FEATURE

New European opportunities

The expansion of the EU last year made dealing with many Eastern European countries even easier - and photonics is an industry taking full advantage, according to Tim Gillett

Photonics in Eastern Europe has been a growth industry in recent years - not least since a succession of countries joined the European Union in 2004.

While several photonics companies in the region have been in existence for decades - the Czech Republic's Crytur, for example, was formed some 60 years ago - many report that international business has picked up strongly since their home countries joined the EU. The year 2004 saw the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia join the European Union.

International links have long been important for Eastern European photonics companies. Crytur's Jan Tous, who is responsible for imaging systems within the company, tells Electro Optics that the company works in co-operation with more than 20 universities worldwide, as well as carrying out research in-house.

He explains: 'Exporting to a wide variety of overseas destinations including the United States, Israel, Japan, France, Germany and Sweden, Crytur has achieved production growth of about 15 to 20 per cent in recent years. This development has accelerated even more since the Czech Republic joined the EU.'

Foreign markets are essential for many firms in this part of the world - largely because domestic markets are small. Lithuania's EKSPLA, for example, operates in a country that has just 3.5 million residents and whose capital city, Vilnius, is home to just 500,000 people.

EKSPLA's commercial director Raimondas Kondrotas says: 'Our customers are well-distributed around the globe, but there is a concentration in the US market and also within the EU. That said, the market is certainly opening up in Lithuania - there is now a better infrastructure and there are funds available for upgrading R&D institutions.

'There has certainly been lots of activity over the past two years, since 2004, with a marked growth in other markets close to us. The future is very difficult to predict in this industry - especially in this region, where it has developed so fast in recent years but, based on the last couple of years, which have been very positive for us, the future is looking bright.'

Slovenia has seen similar developments since 2004, according to Optotek's president Boris Vedlin.

He tells Electro Optics: 'Even if it is not the case in the UK, most industries in Slovenia are extremely positive about joining the EU. We have only a very small photonics market at home and we see ourselves as being on the very fringe of Europe, so EU membership has certainly been a very positive experience. While the United States and several Asian territories are important for us, Germany, France and other European countries represent the major part of our client base.'

While Optotek's products are mainly related to medical processes, one major growth area for the company is in the measurement of black carbon and other organic substances in the atmosphere, in relation to environmental applications. Our products in this sphere, which have been developed with Magee Scientific, in Berkeley, California, have been used at the United States base on Antarctica.

China is also showing signs of becoming a very important territory for Optotek, Vedlin says. The country is moving fast to fight environmental damage being caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and Optotek recently achieved a government standard to supply our equipment to China, leading to a significant number of orders.

If there was any doubt about the importance of joining the EU for photonics companies in Eastern Europe, one need look no further that Russia, where one company says it is suffering in comparison to those states that joined the European Union in 1994.

Grigory Kropotovis is general manager of St Petersburg-based TYDEX, which produces optical components such as lenses, mirrors and windows. He says that, though the company has 98 customers in 25 countries - with a strong bias towards the United States and Germany - it would no doubt benefit from the same trading conditions as experienced in EU states.

Kropotov concludes: 'We have definitely suffered due to the fact that companies in the EU don't have import taxes - we have to pay 20 per cent - and customs taxes. In addition, delivery times are less within the EU, so we have to be faster on our feet. To achieve this we have to employ more staff, which means that out expenses are higher and, consequently, our profits are smaller.'