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UK photonics needs to connect higher up ‘value chain’

29 Oct 2013

EPIC meeting identifies strengths of UK but concludes greater integration and ambition still needed.

Carlos Lee, Director General of EPIC.

Carlos Lee, Director General of EPIC.

The Chairman's Lounge at Coventry City’s Ricoh Arena, although offering a bird’s eye view of the pitch, has not seen very much football action this season as the club has been playing its “home“ games at Northampton due to a rent dispute.

Therefore the club might have been rather pleased that the grand surroundings were put to good use during this month’s Photonex expo and conference, even for the more genteel purpose of deliberating the future of the UK photonics industry.

So it was that on 16 October, Carlos Lee, Director General of the European Photonics Industry Consortium, moderated a discussion with various senior executives from UK photonics as well as consultants and press.

Topics on the agenda included: the economic impact of the UK photonics industry, why UK photonics is thriving in export markets, how and why the UK is attracting foreign inward investment and how to maximise innovation and commercialization.

Lee approached the discussion from an international perspective of how various regions in the world and countries in Europe support their photonics industry. He commented, “The UK, which has historically been strong in manufacturing but then shifted focus to banking decades ago, wants to go back and rebalance the economy to include manufacturing, which it recognizes is imperative to create jobs, create growth, and avoid stagnation.

UK "active in photonics"

”Photonics will certainly play a role as one of the features of this industry is that it comprises a high proportion of small companies, which anticipate a higher recruitment percentage growth than larger companies.“

The UK today claims 1,500 companies active in photonics with a direct employment of 70,000 people and annual production output of £10.5 billion. This represents about 20% of Europe’s total and the UK expertise is well balanced, said Lee, with a distribution based on employment of optical systems (20%), medical (19%), production (15%) and defense (10%).

Prof. Mark Sims of UK Space Research Centre.

Prof. Mark Sims of UK Space Research Centre.

The UK has particular expertise in various fields such as space, life sciences, defense, sensing (in food, security and gas sectors), as well as 3D advanced manufacturing. A clear sign of the expertise in the UK in these sectors are the notable recent industry acquisitions such as SPI Lasers by Trumpf, CIP Technologies by Huawei, Barr & Stroud by Thales, Microlase Optical by Coherent among others.

While governments need to ensure a supportive legal and regulatory framework for companies to blossom, Anke Lohmann, Director of Photonics at UK government agency ESP KTN (Electronics, Sensors, Photonics Knowledge Transfer Network) addressed the meeting and said she was hoping for greater industry engagement and collaboration between companies to determine any specific needs for the ESP KTN to focus on.

Mark Sims, Professor at the Space Research Centre of the University of Leicester requested on the other hand for the UK Science budget to be increased as soon as possible “by keeping it flat it is being eroded by inflation putting at risk the UK’s capability for medium and long-term growth”.

John Lincoln of Photonics Leadership Group.

John Lincoln of Photonics Leadership Group.

"Aim higher"

John Lincoln, recently appointed CEO of the re-established UK Photonics Leadership Group said that it was a priority to make a connection between photonics and the higher level of the industry’s value chain, which is already supported by the UK.

David Gahan, a photonics industry veteran and currently a consultant, asked the UK’s TSB (Technology Strategy Board) to “provide follow-on funding into the higher levels of TRL 6-7 (Technology Readiness Level) to support the development of demonstrators; to be competitive requires a company to have access to skilled staff.”

Malcolm Varnham, Vice President Intellectual Property and Co-Founder of SPI Lasers asked for greater emphasis to be placed on education and training in photonics and related fields, such as physics.

The Photonex show itself seems to have grown in recent years, after a dip in 2009 following the banking crisis. The UK’s only photonics exhibition hosted 105 exhibitors this year as well as several crowd-pulling conference strands.

Malcolm Varnham, Co-Founder of SPI Lasers.

Malcolm Varnham, Co-Founder of SPI Lasers.

Organizer Laurence Devereux said this improvement could be partly due to a general improvement of the photonics market and perhaps because of the addition of a co-located vacuum technologies exhibition and the development of applications-related sessions to the conference program, such as nano and bio-imaging and space applications.

In recent editions, Photonex has also developed a strong Vision UK branding which due to the Stuttgart Vision show switching to two-yearly operation, supports Photonex’s claim to be becoming the primary European event for vision technology in “odd” years.

About EPIC

EPIC is an industry association that promotes the sustainable development of organisations working in the field of photonics in Europe. Its members encompass the value chain ranging from LED lighting, photovoltaic solar energy, photonics integrated circuits, optical components, lasers, sensors, imaging, displays, fiber, and other photonic related technologies.

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

Edmund OpticsBristol Instruments, Inc.Schaefter und Kirchhoff GmbHPhoton Engineering, LLCNanoscribe GmbHFISBASynopsys, Optical Solutions Group
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