The tomorrow people

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The question of where the next generation of scientists and engineers is coming from continues to concern some among photonics. Greg Blackman investigates

The health of the photonics sector relies on a steady stream of graduates finding careers in the marketplace. However, a number of companies have expressed concerns over a potential lack of fresh talent moving into the sector. During a Photonics21 workshop on education and training in June 2008, Augustin Siegel, head of R&D at optical and optoelectronic company Carl Zeiss AG, reported that in Germany 142,900 highly-skilled employees will be needed in the photonics industry by 2015, which equates to an additional 1,000 graduates per year being trained.

Photonics has a strong grounding in engineering and physics, and studying these disciplines at university is the most common route into the photonics market. However, pure photonics Master of Science courses are becoming available, and an MSc programme has recently been set up in Germany, sponsored by companies such as Philips, Carl Zeiss, Osram, and Leica. The European Commission has also established a two-year Erasmus Mundus MSc programme in photonics, which is a collaboration among five leading research and educational institutions in Europe (Ghent University, Belgium; Free University of Brussels, Belgium; St Andrews University, UK; Heriot Watt University, UK; Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden).

The ties between industry and academia are vital for the continued growth of the industry. Fibre Photonics, based in Livingston, Scotland, a provider of optical fibres and fibre systems, has partnered with the University of Strathclyde, Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and the Institute of Photonics in the SPIRIT studentship programme. The scheme has awarded 30 PhD projects thus far and is designed to increase collaboration between Scotland’s research base in chemical sciences and its £3.5bn chemical industry.

Gary Colquhoun, CEO of Fibre Photonics, sees the programme as a strategic priority. ‘Such schemes ensure that the development of human capital and knowledge transfer are at the centre of collaborative funding,’ comments Colquhoun. ‘Companies must innovate to succeed and this can be done in partnership with academia.’ He goes on to point out that cross-disciplinary activity brings the products closer to their application.

Photonics21, a European association of industries and other stakeholders in the field of photonics, is also establishing links between industry and universities through its industrial internship schemes for undergraduates (bachelor’s or master’s degree) and PhD students. Any European company interested in providing an internship can apply to the Photonics21 secretariat, and workshops are held to gather experiences and establish curricula.

Markus Wilkens of the Photonics21 secretariat says internships can be useful: ‘There is usually a good relationship between the trainee and the company offering the internship and the hope is that companies will recruit good students directly from the university.’

Photonics21 also runs a Student Innovation Award in order to promote research in photonics, especially R&D with an industrial impact. The award is open to anyone under the age of 35, with the winner receiving a €5,000 prize, presented at a ceremony during the World of Photonics Congress in Munich on 15 June 2009.

Internships are one way of bridging the gap between industry and academia. David Foulks, general manager of the UK branch of Trumpf, based in Luton, Bedfordshire, feels that, in the UK at least, photonics is fairly well represented by academia. ‘The research coming out of our academic institutes is certainly leading edge and much of it sponsored by our blue chip companies,’ he says. However, Foulks feels that UK OEMs tend to rely on buying in photonics expertise and, as a result limited career opportunities exist for photonics graduates in-house. Graduates, therefore, predominantly remain within the sphere of academic research instead of moving straight into the industrial world.

Correspondingly, most of the new photonics companies in the UK have their roots in science parks and other academic clusters. What started life as purely research-based photonics is often developed into a viable product and commercialised within this framework. SPI Lasers, which is now part of Trumpf, began in this way originating from the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton.

Students are shown Trumpf’s latest sheet metalworking technology as part of an Open House event at the company’s UK branch in Luton, Bedfordshire.

Foulks goes on to make a direct comparison of the situation in the UK with that in Germany. ‘Manufacturers [in Germany] work hand in hand with academia – a good example is Trumpf in Stuttgart. It takes graduates straight from university, enabling them to develop their skills and careers within the manufacturing environment.’

As part of an Open House event, Trumpf UK invited sixth form students from Aylesbury Grammar School and a group of modern apprentices from Barnfield College to view its latest sheet metalworking technology. ‘We wanted to create a fun day during which we explained laser technology and its huge potential. Normally students have little exposure to the manufacturing environment, but we were able to show them that a career in this field is an exciting prospect,’ comments Foulks.

Trumpf UK also has its own apprenticeship-training scheme with Barnfield College. It has been running for approximately 18 months and was introduced to bridge any skills shortage as the company continues to grow. ‘This move was considered vital, as generally there is evidence of a two-generation gap in the number of engineers coming into industry,’ notes Foulks.

SPIE provides funding for 135 student chapters around the world. These groups are managed and run by students involved in optics and photonics at university, and SPIE provides funding for a whole range of activities aimed at improving understanding of the photonics industry. Activities include inviting academic and industry leaders to speak at an event, and site tours of industrial optics facilities, as well as organising workshops and science fairs for pre-university students.

Dirk Fabian, student services lead at SPIE, identifies one of the major problems with recruiting graduates into the photonics industry in the US as its restriction on citizenship: ‘The US has good optics programmes at university level and students travel from all over the world to enrol, but once foreign students have attained their diploma they can’t work for many US companies due to their foreign citizenship,’ he explains.

‘The outreach programmes funded by SPIE are there to help people connect with each other and share ideas, as well as to inspire individuals and promote an understanding of the technology,’ says Fabian. Some of the outreach programmes SPIE helps run are remarkably popular – a student chapter in India hosts 1,500 pre-college students for a single outreach weekend.

Foulks of Trumpf UK feels efforts should be made to include younger children in activities relating to photonics. ‘I’d very much like to see other companies follow suit and join forces with institutes and industry bodies to capture the imagination of younger generations,’ he says.

Colquhoun of Fibre Photonics agrees: ‘I have young children in primary education and they are not alone among their peers in being excited and intrigued by the world around them. On a daily basis, there is some element of science being taught at school but they are rarely told that they are actually doing physics, biology or chemistry. By the time a pupil is embarking on secondary education, there is an unfortunate perception that these subjects are somehow difficult. Somehow, we lose those inquisitive minds.’

Photonics has grown considerably as a market sector and for it to continue to do so the combined efforts of its industry bodies, organisations and research institutes are required to promote career development in the field.