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Belgian innovation: think local, act global

24 Apr 2009

The photonics sector in Belgium has turned the country's location and a tradition of flexible entrepreneurship to its advantage. Tim Hayes speaks to the leading players.

Belgium's proximity to Europe's commercial and manufacturing heartland has historically produced a pragmatic attitude among its industrialists. For decades, the country maintained a substantial steel industry despite the absence of domestic iron ore deposits. Producers simply imported all the ore that they needed.

"That is a common characteristic of Flemish entrepreneurs: a high degree of versatility and an ability to develop despite obstacles," said Hugo Thienpont of the department of applied physics and photonics at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. "They are flexible, they adapt and today they are starting to understand that photonics gives added value to their products and is therefore an interesting area to work in."

Thienpont has promoted photonics technology in Belgium for many years, and has seen the sector develop rapidly. "There are many strong photonics companies here and they all have a slightly different story. Some were already present but originally active in other markets. Others are younger companies and start-ups, including several from here at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. And there is IMEC, originally the Flanders Inter-university Microelectronics Centre but today a world-leading independent research centre in nanoelectronics and nanotechnology, which has produced a number of start-up companies and innovative technologies."

It was not always so. Thienpont gathered industrialists together 12 years ago to discuss what photonics could offer them, but he was met with a lukewarm response. "They believed that engineers specifically trained in optics were not needed. A group of us felt differently and created a pioneering programme in photonics at the university. Today our students find work immediately, even in a difficult economic climate. Photonics expertise is indispensable."

Market pull, not technology push
IMEC is a dominant feature on the country's technology landscape. Established in Leuven by the Flanders government in 1984, it is now one of the largest independent R&D organizations in its field, active in fast-moving nanoelectronics and nano-technology sectors such as photovoltaics and silicon photonics.

"Our work on silicon photonics is a good example of IMEC's strength: the integration of different technologies into practical systems," said Ludo Deferm, IMEC's executive vice-president. "Our aim is to look at the needs of the market and to see how integrating photonics on silicon can lead to real benefits in performance and reduced costs, as well as providing compatibility for future developments to build on."

IMEC and its associated laboratory at Ghent University develop photonic components and systems-on-a-chip for use in communications and sensor applications. Recent breakthroughs include new fabrication processes based on 193 nm lithography, enabling waveguides to show nanometre-scale uniformity of critical dimensions.

"Advanced applications, such as silicon photonics, are today governed by market pull, not by technology push," commented Deferm. "There are many applications where photonics could be widely used if the technology can be made reliable enough, cheap enough and deliver the performance needed. The way to achieve that is to see how the technology can fit in with other developments as part of larger integrated systems, rather than push the technology forward for its own sake."

Equally important is an international perspective. IMEC works with industrial partners all over the world. "These are global technologies with global effects, and we do not believe that you only act locally," added Deferm. "If a technology is to be genuinely useful, then it has to be useful for everyone. The time for technology companies to carry out their work in isolation is over."

Targeted innovation
The success of IMEC and its world renown feeds into Belgium's wider photonics industry. A case in point is the country's strength in imaging sensors and vision systems.

"We are very close to IMEC, which is an important source of technology for semiconductor production," noted Gust Smeyers of ICOS Vision Systems, a developer of inspection equipment for semiconductor manufacture, with expertise in cameras, illumination, optics, mechanical design and component handling. "The quality of research carried out at the universities here is also an important element, not just at Leuven University, where ICOS originated, but also at Brussels and Ghent."

As a player in the semiconductor market, ICOS is currently negotiating the downturn common to all in the sector. "The semiconductor market has cycles, and you have to live with them," noted Smeyers. "But we believe that this is the time for us to develop new technologies along with our customers, to work on prototypes for new components and to develop our product roadmaps."

One such development is a confocal metrology system that is able to handle the high-volume production requirements of the semiconductor industry. "This was a technique that we designed almost from scratch," said Smeyers. "It required very specific optical designs, custom-made telecentric projection objectives and relatively large-area optics, all of which was at the edge of what was technically feasible. Confocal methods tend not to be very efficient in their usage of light, so we have developed special laser sources and techniques to cope with the speckle noise and other potential limitations."

Another notable imaging manufacturer is Melexis, a supplier of sensors and microcontrollers for automotive electronics systems, including infrared and optical devices. "Melexis' core optical competences originate in X-FAB, a European foundry with which Melexis shares a parent company," said Piet De Pauw, chairman of the opto business division. "X-FAB includes opto-technologies as one of its niche areas, developing PIN photodiodes and specialized camera photodiodes with very low dark current. From there, Melexis has developed a range of applied optical technologies, including sensors to detect raindrops falling on car windscreens and automotive cameras that exploit X-FAB's very low dark-current capability."

The financial climate is tough in Melexis' automotive markets and, after achieving double-digit annual growth throughout its history, there are now signs of contraction. "Our answer is to maintain very strong R&D efforts and to invest in new technology and innovation," said De Pauw. "For example, our infrared sensors are the only fully integrated sensors on the market, able to convert incident radiation directly into a temperature reading. We deliberately focus on a number of small niches, so that within those niches we can be the best."

Unique selling points
Barco, a developer of displays, projectors, video walls and lighting products, is headquartered in Kortrijk, where it can attract workers from across the border in France. "Belgium as a whole is strong in photonics but photonics is a wide field and not all training courses are tailored to the kind of optics that we use," said Augustin Grillet, coordinator of Barco's research and innovation programmes. "So we draw our workforce from elsewhere in the photonics sector or recruit people with different backgrounds and then train them in our specific competencies."

Originally an assembler of radios before the Second World War, today Barco focuses on high-added-value products for demanding applications. "Our projector products feature embedded lamps supplying up to 6.5 kW of power," said Grillet. "We were the first company to introduce 10 megapixel projectors using liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCOS) panels and generating 4500 lm: a significant breakthrough. Some of these projectors can be equipped with stereo capability to create 3D environments, and we can also blend the output of several projectors, for example to fill domes with visual simulations."

The company has also moved into lighting products based on lamps or LEDs and used at shows and events. "Convergence of our video and lighting expertise is an important driver for our R&D efforts in new markets like these," noted Grillet. "The underlying expertise is the ability to control all of the parameters involved in our products, along with the system integration knowhow needed to produce complete systems from a number of small individual components."

Meanwhile, the concentration of photonics skills within such a small country has spurred some Belgian companies to develop technologies unique in their field. BEST (Belgian Electronic Sorting Technology) is an innovative company specializing in design and development of sorting machinery for the food and non-food industry.

"Our sorting machines operate at high speed and process large volumes," said Paul Berghmans, a BEST director. "A sorting process for peas might need to process 20,000 kg per hour, identifying foreign materials, spotting substandard items, etc. Our machines carry out this kind of process for more than 50 different commodities."

To satisfy such demanding requirements the company has developed a range of optics-based sorting methodologies, including laser techniques developed in co-operation with Thienpont and his team at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

"Some of our laser-based technologies are unique," said Berghmans. "One example exploits the scattering of a laser when it hits the products, which can provide structural information rather than just data about the colour."

Lasers are also used to produce fluorescence from the chlorophyll in healthy plant matter. As long as the laser has a very narrow line width, a scanning laser system can identify contaminants by their lack of fluorescence, a relatively easy way to distinguish between plant material and foreign matter. The same technique can be used to monitor the health of the plant or identify the presence of moulds such as aflatoxins.

Along with X-ray and camera techniques, BEST's laser-based systems form part of a portfolio of approaches for the sorting process. "No other company has all of these industrial technologies under one roof," said Berghmans. "This means that there can be a lot of synergy between different products and it allows us to develop competencies that our competitors outside of Belgium do not have."

It's all about networks
From his position in Brussels, Thienpont identifies several drivers contributing to the kind of photonics expertise developed by BEST and other companies. "One reason that I am very happy to be based in Flanders is because of the IWT (the Institute for the Promotion of Innovation by Science and Technology), Flanders, a public institution created to support R&D and innovation in the area."

He continued: "The IWT nurtures collaboration between academic research groups and companies, but it only supports projects when it believes that there is a real long-term benefit to Flanders."

One consequence of this culture is that an organized photonics cluster is largely unnecessary, according to Thienpont. "In my view we have our platform already, through the close ties that already exist between all of the players involved."

Another result is that Belgium's photonics innovation even stretches into a sector not usually associated with the country: defence and security. OIP is a good example. Originally a traditional production house for lenses and glass, its core technology is now the integration of small electro-optics systems for reconnaissance, thermal vision, perimeter defence and other security applications.

"Several of our products are very advanced in their field," claimed Freddy Versluys, chief executive officer of OIP. "We developed the APEX hyperspectral camera – one of the highest-performance hyperspectral cameras around. Other areas of expertise include thermal imaging and all related technologies, such as laser range-finding and CCD cameras, all integrated into real applications."

Belgium's historic distrust of the defence business is changing as security issues dominate the political agenda across Europe. Yet the nature of OIP's business still means that the company largely stands alone, according to Versluys. "OIP is basically self-sufficient," he said. "Our development work is very much applied engineering, focusing on the practical work needed to produce real products and usable applications in our markets."

Defence is not an issue that is strongly embraced by the public but Versluys believes that it would be a great shame for the country to lose the photonics technologies and expertise within OIP because of that. "Innovation and technology are things that we have in Belgium and can exploit, unlike natural resources, which we do not have in great quantities. We have only the brains of our people."

• This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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