Hope for the future

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As Electro Optics reaches another milestone in its history, our 200th issue, we asked the leading lights of photonics for their views on the state of the industry and its future

Mike Elliot, Managing Director, Elliot Scientific

I have noted over recent years that there has been a significant increase in multidisciplinary research. We see physicists, biologists, chemists, nanotechnologists and mathematicians being jointly funded to participate in major collaborative research projects. We frequently speak to customers who are performing multi-disciplined experiments. It could involve aiming a laser onto a substrate held at adjustable cryogenic temperatures in an optical cryostat under an adjustable high magnetic field, while measuring electrical transport characteristics, or it could involve firing multiple wavelength CW or femtosecond lasers into an optical microscope and performing spectroscopy on a one micron biological particle under view and collecting valid data. These are typical examples of multi-disciplined research. Whereas in the past a professor would wait for a PhD student to build a system over two years or more before data could be collected, these groups want to buy a system ‘off the shelf’ so that valuable research can be started immediately.

In order to deal with this trend, a photonics company must be multidisciplined itself. One can no longer survive by just selling optics when a complex system is required. Very few companies can send in experts with experience in optics, lasers, magnetics, cryogenics and so on. However, the customer may still need more than this, for many researchers require unique design parameters to be employed. There may be a space constraint, or perhaps an optical port must be grafted onto a microscope or similar. One may be asked to bid or design for a complete system. This will involve much discussion, perhaps proposing the unique design with a 3D CAD Model. We are frequently asked to design a complete system from concept to manufacture. This certainly is an area in which we have many years of experience, as we design and manufacture a complete range of complex opto-mechanics. More than 19 years ago, we started selling lasers, optics, magnetics and cryogenic systems as independent units, and still do. However, now it’s all coming together and our multidisciplined strategy puts us in a unique position to assist these groups. For us, the future of photonics – or rather our continued involvement in it – is dependent on us maintaining this multidisciplinary approach.

Stuart Sendall, Sales Director, Pacer International

I see the future for photonics as very buoyant due to the sheer breadth of application that is relevant to civilisation’s needs.

At all levels of Maslow’s hierarchies of need, photonics will play an increasing role in fulfilling everything from our basic requirements for healthy water with UV-LEDs and green energy with photovoltaic silicon, health delivery via photonics medicine (lasers for photodynamic therapy, and emerging treatments like curing Alzheimers, fungal infections, hearing difficulties and curing acne), on to beauty products such as laser hair removal and teeth whitening. In the home and office, LED-based solid state lighting is expanding rapidly. Additionally, at the levels of personal indulgence, the gadget-mad world wants high-resolution, high-brightness, low-energy, large-area, flexible panel displays, incorporating nanoscale technologies processed using lasers. Biomedical research into cures for the great ills of the world, and the resulting instrumentation, rely almost exclusively on photonics. Aircraft, vehicles and buildings will use optical sensing techniques for continuous health monitoring in environments where this would be impossible with conventional sensors.

Many photonics applications remain totally untapped due to lack of marketing innovation. They are held back by a lack of vision on the part of the inventor, or by a reluctance to invest in things that are perceived as niche that in fact could scale up to mass adoption products. Cellphone texting channels were once used by engineers to communicate outside the main cellular bands. Look how that has become a cost-free revenue generator. Instead of competing in the Red Ocean of conventional product competition, even more can be done by seeking out Blue Oceans by delivering new solutions that deliver innovation and value to new users.

Rob Randelman, President, Ocean Optics

We’re very excited about the future of photonics right now. If I could put a sign up outside our headquarters saying ‘Solar power testing equipment sold here’, I’d have a queue round the block. Healthcare is also a growing market at the moment. Sure, there are certain markets that are hurting, such as semiconductors, but there are plenty of bright spots too. Geographically, we’re finding plenty of business in Latin America, which is a region largely unaffected by the economic crisis, since consumer credit has never been prevalent there.

Like everything else, demand for photonics will focus on products being smaller, better and easier to use. We are on the verge of a huge step-change facilitated by photonics, in the same way that integrated circuits revolutionised electronics a few years back. The industrialisation of photonics – that is, its appearance in everyday life, in our homes, healthcare and so on – is only a matter of time; the timeline gets shorter each month.

Photonics is an industry of constant innovation, in a way that no other industry I’ve worked in has been. At every trade show, you can find new companies doing something different. Also, education and awareness of the potential of photonics to solve problems is getting better; this is best shown by photonics moving out of the ‘lab’ and into more mainstream industrial application.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints that customers just aren’t buying at the moment. That’s not true; it’s just that different people are buying and you have to go out and find those markets.

Lastly, I believe there are only two things that matter for the future of photonics – innovation and marketing. Innovation can be defined as the useful application of creativity, whereas marketing is absolutely necessary to ensure potential customers know what you’ve dreamed up. My belief is that if a company can do those things well, they will be successful.

It’s a great time for innovation at the moment. Engineers laid off by larger companies are being forced to start up on their own; start-ups breed innovation, and my guess is that there should be plenty of new and exciting products in the months and years ahead to amaze us all.

Gary Wagner, President, Ophir-Spiricon

Congratulations Electro Optics on your 200th issue. This is a great time to stop and reflect on how photonics has improved our lives and what’s coming our way in the future. We have only scratched the surface when it comes to harnessing optoelectronics and its ability to better our lives. Especially in today’s economic climate, it’s easy to see the world as half empty and forget that we are in the midst of a number of exciting photonic revolutions!

The need for renewable energy sources has brought a lot of attention to the area of solar energy. Even with our current economy, developments in the area of photovoltaic devices are accelerating. The financial opportunities are huge, and I predict that we won’t see a slowdown in these developments for some time as technical breakthroughs continue to surface.

Another important development in the area of photonics is the generation and practical applications of terahertz radiation. Expectations for terahertz in homeland security and materials identification are staggering, and multi-billion dollar companies are in the making. Today’s advances centre on generating sufficient quantity and power in terahertz generators. We’ve been looking at this phenomenon in the making from the inside-out. As in all rapid growth markets, having the tools to explore and analyse new concepts are essential for the scientists. So we continue to see innovations in such devices as camera arrays.

Just prior to the economic slowdown, we were seeing explosive growth in aesthetic applications. Once discretionary spending re-emerges, we’ll see this trend continue. Most people want to look good and are willing to invest… in everything from removing skin blemishes and tattoos to unwanted hair. This is a high growth area as the population continues to focus on personal appearance as it ages.

Laurence Devereux, Exhibition Director, Photonex

There are plenty of areas within photonics that provide us with reasons to be cheerful. The vision and imaging markets have been a real driving force in recent years, no less so in these tough times, as within the industrial setting, machine vision can help save costs by reducing personnel required in processes, as well as reducing mistakes. Imaging technology is also increasingly being used in remote sensing for security and surveillance and, in an age of heightened threats, this means there are will be opportunities out there for many years to come. These applications and the many others in defence and aerospace drive a strong demand for cameras, lenses and all of the sub-components such as emitters and detectors.

Many photonic instruments have become smaller and cheaper. This is particularly true for spectroscopy, which is a huge area of growth and exemplifies the move towards portability. Mobile, battery-powered spectrometers are enabling non-physicists to take advantage of spectroscopic techniques out in the field and beside the process line, for applications as diverse as the monitoring of crop ripening and chemical analysis. Also, it is heartening to note that industries such as food and chemistry are those that are least affected by the current economic downturn, so this growth should continue in the months and years ahead and should be treated as a good ‘target’ for our industry.

In the UK, the photonics industry is concentrating on what it does best: the ability to innovate at a faster pace than its competitors. It still leads the world in high-value instrumentation and equipment. More recently it is showing itself to be rather good at lasers, and it is the home of many young high growth-rate laser companies.

At the local customisation level, there are a whole host of companies that feed into the photonics industry as OEM suppliers. There are many companies supplying specialist components, such as filters and lenses, while others provide the optical coatings; it’s big business.

Judging by the diverse nature of interest of those that exhibit at Photonex, the photonics industry has sufficient diversity and innovation going on to be able to battle through these tough times and emerge all the healthier for it.

Stuart Schoenmann, CEO, CVI Melles Griot

The applications of photonics are ubiquitous. If one were to think about everything we do on a daily basis, the touch-points between the use of a photon and what we do is literally astounding. And, every year, it seems the number of applications increases at a near-exponential rate.

Photonic technologies are generally greener than the incumbent technologies. Laser material processing systems utilise less energy, are more accurate, have higher resolution, and often produce less consumable waste in the manufacturing process.

Photonic technologies in the medical field are improving health care every day by enabling other technologies, processes, and reducing costs over older procedures. Cardiac care has changed radically with the adoption of the stent to replace traditional by-pass surgery. Not only are hospital stays shorter, recuperation times shorter, but the costs to the insurance companies (and the profits to hospitals) has changed an order of magnitude and revolutionised this segment of the medical industry.

Security can be enhanced through the use of photonics. From crash-avoidance systems in our cars, to bird-avoidance systems employed at airports, to fighting Somalian pirates, vision systems enable us to be safer on land, in the air, and on the seas.

The challenges for manufacturers, suppliers, and engineers in our photonic industries are actually age-old manufacturing problems: how to create flexible manufacturing systems – capable of handling a large mix of products, able to adapt to changing business needs, and able to adapt to global economic conditions; minimising inventories; reducing lead-times; delighting customers; and all while trying to create growing companies that generate opportunities for employees, shareholders, and local communities.

We have found opportunities for continuous improvement by focusing on manufacturing. We test our assumptions and find new steps in which we can reduce cycle times, reduce waste, and improve yields nearly every day.

Scott Griffin, Director, Sales and Marketing, Northrop Grumman, Synoptics Division

Our company is fortunate in that it has a diverse range of industries and customers. We’ve certainly been impacted by the current economic climate, but our involvement in certain sectors – and in particular military and defence – has helped. It is notable that a year ago, military represented 18 per cent of our business; this year, it’s 43 per cent, and that’s largely due to the downturn in industrial and medical applications. In the case of the latter, there has been a rapid drop in anything to do with elective medical procedures, such as those for aesthetic reasons.

The military market will continue to be a positive one for the photonics industry. The US has announced its anticipated defence budget for 2010, and there are still ongoing conflicts around the world that depend on the technology advantages that photonics can bring.

Economic conditions such as these often mean a period of consolidation, but that doesn’t appear to have happened to a great extent to date. It would be no surprise, though, if there were some significant mergers and acquisitions before the market recovers As a supplier of crystals, we have customers that are continuing to buy even at this time, as they are keen to maintain a programme of product development during the downturn. Continued investment in R&D will be necessary for any photonics company that wants to take advantage of the market when it recovers.

Indeed, in these uncertain times, it is vital for a company like ours to work closely with our customers to find solutions that suit us both – from a financial point of view as much as from a technical point of view.

We are already beginning to see signs of recovery. It’s nothing to get too excited about yet, but we have seen some upturn in the medical market – even in aesthetics – and that can only be seen as positive.

Claudia Sixl, Exhibition Group Director, Laser World of Photonics

Energy resources, environmental aspects, health and security – the challenges of modern times are closely linked to optical technologies. In many areas the application of optical technologies has already become a matter of routine. Others are still in development, and in a few years I am sure there will be areas of application we do not even know about today.

The technology demonstrates the impact of innovations that are based on research and development, and on the transfer of knowledge between the scientific community and industry experts. These innovations initiate growth in many fields of industry. The prerequisites are promoting research, integrating research and industry in a structured way and raising an awareness of policymakers for the potential of optical technologies. The result will be growth within this technology, as well as in all branches that benefit from the applications adopted, and thus another step towards the ‘bright future’ of optical technologies.

Trade magazines like Electro Optics and their websites play an essential role in moving towards this future. They provide the industry with all the necessary information, present future trends, and their websites are an indispensable source of up-to-date news from the industry.

Beginning with the first Laser World of Photonics event in 1973, this trade show has also served as a platform that facilitates networking, transfer of know-how and the development of new ideas and projects within optical technologies. Up to the present day, the conference held in parallel to the show continues to be the worldwide meeting place for the scientific elite, where Nobel Prize winners and leading scientists can mingle and discuss the latest research results with industry experts.

We are very proud to serve this industry.

Willi Weder, Chairman, WZW Optic

Defence represents our fastest growing market sector currently, up from 40 per cent of our annual turnover last year to 80 per cent now. This is largely because public money tends to be more readily available to boost the economy.

Another major market is the consumer medical sector, which is growing rapidly. Perhaps these tougher times are causing more people to fall ill! Because of the precision and reliability required, it is a relatively stable market that does not suffer too much from competition from Asia, where reliability in particular can be an issue.

In the next couple of years, there are likely to be a number of consolidations and company mergers. Although this will mean tough times for some companies, it will also mean that knowledge and expertise will be consolidated and concentrated within fewer companies. At this point, we predict there will be a period of strong growth towards a bright future for photonics – and, in particular, involving the integration of optics and electronics.

Lastly, security is becoming more and more important to everybody, and this will provide plenty of opportunity for photonic innovation.

Dr Peter Eggl, Managing Director, Hamamatsu Photonics Deutschland

Throughout the history of our company, dating back to 1953, we have always been developing and implementing new photonic technologies. Even in these challenging times, we continue to invest annually in excess of 100 million US dollars on basic R&D. Our technology is finding use today in medical and environmental equipment, high energy physics research, automotive, security and industrial systems, to name but a few application areas. The use of photonic technology in all of these markets is set to greatly increase in years to come.

One of the next big steps in photonics technology will be the integration of semiconductor sensor (and emitter), optics, micro-electromechanical systems (MEMs) and nanotechnology, onto a single platform (typically silicon substrates).

In the medical field, personalised medicine and point-of-care diagnosis will employ novel optical techniques in the future to greatly enhance personal health care. Medical research will utilise more functional and molecular imaging technologies, such as fluorescence imaging, utilising EM-CCD technology, and PET (positron emission tomography), utilising MPPC (Geiger mode silicon technology). For diagnosis techniques like OCT (optical coherence tomography) and SERS (surface enhanced Raman spectrometry) will utilise photonic technologies such APS CMOS, BTCCD and InGaAs image sensors.

In environmental monitoring, new spectroscopic solutions and infrared lasers, so called QCLs (quantum cascade lasers), will be used to monitor atmospheric emissions from more or less all industrial processes, and eventually they will find use in even in automotive and consumer markets. Today, everyday consumer products are already beginning to utilise optical sensors to save energy, and our industry is at the forefront in the quest to realise global targets for CO2 reduction. Long-term, photonics is working to provide future green energy sources: laser nuclear fusion would utilise high power laser sources to provide abundant, pollution-free energy.

We have an enormous responsibility to continue our research efforts to help provide the knowledge that can enable others, both inside and outside of our company, to develop future solutions based on photonic technologies for the benefit of all.