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Light technologies to drive industrial Europe, says Photonics21 president

Following the Photonics21 annual meeting in Brussels at the end of May,
Michael Mertin, the president of Photonics21 and CEO of Jenoptik, sets out the role for photonics in growing Europe's economy

The re-industrialisation of the European economy has been identified as a major priority to bring growth and jobs back to Europe. Europe aims to derive 20 per cent of its GPD from industrial output by 2020, showing that industrial value creation is a cornerstone for Europe’s economy. The recently launched Juncker Investment Package (€315 billion over the next three years) supports this objective as it intends to set up strategic innovation hubs to boost future growth in Europe.

These are highly ambitious tasks. We need to ensure that the EU strengthens innovation in industry sectors by creating an appropriate framework to encourage the new industries of tomorrow, like the photonics industry and its enabling role in the transformation of many industrial processes, products and applications.

Photonics encapsulates all technologies of emitting, detecting, and processing light, ranging from future oriented machinery and system components for modern industrial production processes such as lasers, to common everyday items such as domestic lighting. Today, the European photonics industry has a market size of about €70 billion and has created around 370,000 jobs – which is exactly why the European Commission designated photonics as one of the key enabling technologies within Horizon 2020.

Photonics has the potential to provide solutions within five mega-trends: Firstly, industrial automation has led to a growing demand for customisation and will play an even more dominant role in the future. In order to meet that demand, laser-powered applications are required to test unique product specifications, as well as for the integration of sophisticated monitoring systems based on intelligent photonic sensing methods.

Photonics also represents the backbone of the Digital Agenda of Europe that, among other things, enables Europe’s businesses to take advantage of the second mega-trend, connectivity. This includes the benefits of the big data revolution, cloud computing, and cutting-edge technology, which are all prerequisites in order to implement the concept of advanced manufacturing.

Intelligent infrastructures build the core of sustainable cities to provide clean water, green energy, and smart facility management, which are essential elements of the third mega-trend, urbanisation. Photonics technologies such as solid state lighting and organic photovoltaics allow for significant energy savings and will contribute to the further development of smart cities.

Demographic change, and healthcare and life-sciences are two other mega-trends to which biophotonic technologies can contribute solutions. This would be to address both existing and future challenges, such as in improved diagnostics and therapy, and in the establishment of new products and markets needed in an ageing society.

For all this to happen, Europe needs to create an industrial-friendly environment where private investments will accelerate the innovation and technology-driven global economy. This includes creating free global trade, pivoting toward a market economy, and reducing the amount of regulations. These three elements, however, can currently be identified as the main roadblocks that force the industry to either hit the brakes or deviate from its original route instead of picking up speed. It is therefore necessary to remove such roadblocks and to build bridges between academic innovation and industrial applications and investments.

Public funding of research and development also plays a crucial role, specifically when it supports application-oriented, problem-solving research. A greater acceptance of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) will help overcome gaps between innovation and the market. With regards to the photonics industry, the Photonics PPP under Horizon 2020 will play a strategic role in achieving our goals and will help European photonics companies to strengthen their competitive advantage.

As a leading European body, Photonics21 closely cooperates with the European Commission to define the photonics research and innovation roadmap for the Photonics PPP programme. The main objective of this €700 million programme is to increase Europe’s market share in the successful invention and production of goods – an area still dominated by the USA and Asia – and thereby overcome the fact that Europe’s strength so far is mainly located in developing technical advantages. The photonics community defined the strategic research and innovation roadmap towards 2020 in an industry-driven bottom-up process. Those priorities will now be implemented in the Photonics PPP work programme.

Moving forward, we will work closely with the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Member States – and also with other related industries to increase industrial output by 2020. All monetary, political and intellectual resources need to be allocated in a smarter way to foster innovations and create an innovation-friendly environment for the industry and its investors. The photonics industry is ready to pick up speed and play its part in promoting Europe’s prosperity, growth, and industrial future.

About the author

Michael Mertin has been president and CEO of Jenoptik since July 2007. He was elected president of the European technology platform, Photonics21, which represents the European photonics community, in November 2012 and re-elected for a further two-year term in November 2014. The Photonics21 annual meeting took place in Brussels from 28 to 29 May.