UK photonics £12.9bn industry remains largely unacknowledged, report says

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UK photonics manufacturing remains a largely hidden industry despite contributing £12.9 billion per year to the economy and underpinning most of the products and services used on a daily basis, a recent report remarks.

The report, entitled 'UK Photonics: The Hidden Economic Engine' was released by the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), the Future Photonics Hub and the Photonics Leadership Group (PLG) on 16 May, expanding on figures reported in 2017.

Technologies based on generating, manipulating and detecting light, known as photonics, are vital to a huge range of applications which impact on virtually all aspects of everyday life.

Optical fibres form the physical infrastructure which powers the internet, LEDs deliver efficient and robust lighting solutions for signage, illumination and high-performance displays, lasers cut, mark and measure all manner of materials in the manufacturing of items ranging from aeroplanes to food – simply put, photonics is everywhere.

However, despite its ubiquity, the seamless functionality provided by photonics, working away inside products, means that its crucial role often remains unseen and unacknowledged.

Nevertheless, photonics represents a significant UK industry, employing over 65,000 people and with the average employee generating £62,000 gross value added (GVA) for the UK economy each year. The UK is amongst Europe’s largest photonics manufacturers, the largest being Germany (40 per cent), sitting alongside France and the Netherlands in contributing between 9 and 14 per cent of the total €69 billion (£60 billion) European photonics output (figures taken from Photonics21, 2017).

Furthermore, 75 per cent of UK photonics manufacturing output is exported, one of the highest export fractions of any UK manufacturing industry.

UK photonics will continue to deliver essential and life-changing functionality for all in the near future. Photonics is critical to realising each of the four Grand Challenges identified in the Government’s Industrial Strategy (growing the AI- and data-driven economy, clean growth, future of mobility, and ageing society).

Technologies such as a faster, more secure internet, reliable, accurate sensors for making autonomous vehicles safe, digital lasers for increasing productivity in manufacturing and non-invasive, user-friendly healthcare tools to reduce the load on hospitals and primary care services all depend on photonics. The Challenges therefore present a major opportunity for UK photonics to come to the fore, demonstrating its strength in making these solutions a reality.