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Jena's optics industry thrives on strong links

23 Aug 2007

Education, research and industry are the three backbones that underpin the optical activities in Jena, Germany. Jacqueline Hewett speaks to key players in the region to get a flavour of how these factors have been exploited to create today's thriving optical hub.

It is hard to describe the city of Jena in Germany as anything other than an optical stronghold. Today, it is home to a cluster of optical firms ranging from established multinationals such as Carl Zeiss and Jenoptik, right through to many innovative small- to medium-sized companies, two universities and world-renowned research institutes.

Jena's optical history dates back to 1846 when Carl Zeiss himself established his first workshop in the city – a move that effectively laid the foundation for today's thriving industry.

"Jena has a strong tradition for collaborative work between industry and science," Andreas Tuennermann, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Optics and Precision Engineering (IOF), told OLE. "Zeiss came to Ernst Abbe, a professor at the Friedrich Schiller University, when he was developing optical microscopes – probably the first collaboration between university and industry. Today, the region is still influenced by this. There are open minds in the university and industry concerning collaboration."

Stronger together
Jena is located in the German state of Thuringia. It has a population of 100,000 and is the only former East German city where the population has grown since 1995. There are 71 industrial employees per 1000 inhabitants. The city also has a large student population with 20,000 attending the Friedrich Schiller University and over 4800 studying at Jena's University of Applied Sciences.

"In Thuringia, we have 160 enterprises and 12,500 employees working in the field of optical technologies. 57% of the companies are in Jena," Klaus Schindler, the CEO of the OptoNet Jena competence network for optical technologies, told OLE. "Last year, these enterprises had a total turnover of around €2 bn with about 54% of this coming from Jena. The growth in turnover last year was 11% and our export rate is 60%."

Established in 1999, OptoNet Jena now has 80 members, the majority of which are smaller industrial firms. "Nowadays, we only have a few big name companies in Jena: Carl Zeiss, Jenoptik and SCHOTT," said Schindler. "The smaller ones have 70 employees on average. These are innovative companies with innovative products – we don't have real mass production in this region."

Schindler puts the make-up of the optical landscape down in part to the history of Carl Zeiss in Jena (see box 1). "When Zeiss broke down from 30,000 employees, a lot of new enterprises were launched," he explained. "During the 1990s, more new enterprises came from the universities and local institutes, such as the Fraunhofer IOF."

But the consensus across the board, from both the small and the large firms, is that there is a real benefit to this sort of environment. "There are many complementary players," Alexander Zschaebitz, managing director of aspheric optics start-up asphericon, told OLE. "Everyone has found their niche and this allows us to have a lot of collaboration between industrial partners and research institutes. It is a beneficial situation for everyone here."

Alexander von Witzleben, CEO and chairman of Jenoptik, agrees. "We only manufacture those things where we have a unique capability," he said. "Anything that can be out-sourced to other sub-contractors or vendors we have done over the last 15 years because the network is fully established. Everything that we need we can source within the local area, and there are no problems looking for suppliers."

Zschaebitz also points out the day-to-day benefits of working in a cluster. "We can find personnel, suppliers, R&D partners and last but not least customers," he said. "50% of our German business takes place in Jena. Exchanging ideas is also crucial. When we need support or would like a second opinion, we can find both quickly and just around the corner. This is the most important element of being part of a network."

Education and research
The education and research activities in Jena revolve around the Friedrich Schiller University, the Fraunhofer IOF and Jena's University of Applied Sciences. As director of both the Fraunhofer IOF and the Institute of Applied Physics at Friedrich Schiller University, Andreas Tuennermann finds himself in a unique position.

"My position gives me the opportunity to promote an efficient exchange between fundamental research at the university and applied research at Fraunhofer institutions," he said. "It is also a way to get in touch with young students and bring them through education, and then on to the real world."

The Friedrich Schiller University was established in 1558 and is now a full university with teaching ranging from law, medicine and social sciences, through to physics, chemistry and biology. Tuennermann estimates that the department of physics and astronomy accepts around 200 undergraduate students per year. "More than 50% of these students come from more than 100 km away," he commented. "We are not a local university, especially in physics. We attract students from different areas because of our core competence in optics."

And for students wanting to take their studies in optics further, the university offers an international masters degree in optics. "There was pressure from local industry to develop this specific masters programme," said Tuennermann. "The masters student can do their practical work in collaboration with an industrial partner. All sides benefit from this sort of course."

While the university concentrates on fundamental research, the Fraunhofer IOF focuses on applied R&D and transferring this work to industry. "About 50% of our total revenue comes from industry but we also try to create spin-offs," said Tuennermann. "Last year, we started a company working on medical implants. We also license intellectual property. For example, we have developed some specific antireflection coatings for plastic optics and this has been transferred to several companies."

Research at the IOF comes under the umbrella of tailored light and four topics in particular. The first is all-solid-state lasers where there is a focus on fibre lasers. The second is coatings, with work being carried out on 193 nm immersion and EUV lithography. The third is micro- and nano-optics for high-volume markets such as automotive or life science. And finally, the fourth is high-precision optical systems that includes set-ups for telescopes and earth-observation satellites.

A look at the gross domestic product (GDP) per inhabitant in Jena is an eye-opening illustration of how things have changed in the last 15 years. In 1991, the GDP per head was just over €9,000, which by 2004 had risen to €27,000. Crucially, the 2004 figure equals that recorded by inhabitants in the former western Germany.

Looking at the headline figures, Jenoptik, for example, employs 3200 people worldwide and generated sales of €485.1 m in 2006. The Jenoptik group aims to increase sales by an average of 10% annually, including smaller acquisitions, while maintaining its profit margins.

Jenoptik's corporate headquarters as well as eight of its subsidiaries are in Jena. This includes Jenoptik Laser, Optik, Systeme GmbH; Jenoptik Laserdiode GmbH; Jenoptik unique-mode GmbH and Jenoptik Ltd GmbH.

"Our model is to create, control and capture light," said von Witzleben. "We create light using lasers, control it with optics and detect it with sensors – we have divisions and subsidiaries dedicated to these functions. Most of our R&D is still in Jena." In fact, a close look at Jenoptik's A–Z of products and technologies on its website reveals that only five letters have no entries: K, Q, U, Y and Z.

In fiscal year 2005/06, Carl Zeiss's activities in Jena (its biggest site outside of its headquarters in Oberkochen) generated revenues of approximately €780 m with a workforce of about 1650. Jena is home to Carl Zeiss Jena GmbH, which includes Zeiss's planetarium business; Carl Zeiss MicroImaging GmbH, which produces advanced imaging solutions for the microscopy market and spectral sensors for the analytical market; Carl Zeiss Meditec GmbH, which focuses on ophthalmology systems; and Carl Zeiss SMS GmbH, a subsidiary of Carl Zeiss SMT AG, which develops optical inspection and mask repair systems.

At the other end of the scale, start-up asphericon has found conditions equally to its liking. "2004 was our first full business year and now in 2007 we have 160 customers worldwide in the field of aspherics," commented Zschaebitz. "I think that there was some transition time in the 1990s, and since 2000 the industry has taken off and things are growing at a fast pace."

The catch
Although the optical industry in Jena and Thuringia is flourishing, one problem looming on the horizon is the declining German population. Today, the average German woman has just 1.1 children. "We have very bad demographic development in the region," commented Schindler. "We are now seeing less people coming through from schools. Of the graduates that we do have, less than 50% stay in the region."

There is also a second layer of population on top of the problematic demographics. "The problem is migration," explained von Witzleben. "People from eastern Europe, for example, are migrating into western Germany and are compensating for the big hole that we are facing. In eastern Germany we don't have this migration. The number of foreigners living in Thuringia is just 1%. This is threatening the very development of the region and we have to do something about it."

Retaining young people and attracting students to the region is a problem that Schindler and OptoNet are trying to address. "One of the aims of our network is training and further education to keep the skilled people here," explained Schindler. "For example, we go into schools and tell the pupils what the optical industry and the region has to offer: a growing industry with interesting technology and applications."

Witzleben is also under no illusions about the impact that the declining population could have on the optics industry and the region in general. "It is something that we have to work on over the next 10–15 years," he concluded. "The government has to take steps to make sure things happen in this time frame. If we lose the young people, there is no other natural resource."

There is cause for optimism after all that the region has overcome and established. "There has been strong positive development in this region in optics in the last few years," concluded Tuennermann. "We are educating young academics, researchers are developing new ideas and these are passing into industry. I think that we have a unique situation. Jena is a town of 100,000 people but 25,000 are students and up to 7000 are working in optics. There is a tight link between the city and optics. Optics defines the city of Jena.

• This article originally appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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