense to print lightweight components. Airbus and GE are both using additive manufacturing to build parts for jets (Airbus) and jet engines (GE). This is series production, but the series is still only in the order of 1,000 parts per year. What Fraunhofer ILT is aiming at now is research into the feasibility of large scale production of around a few hundred thousand parts a year, which would put AM technology into the realm of the automotive industry. If this comes to fruition, it will be accompanied by much greater demand of AM systems – for each part you might need 50 or 100 machines for these kinds of volume.

Ultrafast laser technology is another area showing promise of growth for the future. Similar to additive manufacturing, there are a lot of niche applications at the moment for precision machining with ultrafast lasers, in micro-processing and in glass applications, for instance, but growth is predicted. Companies like Bosch are already in series production with ultrafast lasers on a larger scale.

There are also developments around producing new laser wavelengths for resonant applications in biomaterials processing or in ceramics and certain chemical reaction applications. This might be beyond 1.5µm to the mid-infrared and longer infrared wavelengths. While quantum cascade lasers emit at longer wavelengths, these are low power and as yet there are no commercial high-power lasers at these wavelengths.

There are also some new processes Fraunhofer ILT is developing, such as laser polishing for metals and glass, and plasma filament cutting. Plasma filament cutting is an ultrafast cutting process which generates, not a laser beam in the classical sense, but a string of plasma filaments distributed in a line. It has specific properties for cutting applications such as glass cutting.

Hoffmann: Strong growth is expected in diode lasers, which are improving in power and efficiency. Nearly every type of laser besides gas lasers is pumped by diodes and with improved diodes you can pump laser materials very efficiently and at powers and intensity levels not possible with the current generation of diodes. This opens up the options for building new solid-state and fibre lasers with higher efficiencies. There are also more options for using laser diodes directly for materials processing, mainly for heat treatment, soldering and welding processes at the moment.

We also see power scaling of diode lasers, towards 100kW. With these high power diodes you can now start to replace conventional heat sources for forming high strength steels. While fibre-coupled edge emitter-based diode lasers already achieve up to 40kW (Laserline), vertical emitter-based diode lasers with 10kW building blocks are now available (by Philips Photonics).

Poprawe: The laser diode has the potential for efficiencies of up to 70 per cent electrical to optical conversion, which is more than two times higher than any other conversion process – CO2 lasers are somewhere in the region of 15 per cent, and lamp-pumped YAG lasers are in the area of three per cent wall plug efficiency.

Diode lasers replacing older, less efficient technology for cutting would have a huge impact; it’s a billion dollar market served almost solely by CO2 lasers because of the advantages of the wavelength and convenience of the systems. But the efficiency of CO2 systems is pretty poor, so this would be a fantastic jump if you have the right wavelengths and beam quality in diode lasers. This isn’t the case currently, but it would be a long-term relevant goal for laser technology for the future.

What will Fraunhofer ILT be displaying at Photonics West?

Hoffmann: At Photonics West we will show new laser mount manufacturing technology for making more reliable and rugged lasers. Solid-state lasers still currently have a lot of mechanical fixings for components which reduces the robustness of the laser. Fraunhofer ILT provides direct soldering processes for optics. This process is extremely precise, while at the same time free of glue and outgassing, and the optics can also be realigned easily. The process is called pick-and-join or pick-and-align and is based on the idea of surface mounted devices (SMDs) used in electronics, but transferred to building lasers. The technology can be used to manufacture very small lasers, with limited power, but which could be placed on a PCB, for instance. We are also building larger lasers with sub-mount technology based on aluminium platforms. The technology could lead to more reliable and rugged lasers, while at the same time reducing production cost, because of the potential to automate the process.

What do you think the industry should be targeting for long-term growth?

Poprawe: The awareness of governments for 3D printing and for the photonics industry in general is happening around the world; we see it in China and in Japan. In Europe, Fraunhofer ILT is active within the Photonics21 platform. On 21 January, I represented Photonics21 in a top-level meeting discussing multi-directorate research programmes within the European Commission. The meeting had representatives from Industry 4.0, as well as Photonics21 with its slogan of ‘Digital Photonic Production’, to discuss combing production technology with the internet and the benefits of the communication age.

Here, digital photonics production fits right in. From a general political and societal point of view, photonics is recognised as a relevant factor in the development of next-generation industrial processes.

There are many opportunities for photonics. Maybe I’m a little biased because I’m involved in the industry, but if I look at other technology areas I don’t think there is any comparable technology with a similar growth expectation and which will have a similar impact on our future. I think it is correct that we call this century ‘the century of the photon’, and this year ‘the year of light’.

Samuel Sadoulet, president and COO, Edmund Optics

The need for productivity has fuelled substantial growth in photonics, particularly in imaging applications in support of automation. We see this growth in traditional industries such as semiconductor, automotive, and electronics, as well as in emerging applications such as logistics and autonomous vehicles. We are also seeing growth opportunities in the life sciences, specifically in medical devices and diagnostics, as the worldwide population continues to age. There is also a lot of traction for smaller, more portable devices for field use in the developing world.

Edmund Optics is seeing considerable growth in Asia, and to a certain extent, in Europe. In the US, some of our customers that were dependent on defence spending had to realign their businesses after the sequestration. These cuts in government spending had the hidden benefit of spawning companies interested in utilising technology traditionally reserved for the military in new commercial applications. For example, an infrared camera originally designed for the defence industry might now be used for security systems or medical diagnostics.

At Photonics West, Edmund Optics will have demos highlighting products designed for lasers, life sciences, and imaging applications. The company will be exhibiting new technology, products, and capabilities, such as variable focus objectives, zoom lenses, beam expanders, and optics with high laser damage threshold coatings. There is a big push towards integrating laser and inspection systems in manufacturing environment, so we expect the merging of imaging and laser applications to drive a lot of our conversations. Edmund Optics will also be announcing a partnership with a company around infrared chalcogenide moulding, a process for making infrared optics. We will be showcasing 3D printed optics for quick prototyping.

Although Edmund Optics designs and manufactures optical components, we are an organisation centred on outstanding customer service, which directly corresponds to making sure catalogue products are always available. Service will continue to be a major message at Photonics West.

An event like Photonics West would not be able to exist, though, without the continuous graduation of students interested in, and academic research focused on, optics and photonics. One of the aspects I continue to be impressed with in Germany, as well as in Japan, is the strong link between academia and industry. The Fraunhofer institutes in Germany partner with businesses to conduct applied research to drive innovation, which is a good model. In the US, however, the relationship between academia and industry is not as well defined as perhaps it should be. I would encourage the US to put more thought into how to strengthen the link between the two areas.

In order for photonics companies to remain competitive in a global economy, there has been an increase in multi-discipline jobs, which needs to be reflected in training and higher education courses. Biomedical engineering is a perfect example of a multi-discipline approach to education – you learn a bit about topics such as optics, cellular formation, and mechanics of bone structures. You can no longer be just a mechanical engineer or an optical designer. You must have knowledge of biology, chemistry, mechanics, and optics and photonics. There are certainly schools that are at the forefront of this shift in education. In Singapore universities, for instance, I see positive activity around multi-discipline training.

There is also an issue that manufacturing is not as attractive as it used to be. As a manufacturer of optics, we are heavily dependent on skilled labour. In Japan, young people are still interested in going into manufacturing, but we are struggling to hire people in our factories in the US and Singapore. We’re also seeing this problem in China. How do we address this? Is it through college courses that are more hands-on? Or is it with training and apprenticeship programmes? I’m not sure. That’s a challenge not just for Edmund Optics, but the photonics industry as a whole.