Industry 4.0 EU project set to create 750 photonics jobs and boost revenues by €700m

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An innovation hub designed to help SMEs become intelligent digital businesses by taking advantage of photonics-based technologies looks set to create 750 new hi-tech jobs over the next four years, having secured €10 million from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.

Aiming to support more than 100 light-based product innovations over the next four years, the programme - called Actphast 4.0 - will leverage the research and innovation (R&I) spend of the companies involved by 2.8 times, to generate over €700 million in increased company revenues and create 750 new jobs across Europe.

Short for ‘Accelerating photonics innovation for SME’s: a one stop-shop-incubator’, Actphast 4.0 will provide companies that would not normally use optics or photonics in their products, as well as those that are already established within the photonics industry, with bespoke prototyping solutions, tailoring their new product innovation to be fit for purpose in the modern digital economy. 

In order to develop photonic-enhanced products, a complex process requiring one or more expensive technology supply chains, including design, prototyping, characterisation, manufacturing and testing, packaging and integration needs to be followed. However, access to scaling-up facilities such as pilot lines, or companies who will take up the low-cost mass manufacturing of the new product can be difficult to find.

'The majority of SMEs today do not have access to experts in the business and technical aspects of innovating with photonics that can work continuously with them to incubate their particular innovation,' central outreach coordinator, Peter Doyle said. 

'The highly-skilled people that support the execution of the innovation with the most advanced photonics technology platforms are often out of reach to a small business. SMEs may not be able to take the financial risk to recruit these experts or invest in diverse technological facilities that are crucial in photonics-driven innovation processes,' said Doyle.

Actphast 4.0 makes this cutting-edge technology and expertise available in a subsidised format to any European company – with a particular emphasis on SMEs – for the purposes of collaborating on photonics innovation projects which will have a substantial impact on the companies’ business growth in terms of new revenues and job creation.

The new programme follows on from its predecessor, Actphast, which has supported more than 100 companies and created over 700 new jobs since 2013, by providing advanced light-based solutions to knowledge-intensive companies such as Holoxica, (medical hologram imaging), LazerSport (augmented reality bike helmets) and Tomra (food sorting machines).

Looking to go further by creating 750 jobs over the next four years, Actphast 4.0 will make the transition from its current state as an access centre for photonics technologies, to a full-service photonics innovation incubator for European SMEs. It differs from its predecessor in that it is an incubator for rapid prototyping of an already developed product concept that offers parallel progression of financing and business go-to-market planning. 

'Actphast 4.0 is a game-changer in revitalising European manufacturing, and as one of the vital catalysts to the digitisation of European industry. Actphast 4.0 offers new opportunities to boost photonics innovation in Europe at a scale and with a leveraging factor that is unprecedented,' said professor Hugo Thienpont, project coordinator and managing director of the Brussels Photonics Team (BPHOT) at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, which is where the project is being coordinated.

'The coaching support services for SMEs we offer are a vital complementary action running alongside the deep innovation interventions. We make sure that the companies are fully “primed” before, during and after they engage with Actphast 4.0 on innovation projects related to their product so they can accelerate on all fronts towards commercial success,' Thienpont added.

One SME having gone through the Actphast process is Holoxica, a hi-tech company specialising in holographic 3D static images and video displays. CEO Dr Javid Khan explained:

'Actphast provided us with expertise in the development of our key component which is a holographic optical element. We needed support and ways to develop our next gen display. Actphast enabled us through their network to access this technology.

'The major benefits are partnerships - I would recommend it to high-tech SMEs who need to solve very specific problems in optics and photonics,' Dr Khan said.