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Tomorrow's market leaders

Warren Clark asks leading industry figures about emerging markets in terms of geography, technology and applications

It is notoriously difficult to predict what might be the ‘next big thing’ – if it were that easy, we’d all be rich from stock market speculation. Within the photonics industry, though, there are always signs that certain parts of the market may be growing faster than others. It may be that certain parts of the world have switched on to the benefits of employing photonics, or that a particular technology sector has advanced to such a degree that its products become very attractive. Moreover, there may be emerging applications where photonics is being used to replace other technologies, providing an instant replacement market.

 

Geography

It’s almost impossible to discuss emerging markets at the moment without mentioning China. Dave Clark, director of strategic marketing for the industrial segment of Newport/Spectra Physics, says: ‘From a geographical point of view, there is a major shift to Asia. Nations there are gaining speed, both as manufacturers of optical components and as users. Domestic manufacturing in China has grown tremendously in the past few years, with some companies, such as Hans Laser, growing so fast that they have actually gone public. Such companies have not been exporting much until now, largely because their home market was growing so fast and because export markets were more demanding in terms of product quality and performance. However, this is changing and the Asian-made products are rapidly improving and starting to look towards export markets.

‘That said, the market in China is good for us too. Many customers there are very proud to say they have a “US laser” inside their system; it is seen as a badge of quality and reliability. This success has prompted us to open a factory there and we believe there is huge market potential for our products in Asia. Other geographical areas of growth for us are Brazil and India, both of which have growing economies and have an increasing interest in areas such as materials processing and industrial lasers.’

Stuart Sendall, new business development director at Pacer, agrees that China is the country to watch: ‘We continue to monitor developments in China. Recently, as a nation, they seem to be moving into higher quality, high-end photonic components – away from the traditional low-end, high-volume markets.’

Chris Bridle, European sales manager at CVI Technical Optics, believes there is still plenty of opportunity closer to home: ‘CVI has been growing its business in Europe significantly over the past three years or so, so for us, growth areas have included Germany, Italy and France. We have also been doing a big push into the lesser known countries, such as Turkey, Lithuania, Greece and Poland. We’ve met considerable success there, both through catalogue sales and some new OEM contacts.’

‘The most recent entrants to the EU are also providing good business for us. We think this is largely down to the university research market in these countries, which is taking advantage of the EU research grants it can now access. Also, many industrial manufacturers are taking advantage of the well-educated workforce that exists in Eastern Europe and are choosing to set up new facilities over there. We also believe Israel and India hold big potential for us.’

Gary Colquhoun, responsible for European Industrial Development for SPIE Europe, adds: ‘Established as being among Europe’s leading innovative countries, we see a growing number of new technology companies targeting early adopters of photonic technologies across Scandinavia.’

 

Technology

‘In terms of technology, component prices are coming down, while power, reliability and lifetime are all going up,’ says Newport’s Dave Clark. ‘This means that products can be built in a number of different new architectures. In the same vein, component manufacturers are now preparing for mass production as photonic products move into the mainstream.’ Clark also recognises the buzz around fibre lasers, but is cautious over just how much growth will actually be realised. ‘While they do satisfy a lot of applications, I think the predictions of domination are somewhat over the top,’ he says. ‘Fibre lasers will have a very solid future, and we have invested heavily in them, but ultimately we believe they will coexist with other established and emerging technologies.

Pacer’s Stuart Sendall says: ‘Essentially, we see significant growth in three areas: solid-state lighting, fibre lasers and gas detection.

‘The advances in LED technology mean solid-state lighting is available with greater brightness, higher efficiency and better thermal management. Together, this means that there are far more applications opening up for this type of lighting. For example, security is becoming a key application for photonics across the board, and LEDs are having an impact here in security lighting and camera illumination.

‘We are definitely seeing more traction in fibre lasers. They offer a great deal of versatility and flexibility. Indeed, we have a product on the horizon that is fully adjustable and fully programmable, meaning that just one fibre laser can replace several different lasers in one system.

‘Gas detector technology has also moved on and – together with increased environmental concerns – this means a significant growth market, from domestic gas detectors right up to top-end industrial units, such as those used to monitor jet engine emissions. The improved technology means that such detectors are able to operate at higher temperatures.

Helmut Kessler, general manager at CVI Technical Optics, agrees that fibre lasers are a key growing market sector: ‘Fibre lasers are growing very fast; indeed, we have now devoted an entire new chapter in our catalogue to them. There’s also growth in the Ti:Sapphire market, as well as high-power polarisers for blue light – this is important in the high definition DVD market. We also believe lidar technology is set to grow, particularly as it has environmental applications, such as monitoring pollutants in the atmosphere or in factory emissions, for example.’

Applications

Photonics has always been a technology in search of an application, but that may be changing. More and more industries and applications are seeing the benefits of using lasers, as Newport’s Dave Clark says: ‘New application areas are opening up, particularly in microelectronics. Manufacturers are always looking to bring down the cost of manufacturing, especially in competitive industries like flat panel displays. The lower cost and increased flexibility that manufacturing with lasers provides means they are now being used in many steps in the manufacturing process for displays such as for annealing of TFTs, repairing the array, ablating the ITO coatings, marking the glass substrate, cutting and so on. There is also growth in the photovoltaic market, where lasers are used in a multitude of applications to improve the efficiency of silicon cells.

‘Beyond microelectronics, other growth areas are in the medical market, both in the manufacture of medical devices and in the use of lasers for treatment and diagnostics. Linked to this is the bioinstrumentation market, where there is increased use of lasers in the fields of cytometry, for example.’

CVI’s Chris Bridle also believes the medical sector has potential for growth: ‘It is continuing its steady growth in areas such as confocal microscopy for cell analysis, as well as beauty therapy. We are also seeing a trend towards larger optics for applications such as solar astronomy.’

As further evidence of the acceptance of photonics technology in medical markets, SPIE’s Gary Colquhoun confirms a trend: ‘Photonics has moved on from the research laboratory and is now integrated in mainstream healthcare. Imaging techniques are now a vital component of cost effective diagnosis and monitoring throughout the care cycle.

‘There is also tremendous opportunity in photodynamic therapy, which has emerged as a compelling, non-invasive and potentially effective way of actively using light to heal or to release medicine on target. SPIE BiOS continues to grow, which is a strong indicator of today’s activity and fertile ground for tomorrow’s breakthroughs.’

Pacer’s Stuart Sendall says: ‘One unusual area where photonics is starting to make an impact is in gaming. The next generation of gaming consoles are looking to use 3D imaging techniques in their controllers – like a more advanced version of the recently-launched Nintendo Wii controller.’

While opinions on where tomorrow’s markets may be for photonics, one common theme is abundantly clear from all the comments made – that photonics does indeed have a bright future.