There were mixed views on the future of photonics at the panel discussion held at Photonics West. Defence was 'tough', but not 'dead', China was 'difficult', and 2012 was a record year for mergers and acquisitions within the industry.
Moderated by SPIE's industry and market strategist Stephen Anderson, the panel comprised: Christof Lerner, general manager of Trumpf USA; Linda Smith, president of Ceres Technology Advisors, a company that links photonics companies with potential investors; Dirk Rothweiler, executive vice president, Jenoptik Optical Systems; David Marks, CEO, Qioptiq Photonics; Turan Erdogen, VP of marketing and business development, IDEX Optics and Photonics; Robert Edmund, CEO, Edmund Optics; and Dennis Werth, VP, Newport.
Anderson asked why photonics was doing comparatively well when set against the broader economic situation. Rothweiler believed it was down to the diversity of markets served, and in particular it had been a good year for laser material processing, medical, and industrial metrology. Edmund said that 2012 had been 'pretty flat' after two strong years of growth, while Marks said that while headline defence budgets had been cut, there were still opportunities to be found in countries such as Turkey, Israel and India. Werth said that where there had been a decline in defence spend some of the products, such as IR optics, were finding other applications, such as automotive.
Smith said that there were a record number of mergers and acquisitions within the optics and photonics industry in 2012, and that the majority were led by 'strategic buyers' rather than financial investors. She also said there had been plenty of small-scale investment in start-up companies, although Edmund believed that there were not enough coming through.
From an employment perspective, many of the panellists reported that they were currently hiring, though a paucity of engineering talent meant that it was a struggle to find the right people.
A question from the floor prompted some discussion on China. Werth believed that if one wants to tackle a new territory, 'you need to be there' – in terms of manufacturing, sales and support. For Marks, China was a relatively new market, but he believed it would only get bigger. Edmund warned that it was getting more expensive to operate in China, due to high inflation, and that a high turnover within the workforce made the challenge tougher still.