Strategy for success

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The UK government's Department of Trade and Industry has developed a UK Photonics Strategy. Nick Morris attended the launch

In mid-July the UK government's Department of Trade and Industry launched the UK Photonics Strategy. According to a report released at the launch, titled Photonics: A UK Strategy for success - Painting a bright future, the initiative aims to co-ordinate a coherent national strategy for developing and exploiting photonics and optoelectronics in the UK. The report was put together over a series of consultation events, workshops, and interviews with companies held during the previous year. The report highlights five possible areas for growth of the UK photonics industry: communications; life sciences; security; lighting and energy; and industry.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Science and Technology, opened the meeting with a brief summary of where the worldwide industry stands today, and the UK's place in it. He said: 'In a world of rapidly shrinking resources, photonics is light on physical resources, light on energy and heavy on delivery - in a vast area of applications. It embraces most scientific disciplines, and it opens the door to huge markets all over the world.

'The worldwide market for photonics components and enabled products in 2004 was worth almost £150bn. Some forecasts estimate that the market will expand to £300bn by 2015, with an average growth rate approaching 10 per cent. The US Optoelectronics Industry Development Association suggests $1 trillion by 2015 - that's £600bn.'

In his speech the Minister also summed up the key aims of the strategy: 'A major objective has been to increase the amount of knowledge transfer from our science and engineering base.'

Following Lord Sainsbury's speech, Ian Vance of Amazing Communications, and chair of the Photonics Strategy Group, gave a presentation discussing the various findings gathered during the consultation exercise that preceded the writing of the report. In all, seven consultation workshops were held between October 2005 and January 2006, where representatives from industry were invited to give their opinions on a range of issues that they considered to be important for the industry as a whole. Key observations gathered during these meetings include: that the UK photonics industry is a widely-varied sector, with no central organisation; the UK has a very strong research base in photonics, with some key discoveries, such as fibre amplifiers, being made in the UK; and most of the enterprises that make up the UK industry are small- to medium-sized businesses, with fewer than 30 employees.

Once Vance had set the background to the strategy, Geoff Archenhold, a member of the Photonics Strategy Group, presented the key recommendations of the report. These include: establishing an industry/government strategic body to act as the UK voice for photonics and to provide a strategic direction to all UK photonic stakeholders; ensuring there is a continuing supply of well-trained, highly-skilled staff for the photonics industry; encouraging so-called Knowledge Transfer Networks to map UK strengths against emerging market opportunities; raising the profile of the UK photonics industry; ensuring that the UK remains an attractive location to support existing photonics activities and to attract global photonics organisations; and trying to identify future markets. The group now plans to consult further to try to realise how these recommendations can be implemented.

Key to enhancing the cutting edge of the British photonics industry, according to the authors of the report, is enhancing communication between academic research centres and industry. The DTI believes that the best way to achieve this is to set up Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) to formalise the relationships between academia and industry. Julian Jones, from the UK Consortium for Photonics and Optics and Heriot-Watt University, outlined the shape of the new photonics KTN, and how it could benefit members through advice and support for business, and how it could benefit the industry as a whole by giving a single, coherent forum and voice for industry-wide concerns. Jones also described a new conference and exhibition that is being set up to support the activities of the new KTN, but the representatives of the Photonic Strategy Group were unwilling to discuss how this new show might fit into the calendar alongside and perhaps in competition to, more established industry-focussed exhibitions and conferences. Members of the panel also seemed unsure of how the UK Photonics Strategy fits into the recently launched Photonics21 agenda, a Europe-wide strategy being co-ordinated by the European Commission.

Chris Williams, network director of the UK Displays and Lighting KTN gave a presentation on real-world benefits that can be gained from an up-and-running KTN. He pointed out that one of the key advantages to the network was giving businesses that might not usually talk to each other a chance to communicate, and giving smaller companies a greater degree of recognition. The Displays KTN also has direct links with academia, with a funded base at Swansea University in Wales, and a 'passive' (non-funded) base at Dundee in Scotland.

Discussing the launch of the UK Photonics Strategy, Glen Barrowman, from the Photonics Cluster (UK), said: 'The Photonics Cluster (UK) wholeheartedly supports the DTI and the Technology Board in the development of Photonics: A UK Strategy for Success. The areas identified within the UK with significant strengths and opportunities for industrial exploitation are broadly consistent with our own experiences at the Cluster. Within the Cluster membership we have sought to develop Special Interest Groups to support similar key industry areas. I believe that the strategy is well directed, and with the recent launch of the Photonics KTN the foundation is in place to support the foundation document.'

However, some industry representatives were slightly cautious in welcoming the creation of the new Photonics KTN. Don Braggins, of the UK Industrial Vision Association, said: 'We now have a UK photonics strategy, embracing solid state displays and lighting, lasers, fibre optics, and imaging, and a Photonics KTN which will concentrate on topics such as lasers and fibre optics, but not solid state displays and lighting, or, we assume, imaging. This does not mean that the topics need to be compartmentalised and never talk to each other - far from it. All the KTNs involved in the broad field of photonics need to communicate with one another.'

When asked to comment on the new UK Photonics Strategy, Eugene Arthurs, executive director of SPIE, said: 'This is a very positive development for photonics in the UK. Many important developments in photonics, and many research advances, came from UK laboratories. Going back, these include: Allen's early work on semiconductor emitters; Kao with fibre optics; fibre amplifiers; Kerr cell modelocking; OLEDs; photonics crystals; and negative index materials. These all come to mind as hugely significant. But one has to ask where is the industry? Where is the economic outcome from all this creativity?

'Yes, there are world-leading companies: Cambridge Display Technology, Andor Technology, IQE, Gooch & Housego, SPI, and Farfield Scientific come immediately to mind in the commercial sector and, on a different scale, QinetiQ, Serco Group, Smiths Detection Industries and BAE in the defence segment, with e2v straddling both. There are also very promising emerging companies such as Enfis and Cascade. But as the DTI study of the field notes, there are many companies in the UK that are “sub-critical” - my words not theirs. To my mind the reality has not matched the potential economic outcomes from the world-class research.

'SPIE has held or supported many events in the UK, and we are well aware of the contributions of UK-based or trained scientists and engineers at our meetings throughout the world and their ubiquity in our digital library. The SPIE president for 2007 is from the UK. The quantity and quality of work in the UK in many sectors, notably security and defence, astronomical instrumentation and the life sciences should have led to high value IP for the UK. I see this DTI initiative as an important step to realising this potential.

'I have long admired the efforts in Scotland and latterly Wales, where SPIE Europe is located, to organise and stimulate the research to market, but this new, more comprehensive effort embracing all the UK regions is very timely for a multitude of reasons. The importance of photonics is much more apparent to those of us who are aware of the advantages of the photon, those who see the pervasive impact of optics and photonics in our lives and our quality of life. I see the recognition worldwide that science and technology is going to be key to future economic status; to standards of living. Projected economic outcomes are, whether we like it or not, increasingly influencing science funding. The global investments in optics and photonics are impressive and focused. The UK needs similar targeted investment in innovation in photonics. It needs a “living strategy”, and better focus on end markets, to secure the rewards of the strong legacy in the science and to make the most of the comprehensive, but fragmented infrastructure. For the science base, this is also the way forward to continuing global leadership in important areas of this key scientific field. I welcome this significant step by the DTI.'