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Photonics report advises new direction for Europe

04 May 2005

Can European photonics remain competitive with firms in Asia and the US? Yes, but only if a new, unified approach to research is adopted, says EPIC. Oliver Graydon investigates.

FromOpto & Laser EuropeMay 2005

Europe needs a common, unified approach to photonics research to achieve the economy of scale necessary to compete with the US and Asia, and properly address the markets of the 21st century. That's the conclusion of a new report drawn up by the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) and the Association of German Engineers (VDI).

The 20-page report, entitled "Photonics for the 21st century - a consolidated European photonics research initiative", provides a detailed analysis of the state of optics in the EU, clearly spelling out the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

It has been drawn together from information and opinions gathered from 60 leaders of well-known firms and research establishments across Europe. Open up the report and many of the most influential CEOs and CTOs in photonics can be found to have signed their names in support of the proposal: Dieter Kurz from Carl Zeiss, Paul Hyland from Aixtron, Gerd Litfin from LINOS, Ulrich Hefter from Rofin Sinar and Mike Scott from Bookham Technology, to name a few.

Recommendations So what exactly do they recommend? As a first step the partners want to persuade the European Commission (EC) to create and fund a dedicated photonics technology area within its Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

"People who work in photonics often describe it as a great enabling technology in areas such as communications and biomedicine," explained Tom Pearsall from EPIC. "Our starting point is exactly the opposite. Our idea is that photonics is actually a strategic technology in its own right."

Part of the problem seems to be that European research is fragmented and dispersed. According to the report, the photonics industry in Europe has become complex and multidisciplinary after just a few decades of existence, and about two-thirds of the photonics workforce is employed by SMEs.

"We want to bring together people who have a common interest in photonics, be it at the research and development or manufacturing levels," Pearsall continued. "European photonics is a very innovative sector but is made up of lots of SMEs and has never had this kind of unified approach, so it's a big step forward to get people to work together. This report shows the EC that the European photonics community is unified in wanting to build conditions for sustainable growth."

From reading the report it is clear that the economic importance of the photonics sector to Europe cannot be ignored. It states that, in 2003, photonics was responsible for 500,000 jobs, products worth a total of €60 bn and 15,000 patents. If the sector is properly supported, the report claims that these figures will rise to 1.5 million jobs, €250 bn products and 45,000 patents by 2010.

According to the report, photonics is currently used in five main application areas:
• information, communication and imaging;
• lighting and displays;
• manufacturing;
• lifesciences and healthcare;
• safety and security.

Of these, the European photonics industry currently leads the world in two: solid-state (LED) lighting and laser-assisted manufacturing. In the former, European companies such as Philips and Osram account for 30% of the world market, and the prospects for growth are huge.

"High-brightness LEDs are expected to be used in automobiles in significant volumes from around 2008," commented Pearsall. "We estimate that, by then, 60 million cars will be sold per year, each containing 200 LEDs. That's an annual requirement of 12 billion LEDs." The big question is: can Europe compete with Asia when it comes to supplying such huge volumes in a cost-effective manner? Pearsall is confident: "Does the LED industry in Europe have any idea that it will need such a production capacity? Of course it does," he told OLE. "Osram Opto Semiconductors has built an LED plant in Germany that is capable of churning out four billion LEDs per month. That's why I am optimistic about the prospects of the European optoelectronics industry."

Pearsall clearly believes that, given the appropriate support and investment, Europe can have a prosperous future and maintain its leading research position. And it's not just lighting where Europe has a critical strength - in the use of lasers as manufacturing tools, firms such as Trumpf and Rofin Sinar dominate the market, meaning that 50% of world sales of laser-manufacturing equipment go to Europe.

Another booming sector is European machine vision. This has grown at 10-30% per year in the past decade and looks set to continue to rise in the foreseeable future. In addition, the market for next-generation displays based on organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) is forecast to grow at 40% per year over the next five years. In this area, Philips, Merck, Covion, Cambridge Display Technology and numerous other European firms are leading the development of materials and the fabrication processes that are needed.

Action needed In all of these areas, industry leaders are now convinced that action is needed to help to ensure that Europe fights off the strong competition from abroad in the future. "Only a coordinated approach can make use of the economies of scale necessary to sustain economic production in Europe and reach the critical mass of investment needed to address the big markets of the 21st century," states the report. "Without strong European leadership in photonics technologies, many industries will be left vulnerable to strong competition from the US and Asia."

At the time of writing, EPIC is waiting to hear back from the EC to see if the idea is to be implemented and it will be having a meeting with commissioners later this month. EPIC also hopes that by bringing firms together at its regular workshops, it can also help to address the situation.

Founded in 2003, the EPIC consortium now has 55 members and last held a workshop on photonics in the automobile industry last November, see Car industry drives down cost of night vision. It has a second on OLEDs planned for June in Cambridge, UK. Part of the aim of these workshops is to draw up technology roadmaps for the different application areas where European photonics is being used.

"I don't want to underestimate the difficulty in writing a good roadmap, but we are well on the way to doing it, sector by sector," said Pearsall. "I hope that, by the end of 2006, we will have something that starts to look like a photonics roadmap organized by major application areas, which identifies the opportunities and the technical developments that need to happen."

One of Pearsall's chief concerns is the state of the European optical communications industry, which suffered during the recent telecoms downturn. "This area has been devastated. The threat is that a tremendous amount of know-how and skills that were developed in Europe to pursue this technology are being lost with the downturn of business," Pearsall commented. "We want to find ways to help businesses to convert their technology to other applications."

For more information

The report "Photonics for the 21st century" can be downloaded from EPIC's website at www.epic-assoc.com.

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